Recently, we, at ASIA Center have been having a lot of conversations about dawah but more than that, about helping our non-Muslim neighbors feel more comfortable with us. And as the resident White Girl/Convert, a disproportionate number of questions get tossed in my direction.
It's made me think - because I never felt uncomfortable around Muslims. Curious and confused, yes, but never uncomfortable. So I've been trying to pinpoint exactly what caused that and I have come to the inescapable conclusion that it was my mother.
You see, my mother, was the consummate devil's advocate. No matter what the situation, or how horrible the behavior, my mother would, without fail, defend the opposition. She would have said that she was being compassionate - I always felt like she couldn't see my side (which, of course, was the right side). But even though her insistence on seeing the other point of view drove me insane as a child, it accomplished exactly what she'd hoped for - it gave me a strong sense of empathy.
That empathy made it so that I've always tried to see the good in people - all people. And as is so often the case, when you look for something, usually you find it.
I never thought that all Muslims were anything - and even though I didn't personally know any Muslims, I assumed that they were like any other demographic, some quiet, some loud, some intellectual, some artistic, some strong, some weak, some good, some bad.
But not everyone had the benefit of my upbringing and the media has done a beautiful job of demonizing Muslims and Islam at every opportunity.
So how do we, as Muslims, open minds that have such strong preconceived notions?
One thought that was put forward was for the non-American Muslims at the masjid to step back and let the American Muslims take the lead - at least as far as being the "faces" of the masjid. But I disagree.
There's a video series available on YouTube - "The Secret Life of Muslims" and in one of the episodes, an author by the name of Reza Aslan makes an excellent point.
He says that Americans went from being overwhelmingly opposed to gay marriage to being overwhelmingly in favor of gay marriage in a remarkably short amount of time. And he attributes this dramatic shift to Hollywood including gay characters in movies and television shows.
His opinion is that once Americans regularly saw these characters and more importantly, saw them dealing with the exact same situations and problems that they themselves face, they no longer felt uncomfortable with them. Because in a way, they "knew" someone who is gay.
The typical American doesn't know any Muslims. We tend to keep to ourselves - our friends and family are all Muslim and most social engagements revolve around the masjid. And that's wonderful - after all, we are not focused on this life, but the next, and by surrounding ourselves with others who feel the same way, we avoid temptations. But even if we aren't focused on this life, we're still in it, at least for the moment. And one of the things that we have been called to do in this life is dawah* - and you can't easily give dawah to someone who isn't comfortable talking to you.
My Brothers and Sisters, if we want to give dawah properly and if we want our neighbors to be at ease with us then we have to put ourselves out there so that they can know us. They need to see that while we might be more conservative than they are, we have all the same basic values. We are mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers. We all love our children more than ourselves and parenting is hard for all of us. We all go to work and pay bills and sometimes struggle financially. And we all need friends and community.
Us Muslims need to proudly display our Muslimness for the world to see. We need to let our neighbors in so that they can see the "secret life of Muslims." Because, as you and I know, Muslims don't really have a secret life - and once our neighbors see that, and recognize how similar we really are, they won't feel nearly as uncomfortable. And alleviating that discomfort, will open the doors to deeper conversations.
The typical American is not that different from the typical Muslim but we need to show them that. It's not that difficult to be hard-hearted towards someone that you don't know, but most people find it very difficult to keep their hearts closed when they actually know someone. And if we want to open the doors to those deeper conversations, we must first open the hearts - theirs and ours.
- Salaam Y'all,
*Dawah literally means "issue an invitation" - it refers to sharing Islam with people of other faiths.