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Life Arts    H3'ed 9/12/10

To Be a Muslim in America: "On a Wing and a Prayer"

12 September 2010: To Be a Muslim in America

How to commemorate 9/11? I wore black and attended a film and panel discussion at the DC Jewish Community Center focused on a worldwide disease called Islamophobia. It is a direct product of 9/11, equating the terrorists who executed the lethal project with all of Islam and every Muslim. Prior to 9/11, keynote speaker Ambassador Akbar Ahmed told us, at the worldwide level "Muslim was out of radar. The Muslims weren't creating enough bridges." (For more on Ahmed, see my blog entry/Opednews articleof 10 July 2010, "Journey into America."

I believe that Islamophobia existed before then in the guise of xenophobia--anyone who dresses in a non-Western manner is a stranger. Since most Arabs are Muslims and even before 9/11 opposed the state of Israel,many American Jews who supported Israel were Islamophobic. And as much as this antagonism existed, it seems that many Muslims believe that all Jews support Israel. In this context, the term "anti-Semitic" seems both applicable and ironic, in that both Jews and Arabs are Semites.

But this issue aside, the film shown yesterday, the documentary On a Wing and a Prayer, was about a Muslim resident of the small city of Bellingham, Washington, who took flying lessons and learned how to pilot a two-passenger Cessna. His father had been a pilot. His was the only Muslim family in Bellingham, and frequent footage of his wife and three young children reacting to Dad's decision and interacting otherwise in a storybook American (if not universal) style--too good to be true--add an additional and tragic dimension. Muslims are just like the rest of us, with or without hijabs. The family was normal and adorable and predictable. Who wouldn't shiver at the thought of flying lessons--so many of us fear airplane travel?

The first flight school the protagonist Monem Salam approached turned him away. It was revealed later that the school reported him to the FBI for being Muslim and seeking flight lessons. The second, more humble and less well-equipped school, the only other one in the area, accepted Monem gladly and warmly. The rest of the curriculum is absorbing and harrowing as the audience accompanies him on one flight lesson after another, and only mild turbulence presents an obstacle, rather than worse weather or engine trouble. Monem's religion does not once become as an issue.

The film ends with Salam's wife finally summoning the courage to fly with him, safely. But as moderator Stephen Stern pointed out, a transcendent metaphor resonates far: the will to enter into a territory feared by many, the sky, and the will to surmount fear and preconceptions to pursue a dream and succeed. The sky becomes Muslim, in another dimension, and fear of flying becomes Islamophobia.

I was angry that the film had to be made altogether, and it did, among the many now being shown to combat Islamophobia, along with many projects. 9/11 this year coincided with two events that shook the world, thanks to the media. In lower Manhattan a Muslim imam and activist decided to build a Muslim community center, which included a prayer room, arousing rampant and bigoted opposition and also some high-level intervention. Religious freedom is a founding principle of this country and the main catalyst for its origins in the early seventeenth century. At issue was the placement of the center very close to Ground Zero, whose attackers had all been radical Muslims.

But a Muslim I know has objected along with the bigots, because there are at least two "topless" bars in the vicinity, hardly an appropriate location for such a holy shrine. Nonetheless, President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, General Petraeus and a host of other enlightened Americans and others the world over objected to the bigotry and won.

Meanwhile, in the southernmost state in this country, a pastor of a Protestant congregation of fifty decided to commemorate 9/11 by burning copies of the Holy Qu'ran. But in Islam there are not really copies--each book is sacred as the literal words of Muhammad transmitted to him by Allah. So the event would represent intolerable sacrilege. The dignitaries who contacted the minister pointed out to him the dire consequences that the burning might incite among extremists.

Ultimately also, humanity prevailed over bigotry and the burning was canceled at the eleventh hour. Even Sarah Palin expressed opposition to it.

So in this climate, Ambassador Ahmed noted that one American expressed surprise and relief that Muslims had displayed emotions because h/she didn't know they had any. Such is the degree of phobia that exists in this country, an issue the ambassador is actively confronting, having toured the country with his students to locate families like the Salams and explore their lifestyles and interactions with their neighbors. There has not been enough outreach, very few bridges and, as it has been pointed out to me, not enough public dissociation by mainstream Muslims from terrorism and the extremists. Here, as in many places, education is key. Widespread and public disavowal of such an association would go far to gain public acceptance of Muslims to replace the destructive phobia that so goes against our fundamental principles. In this process, Muslims must interact with the media, the ultimate educator, for better or for worse, today.

And there is so much to gain from understanding and assimilation. Consider that after Latin and Old English, Yiddish is the language that has most pervaded American English and become part of the vernacular routinely found in all American English dictionaries. Full acceptance of Jews as part of the mainstream is farther along, though incomplete even today. Despite the views expressed by Ahmadinejad, the parameters of the Holocaust are clear nearly universally, as they must be in the context of 9/11: who are the guilty and who the innocent? Three thousand Americans from all backgrounds were murdered, the entire world was shaken to the roots and, in an even greater tragedy, mainstream Islamophobia was born as much as the world came together and proclaimed that on that day we were all Americans.

This same phobia isolates the violence of the extremists committed not only on 9/11 but many other bombing events before and after that tragic day. In truth, said the ambassador, extreme violence pervades world history, 9/11 only one recent episode. What he did condemn and abhor was the violence now occurring within the borders of Muslim countries: "Local structures are collapsing," he said. "There is a failure of leadership and governance." The Taliban with their destructive agenda are succeeding. In this regard, he said, "we are going through a bad phase in history."

He recalled that adherents to all three Abrahamic religions have coexisted well in many venues throughout history. Tourists visiting old-town Jerusalem can witness this firsthand, finding peaceful coexistence among the Abrahamics and accepted presence of their religious places of worship: synagogues, mosques, and churches.

Ultimately, peace is possible if not a reality at this point in time. Mr. Salam, whose name means "peace," was one of the panelists, representing a group of new pioneers, Muslim Americans, braving the heartland and isolation to live the American dream and earn a living wage amid the throes of the recession and the burgeoning statistics involving unemployment.

Today in DC the 9/11 Unity Walk, a march of members of all local religions, from Sikh to Sufi to Jew to Unitarian to Christian, will tour the religious centers along embassy row and, in this microcosm, enact what must become universal tolerance and coexistence. Hearts and minds are both involved and, once appealed to and reached, will realize that behind heterogeneous façades, as the ambassador pointed out, we all worship a Supreme Being and hold both mercy and compassion as the highest ideals.

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Marta Steele is an author/editor/blogger who has been writing for since 2006. She is also author of the 2012 book "Grassroots, Geeks, Pros, and Pols: The Election Integrity Movement's Nonstop Battle to Win Back the People's Vote, (more...)

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