Why Do They Hate Us? (a book excerpt by Steve Slocum)
But, what about us? How can we do our part to reverse the momentum? It’s often said that the first step is awareness. Knowledge can definitely prepare us to break down long-standing misperceptions. But what about the psychological effects, which affect us more subtly? Is it possible to modify our psyches, conditioned by a lifetime of programming? How can we address the thoughts and fears that creep into our minds?
In my own experience, psychological change requires firm intention motivated by an impossible-to-ignore hunger for things to be different. It requires action and the investment of energy. In order to diffuse our innate fears of Muslims, I know of no force more powerful than that of face-to-face interaction. When two good-hearted souls hold eye contact and hear one another’s stories, hearts soften. When each sees with compassion the tears of pain in the eyes of the other, imaginary walls crumble. And when they continue spending time together, the day arrives when they forget they are different.
For those who haven’t already, it’s time to consider befriending a Muslim.
For some of us that’s as easy as striking up a conversation with a coworker. For many others it can be as daunting as skydiving. One thing is certain, it isn’t going to happen without deeply motivated intention. For myself, even though I had lived in the Muslim world for five years, I was not immune to the programming. In my head I knew, but my subconscious produced the very fears that I’m writing about.
Ironically, I started the book project a year before I did anything about those deep-seated fears. I got my first opportunity to visit a mosque with a group of progressive thinkers and leaders in San Diego who are part of a church known as Sojourn Grace Collective. We attended a weekly open house called “Coffee, Cake, and True Islam,” hosted by our local Ahmadiyya Muslim community. We had a mutually supportive interchange of thoughts. I was caught off guard when someone from our group asked the imam, “How would you and your members feel about attending events with our gay community?” You could have heard a pin drop when the imam paused before answering. I think he surprised everyone with his answer: “Though we may not agree with homosexuality, we stand against discrimination against the LGBTQ community and understand that this is a personal decision between them and God.” Even with this tense moment, it was a good first visit.
Having broken the ice, I asked my friend, the software engineer named Mohammed, if I could attend Friday prayers with him at the mosque. He said I was welcome. After the sermon and the prayers, I stayed around for a few minutes and found a few friendly faces to introduce myself to. The broken ice was thawing. I went back alone several times, got to know some of the members, and organized several group visits to the mosque. I have visited other mosques and have come to feel very comfortable mixing with the Muslim community.
I didn’t know it yet, but I still had ground to cover. This would come to me in a moment of clarity while I was spending time with Maaz, the imam of the Ahmadiyya community that hosted my first visit to the mosque. I returned many times to their Tuesday night event, and often it was just Maaz and me. We drank tea, chatted, and gradually got to know each other. Often, we talked about unpleasant news surrounding things like Trump’s executive order banning citizens of certain Muslim countries from entering the United States. But we also talked about everyday things that friends talk about: family stuff, problems at work, or plans for the weekend. We met for a burger once after we hadn’t seen each other for a while. As we were catching up, I had the sudden realization that I looked at Maaz only as my friend. Nothing else about him entered into my consciousness as we chatted like a couple of old buddies. And in this moment I knew.
My ultimate goal in writing this book is for the information I share to become the catalyst for hundreds of thousands of relationships like the one I have with Maaz.
Several groups that facilitate Muslim/non-Muslim interaction have recently come onto the scene. For those who are a little shy about initiating on their own, it’s possible that an Ecosia search will turn up one of these groups in your area. If not, the month of Ramadan can be an excellent opportunity to meet Muslims. Many mosques host iftar gatherings in the evenings throughout the month and open these to the public. Generally, a nice meal is served, and an adventurous soul can find herself sitting at a table with a couple of Muslim families or a talkative group of ladies.
During the course of my networking activities with the Muslim community, I found myself consistently running into the same gentleman. He was a soft-spoken, elderly man named Mohammed. I asked him to meet me for coffee. As he started to tell me his story, I found myself captivated. He had been serving as a finance minister in the government in Kabul during the communist takeover in the early ‘70s. One night, during the Soviet-style purge of the former government, he got a call from a friend warning him, “They are coming for you tonight.” He fled with his family, taking only what they could carry, and walked for twelve days before reaching safety in Pakistan. After some time, Mohammed and his family were allowed into the United States as refugees and have become US citizens.
In 2016 Mohammed started an organization called We Love Our Neighbors. He is quietly passionate about working for peace. He explained that Christians and Muslims make up over half of the population of the world, so he focuses on promoting love and unity between these two groups, one neighborhood at a time. Mohammed humbly does this work on a volunteer basis while still providing for his family as a real estate agent.
We have become close friends and solid partners. He has been especially helpful in planning and facilitating events put on by the nonprofit I founded, Salaam. On one occasion I took a dozen or so non-Muslims to an iftar gathering at a local mosque during Ramadan. When we arrived it was packed with around 300 people. The easy solution would have been to put the new guests together at a new table, but I was hoping that my visitors could be dispersed at separate tables, full of Muslim guests. When I asked Mohammed about this, he immediately went into action, disappearing into the crowd and then coming back to escort each guest, one at a time, to the next open spot he had found (or created). My guests had a delightful evening and were among the last to leave.
The pinnacle of sweet friendship provides a new vantage point to enjoy the view. Having broken through the misconceptions, we see only fellow travelers on the journey. We learn to savor our common humanity and celebrate our differences. And from this vantage point it becomes impossible not to notice that our new friends are hurting. When we hear a group of our coworkers making disparaging remarks about the Muslim woman downstairs who comes to work in her hijab, it affects us differently. In the past we might not even have noticed this conversation. But now we do. When we hear our friend’s country listed on an executive order banning anyone from this country from entering the United States, we feel a part of their pain. And we feel differently now about the “war on terror.”
Under the leadership of Donald Trump, attitudes and policies toward Muslims have taken a turn for the worse. In Trump’s nationally televised speech at the CPAC conference in late February 2018, on the subject of immigration, he revived the well used poem from his campaign trail called, The Snake. In the story told in the poem, a woman is attacked and killed by a snake she had cared for after it had been wounded. Trump’s punch line—and the defining principle of his immigration policy—was, “You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.”
In a time when government leaders are fanning the flames of Islamaphobia, citizen diplomacy is called for. Rebecca Cataldi points out: The most powerful way to affect the national conscience is to change people's perceptions at the grassroots level. Opportunities for activism and advocacy are abundant for those who want to go beyond changing their own perception. Equipped with a solid understanding of the teaching and practice of Islam, we can interject truth to that conversation about what the Quran teaches about women, for example. Or we can invite a mixed group of Muslims and non-Muslims over for dinner and facilitate a warm conversation.
Muslim advocacy groups such as CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) or the Muslim American Society’s (MAS) public affairs and civic engagement arm would be delighted to have your volunteer support. Getting involved with organizations that support war refugees, both locally and internationally, is a wonderful way to affect the Muslim side of the hostility perception equation.
The organization I created, Salaam, gives seminars and workshops, and facilitates interaction between Muslims and non-Muslims through friendship dinners and joint service activities. Based in San Diego, we provide training materials and on-site support to enable individuals and families to do citizen diplomacy in their own city.
About the Author
Steve is the author of Why Do They Hate Us? Making Peace with the Muslim World. He served as a missionary in Kazakhstan from 1992 – 1997. In 2015 he transitioned out of his management career in aircraft design engineering into a full-time peacemaking role.
He founded the American-Muslim Friendship Foundation, which provides Muslim awareness workshops to churches and civic groups and facilitates friendship dinners and mosque visits.
For more information, visit www.SalaamUSA.org