The four people taking the stage at AS220 Sunday evening were Muslim, and if that word brings certain pictures to mind as to how Muslims look and present themselves, those on stage would have been a revelation. Heather is a Harvard Divinity School student, a convert to Islam, and a white woman wearing a head covering. Kashif is a physician, specializing in cardiology. He writes regularly for the Huffington Post. Sal is black, a family man who works as a business analyst and project manager. To many, his clothing alone would identify him as a Muslim. Ryan is a white guy more easily pictured playing bass in his grindcore band than on a prayer mat, to western eyes.
They were brought together by Joe, a community curator at AS220 who realized that in Donald Trump‘s America, he knew almost nothing about Islam. To correct that deficit, Joe went to the people who practice the religion, and what emerged from the 90-minute discussion flies in the face of the popular perception of Islam as a monolithic, intolerant and dangerous system of belief.
Heather began by describing Islam as the “latest in a series of revelations” from God. “We honor Jesus and Mohammed,” she said. Jews, Christians and Muslims are all “participating in the great Abrahamic tradition.”
“We believe there is no son of God, no daughter of God, just God,” said Sal, “We believe in Jesus like we believe in Moses, like Abraham. You can’t call yourself a Muslim if you deny a prophet.” To Sal, Islam did not start with Mohammed. Islam has been around since Adam, the first man. It’s a way of life. “It’s always been here, but in a different form,” said Sal, “You have a commitment to being your best self.”
“A Christian and Jew are brothers to me,” added Sal.
Joe, as moderator, asked tough, even loaded questions. The goal was not to offend, but to cut to the root of people’s misconceptions. He asked if the Quran is more violent than the Bible.
“Violence is conditional in the Quran,” said Kashif, “Most verses are about living a good life. In context, not a single verse in the Quran is violent.”
Joe asked about the hijab next, a traditional head covering for women, aiming the question at Heather. Heather answered that “you can’t assume you understand why any woman is wearing a hijab,” adding, “I choose to live as if people really have religious freedom in this country. [The hijab] is a sign of my commitment to Islam.”
Kashif added that the Quran condemns sexual objectification. “We condemn all regimes that enforce any dress code.” Such regimes would include both Saudi Arabia and European countries that ban religious head coverings.
Shariah law was the next topic, and Kashif explained it not as some sort of judicial or criminal system but as “a code of conduct within Islam.” No one on stage believed that Sharia Law should be imposed on non-Muslims, or that apostasy or blasphemy should be crimes.
Heather converted to Islam in part because of the religion’s “reverence toward learning and the written word.” Kashif added that, “education is compulsory on every male and female.”
Sal said that Islam reminds him that “my neighbor is everything. If you play the music in your house so loud that even one neighbor complains, you have harmed your neighbor.”
So different were the Muslims on stage, they were not even all the same kind of Muslim. About 80 percent of the world’s Muslims are Sunni. 10 percent are Shia. All on stage were Sunni except Kashif, who is an Ahmadiyya Muslim, making up maybe 2-3 percent of the Muslim world. His family left Pakistan to escape religious persecution, from other Muslims.
Joe next asked how things have changed for those on stage since the election of Donald Trump. The answers were surprising.
“Since Donald Trump has been elected the community at Harvard Divinity has gotten better,” said Heather, adding, “Thanks, Donald Trump, you really brought us together.”
Sal agreed. Trump, “has brought a lot of people together.” He was overjoyed when leaving his Mosque recently to be greeted by Christians, Jews and non-believers, holding signs and offering welcome and solidarity in the wake of a hateful letter the mosque received. “Every time I think about that, I want to cry. I’m a big guy. I don’t cry easily.”
Joe, the moderator, said that Trump was the reason he held the event, which packed over a hundred people into AS220’s performance space. He expected maybe a dozen to turn out.
Ryan was more circumspect about the consequences of Trump. “To me, things have changed for the better, but really, nothing has changed… I have long been worried about the alt-right, neo-nazi or what I refer to as nerd nazis. People here have long been ignoring the racism. My family forgives too much racism. On the left, we excuse racism through inaction. We’ve gotten lazy.” And Trump, says Ryan, is a consequence of that laziness.
“I feel gross asking this,” said Joe, “but why are so many people afraid of Muslims?”
“Why were so many people in Germany afraid of Jews?” asked Kashif, “Ignorance.”
“Not enough people have Muslim friends,” said Heather, “We need to have our humanity recognized first. Look at us! We’re adorable!”
“We are people,” said Ryan, “We make mistakes. We have lives outside of Islam.”
Those who hate the most, said Sal, “are ignorant and don’t want to learn. They are dangerous because they know everything.”
In part, added Sal, “Muslims are at fault. We don’t like to mingle a lot, because we are afraid to let our guard down.”
“Listen to Muslim voices,” suggested Heather. “There is a lack of Muslim voices on the left.” Joe put a list of recommended Muslim authors on the screen. The list included names both familiar and unfamiliar to me: Eboo Patel, Kecia Ali, Linda Sarsour, Dalia Mogahed, Reza Aslan, Omid Safi, Wajahat Ali and Imam Khalid Latif.
Sal wished that the media would show up at the events that show Muslims in a positive light. “I lost my faith in the media a long time ago. So many lies provoke death. One journalist came out during our ‘Muslims feed the homeless‘ event,” said Sal, gesturing toward me, sitting in the audience. That event, organized by AHOPE, was in October, another is planned for the Spring.
Sal said he wants people to see Muslims in a different light. “The more you know,” said Sal, “The more peaceful you get.”
“We want to be allies, ” said Ryan, “We want to be there for you.”