“Salaa! Salaa!” said the little boy, urgency in his eyes. “Salaa!” he repeated.
I smiled cautiously at the boy. He was probably four or five years old. Later I would learn from the boy’s father that his name was Sohail. Right now, Sohail was urging me to go pray, commanding me to go pray. “Salaa!”
What should I say? How can I explain that I am not going to be praying with the other men? Will he understand if I tell him that I’m a Christian? I decide to try saying that: “‘Ana masihi,” I said. The boy’s look of urgency turned to confusion. Maybe I said that wrong? “‘Ana mish muslim,” I tried. I’m not a Muslim.
Shock and fear washed over his little face. His eyes got bigger and bigger. Suddenly, Sohail turned away from me and cried out to the ten or fifteen men who were gathered for the maghrib prayer just a couple of meters in front of us. “Huwa mish muslim!” Sohail shouted. He’s not a Muslim! I translated back to myself.
When none of the men reacted to Sohail’s announcement, he quickly scrambled away from me and lined up next to his father on the prayer line. He shot me a few suspicions glances at first, and then seemed to forget about me. As the imam chanted the maghrib prayer, Sohail followed the ritual postures of his father and the other men. He lifted his hands to his ears, bent his head forward with his hands on his knees, and then prostrated himself with his forehead pressed to the ground and his legs folded under him. He followed along with the motions perfectly for a few minutes and then lost interest and he and a few other boys who were about his age wandered off into the lobby behind me and played ping pong as the prayers continued for several more minutes.
But Sohail was not the only one who was afraid.
As I sat in the back of that little mosque in suburban Dallas, Texas, I tried to maintain a respectful and worshipful posture, but my heart fluttered uneasily. Maybe my eyes weren’t dialated like Sohail’s eyes had become when I told him I wasn’t a Muslim, but I was definitely uncomfortable. This was only my fifth or sixth time visiting this mosque, or any mosque for that matter. I was twenty-one years old, and I was visiting this mosque for my college cultural anthropology class. This project was actually providing me with my first opportunity to set foot in a non-Christian place of worship. Even though this was my fifth or sixth visit to this mosque, I was still a bit nervous and afraid. On all of my previous visits, everyone I interacted with at the mosque had been kind and hopitable, but I still couldn’t shake my fearfulness. There were still so many unknowns. Are these people really and truly safe people? Will I be prosylitized in a bullying manner? What do I do with the fact that Muslim worship feels rather similar to traditional Christian worship? What do the Arabic prayers actually say? Are they invoking God’s wrath on the infidels? Am I jeopardizing my spiritual saftey by visiting a mosque?
As I sat in the mosque, observing the maghrib prayer, images and stories from the 9/11 terrorist attacks flickered across the archives of my memory; I had been thirteen years old then, and that was my introduction to Islam. After 9/11, Islam and Muslims were the topic of many newspapers, sermons, books, and conversations within my family and friend circles, and most of those people were fearful and probably a bit xenophobic. The things my family and friends had said during the past few years, their ideas and opinions about Muslims and Islam, floated through my mind as I sat in the back of a real mosque and interacted with real Muslims before and after the prayers. Should I be afraid? These people seem to be rather good and normal people? Am I being nieve?
As I sat in the mosque, childhood images of medieval Christian crusaders waring against “savage Moslems” floated into focus and then got disrupted like static on an old TV screen. Words from books and professors cut in and out of the images of long swords and curved scimitars crashing together in battle. These words were about anti-semitism, massacres perpetrated by the Christian crusaders, and warfare driven by hypocritical religion and greedy politics. My childhood categories of Christian = good and Muslim/non-Christian = bad were being challenged and confused.
After the prayers were over, Sohail’s father came up to me and introduced himself. “Call me Abu Sohail,” he said to me as he apologized profusely for Sohail’s introduction. I assured Sohail’s father that everything was just fine. I’m more concerend for Sohail, I thought to myself. If my catgories are getting knocked around and I feel a bit afraid, what about the five year old? As I talked with Abu Sohail, most of the other men also stopped and greeted me with a handshake or a few words.
Abu Sohail later agreed to help me with another part of my cultural anthropology project. One day, he sat with me for about two hours and told me his life story. I recorded hightlights from his birth in a small village in the West Bank in Palestine up until his more recent life in suburban Dallas, where he was raising a family and repeating the college education he had been unable to complete in Palestine due to conflict and restrictions imposed on Palestinians. Hearing another person’s life story was an extreme honor, and Abu Sohail was the first Muslim who was completely humanized for me. From listening to his life story, I learned that he had hopes and dreams and had endured everyday difficulties and a few crushing tragedies just like any other human being. Images of Christian knights in armor and turbaned Muslim warriors faded from view as the earnest eyes of a young man just a few years older than me shifted into focus. He was a person just like me.
Fastforward six years, and right now I am sitting in my office in Dammam, Saudi Arabia. As I began to write the blog post, I could hear the ‘Asr prayers being broadcasted from the mosque that is just next to the building where I work. I can hear it again now, as I type this section, even though it is a few days later from when I started to write. In the past six years, I’ve met hundreds of Muslims of all sorts of nationalities; I’ve lived in Jordan for three months, in Saudi Arabia for eleven months, and I’ve spent shorter ammounts of time in four other Muslim-majority countries. A few of my closest friends are Muslim, and I’ve actually had very few negative relationships with any Muslims. And yet, even though I’ve heard the five daily prayers being called and chanted hundreds of times now, I still feel a bit uncomfortable when I hear them. There is still something foreign about those words, even though at this point I can understand most of what is being said during each prayer. When I hear “Allahu akbar,” images of Islamist terrorists shouting this phrase as a battle cry often still come to mind, even though I’ve heard this phrase said many, many more times as an expression of happiness, approval, or humility.
Right now, as I am living in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, my housing, transportation, job, salary, and social connections are really quite comfortable. That being said, when I venture out of my house every day, I usually still feel a little bit afraid. There are still unknowns that vie for my attention. I still have ethnocentricism deeply embedded in my psyche. There are still voices and images in my head that are in contradiction with one another. Some of those voices frequently sketch menacing or stereotyped caricatures of Muslims. Everyday, I must struggle to replace those unhelpful mental images with real images of kindness, humanity, and normalcy from my real experiences with Muslims. I’ve not grown up as a linguistic, religious, or ethnic minority. Instead, as an adult I’ve had to learn the coping skills needed in order to negotiate life as a minority. Thankfully, as an adult I think I’ve also had unique opportunities to have my unhelpful stereotypes challenged and my informative ideas of xenophobia contradicted.
What conclusion am I wandering toward? I think one purpose for this blog post is that of personal reflection. I think it’s been therapeutic to admit to myself that I sometimes feel fearful and uncomfortable. From writing this blog post, I’ve realized that I am truely mustering up an element of courage everyday—not necessarily courage to face genuine threats to my saftey, thank God, but courage to face the fears in my head and to allow myself to continue to grow as a person. I also want to share this post because I want to encourage my fellow Americans to welcome Muslims (and particularly Muslim immigrants, refugees, and assylum-seekers) into American society. This is a hot topic right now, and sometimes I can grow impatient with my fellow, non-Muslim Americans who are wary of Muslims. However, to despise my fellow Americans’ fears would be hypocritical of me. Instead, I’d like to admit my fears, to remind myself and others of the unfounded nature of the majority of our fears, and to encourage others to be courageous, to be kind, to be hospitable and loving. I sincerely believe this is the only way to act responsibly as a member of the human family and the inheritor of many blessings and privileges as Americans.