I met the first Muslim when I was 20 years old in Kosovo. That was how little exposure I had to certain cultures by that point in my life.
I didn’t live a monocultural life by any means. My extended family included a lot of Latinos: Mexican, Bolivian and now a Peruana. My mom was a third culture kid herself. One of my closest friends from high school comes from an Indian family. However, a lot of my life was still pretty white and American.
But at 20, I was exposed to a new culture, Islam. We were evacuated from Kosovo, ending our trip early because of guerrilla warfare in the mountains. It didn’t occur to me to be frightened of Muslims. Kosovo was at the tail end of a war and that is what happens in war. The country was unstable and there were factions that made it dangerous, dangerous enough to pull a few crazies (me and my friends) from the country.
I had that privilege of a hasty evacuation because I was born with an American passport.
I didn’t earn it.
It was grace.
But it would mean that I had freedom to travel where others didn’t. We would leave students behind who were our age, the same, who had to be careful of where they walked because of land mines. They didn’t have the freedom to leave on three hours notice.
I would return to America where I could walk without fear on any patch of grass I wanted.
In our evacuation, we had to wait by the Kosovar/Macedonian border for four hours in the open air because our drivers were not allowed to cross into one another’s countries. I remember very unhappy UN peacekeeping soldiers (I think that’s what they were) when we were dropped off. I remember sitting on some pavement for hours, told to keep quiet with a handful of my friends. I also remember this huge soldier carrying a silver tea set across the area to offer tea/coffee to the other soldiers at one point. It made me giggle. He looked so funny, this huge European dude with an AK47 over his shoulder, carrying a little delicate tray with hot drinks on it.
Was it dangerous?
Maybe. Probably a bit.
It was the area of the instability, if I recall properly, where shooting had happened the week before.
But we were fine. We were gonna be fine.
The soldiers were concerned we were there. Americans. They didn’t want to start an international incident. They looked after us. Who wants to get big daddy America upset because of some foolish kids? Would they have been as bothered if it was Albanian 20 year olds?
I remember U2s Beautiful Day being played on the radio by our Kosovar driver of our minibus, smoking in my face as I sat between him and another guy in the front, as he drove us to the border crossing. I remember thinking “How ironic!” I was crying silently as the countryside rolled past. I didn’t want to leave.
In my short visit and meetings with Albanians and Kosovar students that week, my life had been changed. I would have happily stayed, despite the dangers. I had met students who were Christian believers from Muslim backgrounds and students who were practicing Muslims. Both had changed my life.
Since that spring of 2001, as the world has grown fearful of Muslims, I have become friends with lots of Muslims. Some of the closest friends of my life have come from Middle Eastern or Muslim backgrounds.
Not all Middle Eastern people are Muslims. Not all Muslims are Middle Eastern. I have all in my life as friends.
I have had friends over the last 14 years from Iran, Saudi Arabia, second generation Pakistani and recently moved from Pakistan. I have friends from Lebanon and Sudan, Bulgaria and Moroccan decent.
Some of my friends are practicing Muslims. All Five Pillars, devoutly religious.
Some are Muslim in title and culture alone whose practice extends to not eating pork and that is about it. I sometimes tease them for this. Usually I keep silent and think… “Mmmmm bacon..”
Some grew up Muslim but don’t consider themselves any faith.
Some of my friends grew up in Muslim families and converted to Christianity as adults.
Some of my Middle Eastern friends grew up Christian.
I have traveled to peaceful Muslim countries and Muslim countries that are a wreck from war and filled with groups of people the world experiences as terrorists.
My friends are warm, hospitable and make awesome food. Many of these cultures put American southern hospitality to shame.
They are amazing confidantes. Some are as close as a sister or brother would be. “Azizam” is a Persian word I have come to use on some of my closest friends.
I have spent time celebrating Iranian Norooz (New Years) with many friends over the years and I am convinced that Iranians are the second funniest people on earth next to the British. At the first Norooz I participated in, I skyped with my family and said that it felt like being around our chaotic loud Mexican family! It was fun. Fesenjoon (the version from Rasht not Tehran) is one of my favouritest dishes on earth.
My Syrian friends have been some of my dearest over the years. We could meet and talk for hours and hours and hours. They make awesome food too.
Food might be a running theme in my international life.
My attempt at Persian cooking. Happy Birthday Daddy.
There are a lot of Muslim friends of mine who are wicked salsa dancers. Some of the best dancers I know are Persian, Lebanese, Turkish or Arab. Yeah, yeah, dancing is “haram” in Islam but it is a lot of fun and these have been some of my life-of-the-party friends. Some have been my protectors and really looked after me as a friend in the salsa spaces, chasing away dodgy guys from their Christian friend who is serious about following Jesus.
I have friends who have been lumped in with terrorists and who don’t have the freedom of travel that I so graciously was born with who are actually practicing Christians, some with Christian families and others by converting from Islam. It feels unfair.
I have Muslim friends who experience prejudiced treatment in airports: searches and denial of travel, soon to be forced to get visas to the US even though they have European passports, who have entertained me with hours and hours of honest discussion about our faiths over coffees and fried chicken. (Because let’s be honest, you all know I’m not a pluralist and want everyone to know Jesus for themselves!)
It doesn’t feel fair that they should all be punished because of some crazies. It is not fair that I can travel so easily because of the patch of dirt I was born on. I wish good things for my friends.
My fellow Americans, I plead with you not to let terrorists win by being driven to fear. Fear always leads to prejudice.
I went to the Smithsonian in DC a few weeks ago and was saddened to be reminded by many points of our history, our fear of foreigners has been there. How we treated the next wave of new immigrants has been repetitiously bad. The Irish, the Italians, the Jewish people fleeing Europe in WWII, the Japanese internment camps (and let’s not get started about the Native Americans and African Americans who were born on this land or forced to come here).
This was an anti immigrant campaign from 1890 comparing immigrants to trash. It’s embarrassing. It’s sinful.
If you are reading this and not a Christian, I appeal to the common graces that God has made known to all of our hearts: Love and not hate should win. Terrorism is bred because of wickedness, yes, my theology has a big category for evil. But also because people feel marginalized, hated, impoverished and feel like they have no other options. It is a breeding ground for hate groups to prey on people to join them.
Do Middle Eastern or Muslim people you know feel hated in the US or Europe? Have you asked anyone their experiences of prejudice? Do you know anyone from a different culture than you? I appeal to you on the common graces all humans have to get educated, to meet someone different than yourself and to listen to someone’s story before you fear. ****Rhetorical Communications student here**** I hasten to caution that politicians in this season can easily be pandering to fear to try to get votes and not because you need to actually live in fear. Consider it.
But if you are a Christian, all the more, I hope and pray you will not fall for the anti-Muslim, or anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, anti-Middle Eastern rhetoric that is prevalent on tv, online or coming from the mouths of politicians every day. It is unBiblical. Jesus died for the nations. Jesus loves the nations.
It is a gospel issue and an obedience-to-Christ issue and not a partisan issue. Christ died to bring the nations together. That is an element of the gospel. Jesus came to reconcile us to God firstly, and secondarily he came to reconcile the nations by making us one in Christ.
If I can encourage a few responses it would be this:
- Follow Humans of New York. This guy is a photographer who tells peoples stories. He started with New Yorkers and he has moved to be more global. He is covering stories at the moment of families fleeing Iraq and Syria. It’s easy to fear people if we don’t know their stories.
- Learn about the refugee resettlement process. The refugees the US accepts are not terrorists and are well vetted. You can learn about the process here but check your city. There will be a resettlement agency near you who can help you understand the process in person or maybe you can begin to volunteer and meet refugees yourself.
- Eat Middle Eastern/North African/ Central Asian cuisine. Find a Persian, Arab, Lebanese, Turkish, Afghan, Moroccan restaurant near you. The food will be awesome. If you have no sources of friends from those cultures, go try their food. Maybe meet the staff and ask about their countries. Knowing people personally helps take away fear.
- Fact check. The media is skewed. We have a huge problem of jaded Americans, from white or other cultural backgrounds, even those who are Muslim but fully American by birth, wreaking havoc on our schools or otherwise in various kinds of shootings, bombings, explosions. Nearly all of our terror happens from within, not from other countries. A good question to ask is “Why?”
- Look for opportunities to make friends from a different culture than your own. Your life will be changed.
- If you are American, contact your congressman about allowing more refugees into your state (the process is trustworthy) about Aya and the campaign to allow her to come here, or about the recent bill HR 158 which will create two classes people in America.
- If you are a Christian, pray for the nations. Remember that Jesus is King. Remember we do not need to be ones living in fear for we know the Prince of Peace who casts out fear, the One who died to make us right with God, and that grace gives us all the more reason to give our lives away in love rather than live in fear.