What to Do

It looks like my “least likely” scenario from the previous post was right. There is now some evidence of Islamist motivation for the Boston Marathon bombing, which is deeply unfortunate (and a gross distortion of Islam). Boston is a police state, we’ve apparently got a really complicated new front in the “War on Terror” and there’s not much we can do about that. So what can we do? Keep reaching out to people around us, and especially Muslims.

I’m heading to my neighborhood mosque for prayers today, and here’s a little something I wrote a couple of years ago. It seems worth remembering on a day like today.

From 9/10/2010:

My own contribution to memorializing the victims of [9/11] has been to build connections to Muslims. I believe that by doing so, I lessen the chances that some hotheaded young ideologue is going to demonize me and other non-Muslims, and find recruits for some misguided attack. And I believe that if more people do as I have done, Islamic radicals will find their fuel source cut off. On the other hand, if we stand aloof while our own lunatic fringe burns qur’ans and attacks Mosques and people, we are just fanning the flames. We’ve got enough of a PR problem with our national predilection for invading Muslim countries, and we can’t afford to individually alienate our neighbors who practice Islam.

Two weeks ago, I was at a cafe near Dupont Circle [Washington D.C.] and i saw a couple who had clearly just been to some sort of religious observance. He wore a taqiyah (skullcap), which was a pretty good sign of practicing Islam. However, she was wearing what looked like a white hooded choir robe. Muslims don’t do choirs as far as i know, and since she had her hood down and hair exposed I decided to drop all my assumptions and just ask them what’s up. After all, this town has all sorts of people in it, and for all I knew they were practicing a faith I’d never encountered before.

So I just came out and asked if they’d just come from worship. They were a little startled and suspicious at first, but told me yes, they had just broken the fast at the Indonesian Embassy, where there are prayers and a meal each Friday and Saturday during Ramadan. I thanked them, said “salaam allaiukum,” (peace upon you) and turned back to my table since they appeared to be out together and I didn’t want to intrude more than necessary.

One of them caught that, and asked if I spoke Arabic. I told them no, but that I had picked up a few phrases from attending prayers over the years. That got them interested and once it became clear they were as curious about me as I was about them, I pulled up a chair and joined them for an hour or so. He is Sofiane and she is Episam. Both are from Tunisia and are here working as Arabic language instructors. They were pretty intrigued that a non-Muslim would develop a somewhat regular practice of joining Muslims for prayer, and I suppose some of my readers might also wonder. So here’s the story:

When the 9/11 attacks occurred, I was working at the Olympia Food Co-op. My coworker Karim was from Algeria and a practicing Muslim. He would use his breaks at work to go back into the break room and pray. Several members of his mosque shopped at the co-op regularly.

When the attacks happened, we had a personal connection to that community and several of us were concerned that there would be a misguided “retaliation” against them. After checking with Karim, a group of us went over for Friday prayers the first week after the attack. That way, we thought, if someone wanted to mess with them, they would have to get through us first. We had no illusions about actually defending the mosque, but hoped that the presence of a group of white people might give a would-be attacker second thoughts.

Karim had already told the leadership that we would be there, but it was decided that one of us should explain to the congregation what we were doing. For some reason I was selected, and found myself addressing about 100 very nervous men, mainly from southeast Asia. The community there is predominantly Cham, but it is also the most ethnically diverse group I’ve ever grown to love. Especially cool, the mosque sits on the center of a piece of collectively-owned land on which about 40 families have built homes. It’s beautiful model for a faith community.

The visit was a powerful experience, and we went back repeatedly during the frightening months that followed. We also served their community by helping with shopping. Because Muslim women are so easily recognizable, they felt like (and indeed

were) targets, so many were afraid to go out of their homes. Women from the co-op community would help out by running errands and breaking down their feeling of isolation.

Gradually things calmed down and our solidarity work ended. But I kept going. For several years, I would attend Friday prayers at least once a month. When Ramadan rolled around, I would join them for dinner every week or so.

I only actually fasted one day, which gave me an appreciation for how serious this religious practice is – especially since I did it during November, when the days were short and cool. I have tremendous awe for anyone who can go without food or water every day for a month in, say, Saudi Arabia. And as Ramadan becomes more of a summer experience each year, I can only imagine what it must be like in northern climates where the days can stretch for 15-16 hours. It certainly gives perspective to my childhood whining that we had to go sit in church for an hour (again? didn’t we just do that last week? when do I get a donut?).

However, while I have never become a Muslim (or even felt seriously called in that direction), Islamic prayer has become an important part of how I connect with God. I don’t understand the words, but I deeply understand what is happening: a group of people packed together and submitting to the Divine in a very powerful and physical way. I recommend that everyone try it at least once.

I do recognize many of the more common words, as well as the first sura, which forms the soundtrack to the movements. There’s nothing in there that I don’t agree with: “Allahu Akbar,” God is Great. Check. “Alhamdilullah,” thank God. check. They get bonus points for thanking God even when things go wrong. “My daughter has appendicitis and I wrecked my car on the way to the hospital. Alhamdilullah.”

My favorite, though, is “inshallah,” God willing. It is sprinkled liberally through Muslim speech, basically any time one makes a statement about the future. For example ,”I’ll see you tomorrow, inshallah.” I’m sure many Muslims don’t always really seriously think about it. It rolls off the tongue like “OK?” But that’s the point: Allah is always coming up, even before dawn every day when they wake for prayers.

I digress.

Episam and Sofiane took a quick liking to me, and she declared them my “Muslim friends” and invited me to prayers. And so the next week, last Friday, I joined them.

It was a fascinating experience. Perhaps because it was not at an actual mosque and perhaps because Indonesian Islam is more mainstream and cosmopolitan, the standards were relaxed. Men and women mixed freely while we were eating (although women were in the back of the room for prayers). Many women had their hair exposed, and some had short sleeves and dresses cut just below the knee. An adolescent girl was wearing gym shorts. There were also people wearing more conservative dress, but the point is that things were much more varied. It was good to see this, as I have to admit that the separation of the sexes and uneven standards of modesty are a big part of why I have not become Muslim.

I also have to say a bit about the embassy itself. We entered through a modern annex (with metal detector, although when I went in a second time they had turned it off – more relaxed than I picture the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta), but the main building used to be the mansion of some robber baron. It had over-the-top woodwork, a giant organ, and gilt everywhere. But most amazing was the room in which we prayed: It was among the most fancy, and on the ceiling was a giant mural featuring topless white women and fully nekkid cherubs floating in the sky. Perhaps that was why Sofiane advised me that during prayers it is best to keep one’s eyes down.

This entry has gone on much longer than I pictured, but it felt important that I share my experiences. There is a lot of fear and misconception about Islam, as well as some things that are genuinely problematic according to my values (and probably yours). But Islam is not going anywhere, and we all need to understand it better, so we can discern what is fact and what is fiction.

To get some good insight into Islam, you can check out the Islamic Circle of North America or A Common Word Between Us and You. And for a totally fascinating and humanizing inside view, please check out 30mosques.com. This is the story of two Muslim men who spent Ramadan driving (while fasting!) to mosques in 30 states. There are lots of amazing pictures and stories.

I think it is also important that we all get to know the individual Muslims in our lives, even if it is just the Ethiopian shopkeeper down the street. So here are a few suggestions:

Greet Muslims, especially women. It wouldn’t be polite to stop and chat if they are of another gender, but I’m pretty sure you won’t get into trouble with a greeting. And if you are up for it, give them the full “salaam allaikum.” This also is a great way to greet immigrants who might not speak a native language that you would recognize. I recently  tried this with a couple of women in very conservative dress, and they just beamed, especially after they found out I wasn’t even Muslim myself. I can imagine that it must be tough going through life wondering who thinks you are a terrorist all the time.

If you are up for it, and ready to go in without trying to convert anyone, visit a mosque. The pope can do it, and so can you. Some mosques are more conservative than others. Some are more open than others. You can usually get a sense of that from the website. If it is called an “Islamic Center” or if it has a website in English, it is more likely to be a good beginner’s mosque, and nobody will be offended that you used their public information to get in touch. Sunset is the easiest time to figure out – other prayer times vary day to day depending on the amount of sunlight, and can be tricky to figure out (although many mosques post them on their websites). Friday at midday is usually the largest gathering.

Often they’ll invite you to sit in the back and watch, so you don’t have to do the prayers. If you want to join in, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to do a bit of research. It also wouldn’t hurt to show up early or call and speak to the imam.

Bonus tips: don’t walk in front of anyone who is praying. And be fairly clean when you go – especially your feet, which might wind up inches from someone’s face.

Don’t worry, they’re not going to convert you (I’m pretty sure only God can do that); that isn’t some mystical Muslimification spell that they’re chanting, it’s just worship and if you don’t say it and understand it, it can’t possibly do any harm to your current faith situation. If you ask, probably someone can give you a translation so you know what’s going on. I find it most valuable to just breathe and offer a nonverbal prayer of my own.

You might have someone give you a little pitch, and probably someone will offer to answer questions, but I’ve generally found that there is not much pressure to convert, even after years of attendance. Some might be pushy, given the wide range of cultures an languages you’ll encounter, but there are certainly no altar calls. People will be likely to ask why you are there. Be honest about that, and most will probably just give you a qur’an or a pamphlet and leave you alone.

I’ve probably attended 150 services at perhaps a dozen mosques, and the only time I ever saw anything that seemed radical was when some hiphop artists were selling CDs. Some of their lyrics had an anti-Israel message, but it was pretty tame stuff. I can’t rule out that you’ll run into some angry rhetoric (or even personal hostility from some individuals) but chances are that it will be a positive, if challenging, experience.

If you do check out a mosque, feel free to comment and share your stories here.

I hope this message has been useful. We all need to work to build peace with the Muslims among us. That will encourage the good parts of the faith, and won’t feed the darker side that is using that community’s  fear and isolation to recruit jihadis. Ultimately, we’re all just people and we need to find ways to live together.

Salaam allaikum.

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2 Responses to What to Do

  1. SJ says:

    Thanks for this beautiful post, Andrew. Just curious, how are we so sure that these attacks are actually motivated by any “Islamist” feelings at all? It seems like we have no information to decide that, except that the two attackers are “Muslim”. But that should no more implicate Islam than the Columbine, Oklahoma City, Aurora, Oak Creek and Newton attackers implicate white Christianity.

  2. coopgeek says:

    We aren’t “sure” in a legal sense, and I never claimed that. I was careful to use language like “seems likely” and “some evidence” to acknowledge that. Remember that many were jumping to this conclusion well before we had any evidence at all (and indeed while the evidence of timing and location suggested more “patriotic” motives).

    Still, there seems to be enough circumstantial evidence (e.g. Youtube playlists, anecdotes about Tamerlan’s apparent move toward radicalization) to already convict them in the court of public opinion, for better or worse.

    Facts of their actual motivations are central to any legal proceedings (and FWIW my money is on Dzokhar acting primarily out of some fear/loyalty combo toward his brother). But in the arena on which I’m focusing here – how we respond as individuals – we are going to encounter people operating on the assumption of radical Islamist motives. That’s what really matters.

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