When I last left you, I wrote about my early exposure to Islam. Specifically, I wrote about my parents’ interest in Persian rugs, and the carpet-weaving community’s practice of always leaving at least one mistake in their work as “only Allah is perfect.” You can read more about all of that here. While this was hardly an exhaustive introduction to the tenets of Islam, I do feel luck to have been raised by parents (one agnostic, one Christian) that was more than open to learning about other cultures and religions – as imperfect as those efforts may at times be and as imperfect as any human can be in their efforts to be respectful of, sensitive to and aware of different cultures and religions.
Efforts to open my mind continued in my high school – and in fact my first exposure to the idea of feminism was through the writing of Fatima Mernissi, who wrote about Islamic feminism (on how Islam and veiling in particular allow women to be treated as respected equals, more on this another time). While in college, I lived as a non-Jewish person in my University’s residential Hillel House, where I learned about Judaism and keeping kosher. Flung heart-first into the experience of religious intolerance, I experienced our Hillel House’s post-traumatic stress after members of the Aryan Nation senselessly broke into that house on a school break – intentionally defiling the house with feces, urine, spray-paint and meat on the dairy dishes. It was confusing and heartbreaking – why would someone do this? I wrestled with this question on gut and mind levels for a long time. Even though I have answers, the whole thing still makes my stomach hurt.
Later, while practicing as a social worker in New York City, I worked with many Muslim immigrants, mostly from Yemen and various parts of Africa. Tasked with investigating child abuse and/or neglect, my cross-cultural thinking was put to the test. I often wrestled with the question “if it is right in one culture, should that be able to stand in a second culture of residence – and vice versa.” While I disagreed in a very personal way with some of the ways the tenets of Islam were implemented in some of the families I worked with when it came to disciplining adolescents walking the cross-cultural tightrope of their new culture and their family culture, I did my best to be fair in my decision-making and to respect all I worked with to the best of my ability.
It is, perhaps, these facts of my upbringing as well as the fact of being married to a person from a Muslim majority country and the ways he is sometimes misunderstood or stereotyped that lead me to feel so upset about the most recent Qu’ran burnings in Afghanistan by U.S. armed forces and the reactions of some of those around me. It is always painful to me, cringe-worthy even, when friends or family in Turkey work to make sure that I understand they do not associate themselves with the worst that call themselves Muslim, much as I distance myself from those soldiers that decided to burn religious books in a garbage purge.
It may sound cliché, but my extreme disappointment and upset over this incident so far away renews my commitment to making some kind of a difference in the lives of my students – a few of whom I overheard last night joking about this incident in Afghanistan. My heart sank, my anger surged, and I said nothing. Normally, I am fairly “out there” but I am trying to be more mindful of and attentive to the power of my role as a professor and the need to ask calm questions to encourage them softly to look at their statements and views in a way that might bring some learning and transformation.
Today, I am just left with Bebe Ruhi, the ever-questioning Karagoz puppet in my mind, who has tears running down his cheeks, and rocks back and forth, asking these questions over and over:
How can these kind and loving students who are training to be social workers be so mean in their comments?
How can you get them over this hump of ignorance?
How could these American soldiers be so disrespectful?
I know people are ignorant and in pain about 9/11 and whatever they are experiencing on the ground, but how could they be so stupid and inflammatory?
I know soldiers get all worked up with what they are expected by their governments to do – and sometimes experience moral conflicts, but why does this keep happening?
How does this type of behavior square with the alleged religious tolerance the United States supposedly represents?
What is wrong with Newt Gingrich, that bombastic idiot, for questioning President Obama’s decision to apologize for this? What on earth is wrong with an apology?
M’lady, can you explain Americans to me?
None of these are new questions or particularly unique ones. Many of them have many documented answers already. Today, I am feeling down, and I just wish these questions would be less present in life as they are just so painful sometimes. Must be a blue day.