As a proud Catholic American from Boston, Massachusetts, I recently participated in a debate hosted by the University College Dublin Law Society, one of the largest and most prestigious student societies in Europe. The proposition of the debate was “This House Believes That Islam is a Threat to the West.”
Arguing against this proposition, I started my speech in the crowded Gareth Fitzgerald Debating Chamber by sharing some of my own personal experiences with Muslim Americans in the United States. I did so in the hope of showing how real-life experiences can help dispel stereotypes, mainly the claim that Islamic values are antithetical to Western values.
At the core of my speech was Professor Akbar Ahmed’s “Journey into America,” an unprecedented anthropological study I took part in between 2008 and 2009. For one year, we traveled to over 100 cities and 75 mosques across the United States. Our purpose was to understand American identity through the lens of Muslims. Culminating from this study was the documentary feature film “Journey into America” (2009) and book Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam (2010).
As the last of eight speakers, I had a unique angle as a non-Muslim that had conducted extensive fieldwork in Muslim communities. I immediately brought up the audience to our research methods of Journey into America, which were face-to-face human interactions and actual anthropology. I wanted to stress to members of the audience – and to the debaters on the side of the proposition especially – the importance of meeting Muslims in their homes, places of worship, schools, and businesses before rushing to judge their religion.
After introducing Journey into America, I could tell the audience was locked into my words, particularly as I started talking about Colonel Martinez of the United States Army, who in 2009 invited Professor Ahmed and I to Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery, the graveyard of Americans who have died in war. He brought us to the gravestones of several Muslim American soldiers who died during the post-9/11wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Members of the audience – most of whom were non-American Muslims – had shocked looks on their faces. I had the feeling that they had never heard of this kind of story coming from America, a nation who is believed by some Muslims worldwide as conducting a full-out war on Islam.
Emotions were heightened in the Fitzgerald chamber when I explained my own feelings while standing at the final resting place of Muslim Americans whose religion, Islam, is vilified worldwide by non-Muslims. I found, and still find, that this assertion is ironic considering that Muslim Americans have actually given their own lives for my country.
At this point in my speech I deliberately paused to let the story of the Muslim gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery sink into the hearts of the audience. I then posed the following question: How can Islam be a threat to the West if Muslims, who practice Islam, are fighting to protect non-Muslims against the enemies of Western governments?
The crowd was silent. Nobody moved.
This question caught the audience’s attention as it shattered the stereotype that Islam and the West are at odds and inherently incompatible.
Muslim Americans, I added, are not only protecting their fellow Americans abroad, they are also supporting non-Muslim Americans like myself at home.
The second story I discussed in my speech summarized our visit to Los Angeles, in which the Journey into America team attended a film event at a Pakistani American’s home. Before the event started I was speaking to the mayor of a local city. Suddenly, I became very ill. I was not breathing normally. I was nauseous. My throat closed-up and the rest of my body started breaking out in hives.
I was having a severe allergic reaction to peanuts.
Luckily for me, there were numerous Muslim American doctors and physicians at the party. These Muslim men and women immediately rushed to my care. A handful of them sat by my bedside, while others called the medics to rush me to the hospital.
Fortunately, I survived this scary incident.
I explained to the Fitzgerald chamber how I cannot and will not ever forget the care that I had and the security that I felt in the hands of my fellow Muslim American citizens. I shared my feelings with the audience in an effort to humanize Muslims, a portrayal hardly seen in the media, which focuses its coverage of Islam on societal disorder and violence.
At this point in my speech I posed another thought-provoking question to the audience: Are the Muslim Americans that cared for me during this life-threatening incident a threat to the West because they too follow Islam?
Islam, I told the chamber, is not a monolith. A monolith, for those who are unfamiliar with the term, means solid, uniformed, or fixed.
In essence, by carelessly clumping all Muslims into one Islamic group, the proposition of the debate suggested that Rumi, the 13th century Sufi poet who spoke of peace and love and wrote poems about Jesus, is a threat to “the West” because he follows Islam. According to the terminology of our proposition, Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani education activist, is also a threat to “the West” because she follows Islam.
Think about how ridiculous that sounds.
Muslims, I suggested, might be Sufis, Shiites, Alawites, Sunnis, Salafis, Wahhabis, and so on, and so forth. There are, indeed, even differences within these groups.
If you look closely, I explained, the idea that Islam is a threat to the West forces us to deal with the term “Islam,” in the singular sense, as a monolith.
“Islam” as a monolith cannot be a threat to “the West” because Islam, as a monolithic entity, does not and cannot ever exist.
My very last words encouraged all those in attendance to go out and meet Muslims in their homes, schools, businesses, and places of worship. I was privileged to participate in Journey into America and look forward to Akbar Ahmed’s forthcoming “Journey into Europe,” but others who do not have these opportunities may form prejudices.
Knowledge and education are the most important elements of understanding each other. What we need is more face-to-face contact and dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims so as to eliminate prejudice and racism.