–Daniel S. Ferguson
Yesterday, I was listening to an NPR segment from a Muslim-American woman named Dalia Mogahed, the Director of Research at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding. After 9/11, she made a career out of speaking on religious issues. She told a story on the show where she was afraid of going to mosque the following Friday, amidst widespread threats against Muslims in the wake of the attacks. She and her family nervously decided to go. What awaited them changed her life:
“What we found wasn’t an angry protest or violence. What we found was half the congregation were people of other faiths that came to stand in solidarity. That act of courage and compassion on the part of all these neighbors inspired me so much. From that moment on, I felt that I had to dedicate my life to building bridges and bringing about better understanding.”
That moment makes me proud to be American. It makes me proud to be Christian. I don’t know how many Christians were in the mosque that Friday, but that act of kindness says a lot about them. It is an essential Christian value, an essential American value, an essential human value, to stand together with people in times of distress and fear, even people who have something in common with those who have attacked you. Reaching out with a hand of friendship, compassion, and grace–that’s what Jesus does, and I was so proud of the people who showed up that day.
Sadly, yesterday was also the day that I saw this:
You saw those statistics right. Twenty-two percent of religiously motivated hate crimes are committed against Muslims, even though Muslims only represent 1 percent of the American population. Muslims are routinely given extra screening at airports, even if they’ve flown a hundred times before. Muslims, particularly those wearing traditional Muslim attire, are looked at suspiciously by others. And Muslims couldn’t even open a community center in New York City in 2011 without it being a national story.
Muslims have faced, and continue to face, discrimination, bias, and negative stereotype in this country. But the majority of white Evangelicals seem to think that they have it worse, despite facing almost none of those problems. Despite the fact that an overwhelming percentage of our lawmakers and Presidents throughout history have looked like us and believed like us, we still seem to think that we’re discriminated against by…something. I really don’t know what. I’m looking everywhere for examples of discrimination against white Evangelicals, and it’s simply not there.
But I do spot something that could easily be mistaken for discrimination: anxiety. Americans are on edge right now about a lot of things. We fear we’re at a tipping point in the Middle East and that we may get sucked into a third decade-long war. We fear that North Korea could strike at any moment. We fear that our President, with no experience in foreign or military affairs and with what could most politely be characterized as an unpredictable temperament, may not be up to the task of keeping us both safe and peaceful. We fear that the pizza place we’re eating at could get blown up. We fear that our kid’s school could be the site of yet another mass shooting. We fear that racial tensions will bring about further violence and unrest in our cities and towns. We fear that good, middle-class jobs are disappearing, possibly for good and that we won’t know how to provide for our families. We fear that we can’t predict what the world will look like in just five years, let alone ten or twenty.
But here’s the thing: we’re all afraid about that. Not just white Evangelicals. Pretty much everyone is afraid of some or all of those things, regardless of political affiliation, race, religion, or economic status.
And therein lies the path to peace. Not in trying to gain access to the victim card, but in realizing that there is something that does unite us. We’re all afraid right now. In our fear, we could choose to pick each other apart, every man for himself. Or we could choose, like the people who showed up at Dalia’s mosque, to stand with people who are different from us, even though they look like the thing we’re afraid of. We could choose to invent a discrimination problem against ourselves so that we can feel a little more empowered about our fear, or we could choose to empower others by locking arms with those who suffer. We could choose to deny the reality that all Americans are true Americans, or we could choose to deny the falsehood that those who are different from us are ‘others’.
The path to peace is in the latter options. I don’t know how to bring about world peace. I may not even know how to bring about peace between our religions here at home. But I do know how to bring about peace between two people: empathy and understanding. It works every time. And if it works with two people, it ought to work with three. And four. And a thousand. And a million. And a billion.
No matter how many people are involved, it starts there. Is that a plan to defeat ISIS? No. But it is a plan to defeat the hatred and bigotry in our own hearts. And if we can do that enough, if we can put peace in the hearts of enough people, then the violence of the few may just wither away. That’s my hope, anyway.
So reach out to the Muslims in your community. Visit a mosque on a Friday and ask to listen. Have a cup of tea and ask a Muslim about his or her experience. Build a connection. Those connections will make us all stronger in the days to come and, perhaps, make us all a little less afraid of each other.