We live inside ourselves, we protect our fortresses from the battlements of our eyes. We carefully discern all who might be allowed to enter into our gates. We forget however, that living inside ourselves will make us not kings but prisoners. Only when we step outside into the free air and reach out to those in the next fortress that we can discover how much we share and how much the walls which separate us are made not of stone but of mind.
Living in this tiny berg of Powder Springs in the outer most orbit of the dwarf star of Atlanta we have the best of both worlds. Deer and turkey in our front yards yet only twenty minutes from the urban lifestyle with all its facets. I was recently travelling to Marietta, a working class city in its own right when I saw the sign. A small sign, unobtrusive, Masjid Al Hedaya The Islamic Center of Marietta.
Riding through the traffic I thought to myself, I wonder what that’s like? An Islamic center in Marietta Georgia, a town razzed by Yankees less than 150 years ago. A fact that is neither forgotten nor completely forgiven, so how does this conservative Christian community react to its new neighbors? I wondered, in the aftermath of 9-11, if perhaps they were attempting to keep a low profile.
While I was being raised in a Catholic home when JFK was our President and then living in Montgomery Alabama, my mother was quick to explain, "Those people who don’t like Martin Luther King don’t like you any better and for the same reasons." I guess my affinity for the underdog would be a natural outgrowth of that sort of home training.
So I was curious, so when I drove by the mosque the next time I tried to find a phone number, but was unable. I went online and found their homepage and explained in an Email that I was interested in learning about the center. I was contacted by the director of outreach, Mr. Amajad Taufique, who welcomed me to come and invited me to visit their center. I was invited to attend evening prayers at 7:30. I arrived early so that we would have time to talk before the service. The building was a converted single family home set off the road and surrounded by hardwoods.When I arrived, there was only one other car in the parking lot. I thought I would wait in my car and go over my notes until others arrived. But I was greeted by Mr. Ranna, a friendly outgoing gentleman who was unfamiliar with my car. We spoke in the parking lot for a few moments and I explained that I was a visitor and was interested in the center. We discussed our religious pasts before we entered the center. We removed our shoes at the sliding glass doors and entered into warm carpeted room. At one end was the member, where the Imam would lead the faithful in prayer.
Unlike a Christian altar it was not raised up but at floor level. It was simple and dignified. As I spoke with Mr. Rana, others were now arriving and each would smile and greet me shaking my hand. At about 7:15, the Imam went to the microphone and called out a short comment in Arabic. Mr. Rana anticipated my question and explained, "He is calling us to prayer." I thought to myself about how my own faith begins with a procession to call us to prayer and how it is more similar to this ritual than dissimilar.
I met with a civil engineer, a computer systems analyst and two physicians and they all shared a diligence about their reason for being there. Mr. Taufique, my host, then arrived. He’s a sincere, soft-spoken family man with a house full of teenagers. We only had a few moments before the service began. He invited me to take a seat and make myself comfortable and then excused himself. The men lined up in two rows - about 25 men in all. The Imam began to recite prayers in Arabic. I don’t speak Arabic but prayer seems to transcend language.
I’ve heard prayers before in Latin, Hebrew, Chinese, English and now Arabic and its beauty must lie in its calling out as a tiny mortal to a higher plane; humans acknowledging their humanness and their limitedness calling to the unlimited, acknowledging their subservience to God and their desire to be at one within the world.
The cadence had a beautiful staccato rhythm with punctuated pauses. The men would stand, then kneel, then prostrate themselves, then return to standing. I was again reminded of my own Catholic rituals. I was reminded as well of primitive Baptist services with the austere silence being as important as the prayers as it signified obedience, respect and personal focus.
After the prayers, one of the men took a book from the shelf and began to read from it in Arabic and then repeated the verse in English. Again, just the same as my own Christian services a reading of holy text, a thought to make us think, a seed planted left to germinate. I very much enjoyed watching the service in its entirety, having only seen it in media abbreviated snippets. Think to yourself if you were unfamiliar with Christianity and I were to tell you only of the ritual drinking of blood and spiritual cannibalism.
As the service ended the men reached out and shook hands and embraced each other, exactly the same as my own Catholic faith with its, "Peace be upon you." Some of the men left quickly some lingered talking among themselves. Mr. Taufique pulled up two chairs and we began to talk. About God, religion, politics and life, all the subjects that we are told that are inappropriate to discuss. But Mr. Taufique and I were two men stepping out from behind our ramparts to learn from each other.
I write this not to preach or proselytize, but to build bridges to reach to each other. For me, because of my background, I wanted to understand their situation. Mr. Taufique possessed the desire to explain, to help me to understand that 9-11 was just as catastrophic an event at his house as it was at mine. I was reminded of Japanese Americans in California after Pearl Harbor being held responsible by virtue their ancestry alone. Mr. Taufique mentioned the President’s comment that "You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists" with its subliminal message tying Islam with terrorist activities, the tying of unrelated ideas to defame one and shield the other from closer examination; an American citizen being told by his elected leaders that somehow he must choose between his God or his country.
I mentioned the bumper sticker that I had seen earlier in the day: "I support the troops and stand with President Bush"; again tying unrelated ideas together, that if I don’t support the President then I don’t support the troops. This is no different as the President shields his policies with the sufferings of others. Oh, I support the troops alright. I support them so much that I want them to come home to their wives and children. Most of all I support them so much that I don’t want them to ever be used or injured or maimed or killed supporting some craven political agenda.
I asked, "Did you have any trouble at the center after 9-11?" Mr. Taufique told me of some nasty messages left on their answering machine and of a women being shoved to the ground while pushing a stroller. He then told me that they changed the message on the answering machine to express their own outrage at the 9-11 tragedy. He told me of his own experience of a carload of young rednecks yelling at an intersection "Go back where you came from!"
"My children were born in Georgia," he explained, "Where would they go?" My mind flashed back to my time in Montgomery in 1965, of another state sponsored polarization, dividing us although our differences are superficial and our aspirations identical. People just want to live their lives, to raise their children and to worship their God in the freedom as it is promised to us by the constitution and the bill of rights.
Then he told me of the outpouring from local churches and synagogues, offering even to give the women rides and chaperones to the store. I got that warm fuzzy feeling that maybe we as a people had learned and had made some progress as a society. Despite the government sponsored barrage of propaganda, the majority in the community saw these people not as immigrants or Muslims or potential terrorist suspects but as their neighbors; neighbors that might need help; neighbors they were unwilling to be divided from by clever political slogans.