Americans are afraid of Muslims.
We have only to recall the controversy concerning the proposed construction of a mosque near the Ground Zero site. The hate speech, slandering, and truth-blurring via the national news and political talk shows rode the wave of American fear as high as they could, exposing the "Islamaphobia" that plagues our land.
What I find even more disturbing than this sweeping aversion is the fear that manifests itself on smaller relational scales. For example, residents of a street just a few blocks over from where I live successfully prevented the use of a house on that street for Muslim worship. Opponents cited zoning and parking concerns, but insiders knew better—fear of Muslims "taking over" won the day. Resistors of the plan far outnumbered those who tried to uphold the religious freedom of the Constitution. Not surprisingly, relationships in the neighborhood have been strained ever since.
But Islamaphobia is manifested on an even smaller scale than neighborhood politics. Several years ago my daughter Candace shared an experience with me recently as part of a college course she took on Islam. I invited her to share it here:
I recently completed a course called, 'Women of Islam.' I had an elective to fulfill, and this class looked interesting. I knew almost nothing about Islam when the class began, and I still have much to learn, but by the end I had gained a deep appreciation and respect for it. I have no plans to convert to Islam, but my eyes have definitely been opened to the inaccuracies and stereotypes about it.
One of our assignments was to go as participant-observers, on our own time, to jum'ah, the equivalent to our Sunday church service, but jum'ah happens on Fridays in mosques. I was excited to experience Muslim worship and not just read about it. A Muslim classmate helped me and two others from the class to properly put on the hijab, the traditional Muslim head (and sometimes face) covering. Once we were all dressed respectfully for prayer and worship, we drove to a local mosque near the college.
Almost immediately, as the three of us drove to the mosque, I began to see different looks on the faces of those we passed, from confusion to pity to fear—just because our garb identified us as being Muslim. At least that was the way it felt, and my feelings were confirmed in a few of my post-jum'ah experiences, which I'll tell you about shortly. As for the service itself, my responses were mixed. The sense of unity, reverence, and sacred space, as well as the humility, particularly among the men, were extremely moving. On the other hand, the message (sermon) wasn't all that great; but then again that's how I often feel when I worship in churches (no offense, Dad).
In the past, I had always been greeted with friendly and helpful staff there.
But on this day, I was not greeted at all. I received no smiles and hardly any eye contact.
Afterwards when we drove back to campus, we were again met with stares, glares, and 'no-looks.' Through the eyes of a 'Muslim woman,' I experienced two exchanges in particular that unveiled for me the prejudices and misconceptions that exist toward Muslims. The first was avoidance. My classmates and I obviously stuck out, but many people just walked by us, knowing we were there but obviously not making eye contact. I noticed some even turning their heads away from us. The only other time I ever experienced such treatment was when I was a teenager at an airport playing in a wheelchair. We shouldn't have been playing with it, but my mom pushed me around in it while we waited for our flight. Apparently, we 'played' well enough that people thought I was disabled, and they looked away. That poor, poor child. That's the way it felt as I walked down the street wearing a hijab; I experienced the same averted gazes as I did when people thought I couldn't walk.
The only way I can describe the second exchange is the word prejudice, plain and simple and ugly. On my way home from the mosque, still wearing the hijab, I entered an office which I've frequented many times before, to take care of some paperwork. In the past, I had always been greeted with friendly and helpful staff there. But on this day, I was not greeted at all. I received no smiles and hardly any eye contact. Furthermore, somebody asked me for my ID, which had never happened before. The stark difference in treatment as a 'Muslim woman' rather than a 'normal American woman' shocked me. I was saddened and angered by the way I was treated by the people from that otherwise friendly office, just because they believed I was of 'that' faith.
I learned much from this assignment, probably more than the professor intended. Yes, I experienced Muslim worship, but more importantly, I learned how not to treat Muslims—or anyone for that matter—just because they're different from me. Isn't this Christianity 101?
Al Tizon is co-president of ESA and associate professor of holistic ministry at Palmer Theological Seminary. Candace Tizon Martinez is director of Mustard Seed Preschool in Berkeley, Calif., where she lives with her husband and three young children.