Muslims & Me
Hakeem Olajuwon is the first Muslim who shows up in my memories.
God bless him and his Dream Shake. Rockets ‘94-’95 will always be the Golden years of Houston sports.
My mom still brings The Dream up like clockwork when a conversation calls for an example of a “good Muslim.” Conversations where I grew up call for such examples, if you’re willing to be contrarian, more often than you might think.
Like many rural, white, American Christians, Islam and its followers entered my consciousness in a new and particularly positioned way with 9/11. A way that entrenched itself in our minds over years of war, movies, media, and the staccato of violence that would show up without warning on sunny Tuesdays. I remember walking out in our field as a 13 year old thinking I might have to go to war. A war with Muslims.
I remember memes of Lake Afghanistan. Apparently that high mountainous steppe was going to fill in with water after we nuked it and its people to smithereens. Whiteness always feels safer in the erasure of the other — or at least being able to hold onto the idea that we could if we really wanted to.
There was one boy at my high school who I believe was Muslim. His name is on the tip of my tongue, but his face I see plainly. He was quiet and kind. We were friendly but not close. We never spoke of religion. I remember being confused that he wasn’t Mexican. All my other brown classmates were Mexican.
My sophomore year of college was a watershed. I signed up for an English conversation partner program, thinking it would be cool to interact with some of the foreign students on campus, probably with some evangelistic ideas in mind.
My partner and I spoke, stuntingly, of almost nothing but religion. He was very Muslim, an immigrant from Libya if I remember correctly (this was still a few years before we bombed them). And I was very Christian. I remember the moments of shared epiphany when we came upon our common father Ibrahim. And how much more so when we stumbled into our common affection for ‘Isa—Jesus. I had no idea my savior featured so prominently in the Koran. I remember chuckling, reading in his sacred text as Jesus spoke up as a baby right out of the manger. The miracles of another religion are always outrageous.
One evening, my conversation partner led me to a secluded, grassy area on campus in time for evening prayers. He unrolled a lovely rug and kneeled. I sat and watched. Awed by his devotion.
Perhaps prompted by that relationship, I went to an Islam 101 presentation put on by a student group. I don’t remember many specifics. But I can see them throwing a couple of the “violent” texts up on the projector and explaining how these are misinterpreted, taken out of context, how the weight of their scripture is toward love. I remember feeling like we Christians could relate.
There were other little things here and there during those years. Reading Three Cups of Tea which, for whatever the author’s alleged missteps, humanized the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, those peoples we were supposed to nuke into nonexistence, in a totally new way. The same was true of The Kite Runner. Thank God for books.
Still, I entered my mid-twenties without Muslims who I could call a real friend. My girlfriend Libbey, that classy gal who turned out to be my wife, was a different story. Boston born and bred, one of her best friends from junior high and high school was Muslim—and she’d known and been friends with many. Fatima was like any old friend of someone you date. Suspicious of this interloper who claimed to like her childhood buddy, and didn’t let me off easy. She’s funny and normal. My first Muslim friend. Thank God for Libbey.
In seminary, I remember reading a book on comparative religion (Global Gods, Shenk — it comes from a Christian point of departure, the author has spent a lifetime in interfaith dialogue, but I’d recommend it). By now I was fairly familiar with the basics and don’t recall much. I entered my first Mosque in this season of life.
I met more Muslims through interfaith advocacy, organizing, and education efforts I connected with in seminary. None of them seemed to mind my existence or have a disposition to violence—quite the opposite as I remember. As I became enraptured by the vision of shalom, I found solidarity with Muslim brothers and sisters who hold salaam just as central and sacred.
Through my wife, that ravenous extrovert, I made new friends. Of her many business school friends, I clicked with Mubeen best. We saw one another across the secularism of B-school in the Bay Area. There was kinship in faithfulness, even if it was not of the same stripe. We occupied the common ground of those who perceive the sacred and divine amidst modernity’s noise.
Then, three years ago, a plunge began with no end in sight. I moved to Denver, started looking for a job, and wound up at the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado. To be honest, I was just excited to work on economic and racial justice issues rooted in my own Christian identity. But here I was alongside Muslims every day. My co-workers and dear friends Iman and Nadia. Friends and allies like Maytham who brought leadership to higher education in the immigrant and refugee community, and now to Rep. Crow’s office. Hassan Latif’s deep work on criminal justice reform and affordable housing at the Second Chance Center. Attending prayers at the mosque at Evans & I25. Breaking fast around Mediterranean laden tables during Ramadan at Iftar dinners. Walking streets together calling for justice, singing songs. Showing up to vigils. Too many vigils. For their dead, for the Jews’ dead, for the Christians’, for all of us, too many times.
Why do I write this?
I am not a scholar of Islam. I could probably get through the five pillars, offer some rough sketches of Muslim worship and faith, but struggle to give you much more. I own a copy of the Koran but haven’t read more than a handful of pages. I couldn’t debate texts and traditions of interpretation, the 1500 year history of a religion or adequately catalogue the diversities of some billion-ish lives across our planet.
I simply have friends. And my friends are kind.
I have stories of solidarity for the common good. For shalom.
These are my memories of relationship with a religion and it’s people. It is a story of peace, of common good will, and of community. It’s a story laced with tragedy. It’s a story of difference filled with common values and common humanity. Of shared food and shared work. It’s a story that upends the ideologies that breed hate. It’s a story that reminds me that the work of being human begins and ends in relationship, and that there can be no true knowing of self or another in relationship unless our hearts, bodies and minds are open to encounter, open to difference, open to love.
My friend Iman, who works with me at Interfaith Alliance as our Deputy Public Policy Director, speaks with the expertise of someone who lives it, who studies it, and who has spent her life turning the tables heavy with harmful myths. She took time last week to produce the beautiful video below that challenges a few misconceptions about Islam and Muslims. Please take a moment to watch, and explore a couple other resources I linked below.
A few resources to explore: