Home My Thoughts Learning from Our Muslim Neighbors

Learning from Our Muslim Neighbors

by David Jordan

I was anxious. Rose, Saad, Ahmer and Osama stood with me in the entrance area of our church. They were Muslim friends who had graciously come to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina gathering our congregation was hosting. I had invited them to tell their stories in a workshop I was leading I called “Charlotte Muslims Speak.” But they joined our gathering in the midst of tense surroundings.

In the media and among interpersonal conversations, Muslims were (and still are…) being presented as suspect members of the social fabric, strange, untrustworthy and potential terrorists. I was supposed to introduce these Muslim friends to this group of mostly white, largely traditional Baptists in the south.

Part of my anxiety came from the fear that no one would come to the workshop. Rose, Saad, Ahmer and Osama each had left their respective jobs early and had driven across town. I didn’t want to them to have wasted their time and energy for no reason. I partly imagined an empty room and hurt feelings along with their frustration at a lost afternoon.

But I was also concerned about the opposite problem – not that no one would come – but that we might have a large crowd of suspicious folks waiting for a chance to argue about religion.

Perhaps I was giving my Baptist brothers and sisters too little credit. Yet, we all know what just a few hotheads can do to a room. On the other hand, these four Muslim friends had become sadly accustomed to cold stares, suspicious glances and unkind words.

Rose, of Palestinian background, wears a hijab, a traditional head covering for a Muslim woman. She stands out in a crowd, especially a crowd of Baptists in the South. Saad, whose family was from Pakistan, has a large beard and dark eyes. He can appear intimidating. Ahmer came here from India. Osama (he now goes by Sam), was from Lebanon.

I wondered what would happen and who would come. Anyone? No one? Too many of the wrong ones?

Slowly, a group began to gather. The workshop became a full room. And I was wrong. Far from suspicious, those gathered were genuinely interested in what our four Muslim panelists had to say. And what each said was simple.

They spoke of their families and jobs, where they came from and why they were here. They talked about what they enjoyed, what they were proud of. They spoke of raising children, planting gardens, cooking good food and of struggles, like getting kids to finish homework while hoping to get them in good colleges.

Rose talked about an experience with her employer, a large business that initially expressed clear discomfort at her wearing her hijab around customers. But then her employer got to know her. They realized what a good employee she was and what a fine person she is. Now her employer advocates for her right to wear what she feels is appropriate for her faith.

Saad – he did look a little intimidating – until he smiled. Then his entire face lit up. This happened several times during his presentation. Describing his parent’s journey from Pakistan to America and his excitement about being here, Saad spoke about succeeding in business, enjoying his family, being proud of his children and about his commitment to social justice. The non-profit organization that he founded called “Being There” offers free services to homeless people of all faiths and community service projects each month for Muslim young people and young adults to give back to the Charlotte area.

Ahmer arrived in this country from an area of India that had significant environmental problems. Members of his family had serious and lasting health problems from untreated waste that collected near their home and toxic air spewing from an unregulated factory across the road.

But here in the U.S., thankful for clean air and water and carefully treated waste, Ahmer gathers together concerned citizens to for interfaith environmental justice. A software engineer and savvy entrepreneur by day, his tireless advocacy, passion and organizing energy in his off hours inspires tremendous enthusiasm in those of us who know him.

Osama talked with great pride about his wife’s good work with the homeless in Charlotte and with great hope about his sons and their future in school, athletics and faith. A refugee from the civil war in Lebanon, Sam’s deep faith and personal experience compels a daily commitment to peace, justice and interfaith understanding. His excitement about life in America flows naturally from his impressive business successes here and new the opportunities he continues to find and utilize. As an author and entrepreneur, the money he earns to feed his family usually benefits others in some way, too.

Those who heard each of their stories came away with important impressions. One said to me after our session: “This was the first time that I’ve ever heard a Muslim speak. I realized I’ve only heard others speak about them. This was an amazing experience for me.”

And another: “They sounded just like my wife and me. They are dealing the same issues in many of the same ways and coming up similar conclusions. We have a lot more in common than I ever imagined!”


Their presentations were followed by questions from the audience. Several asked about particular faith issues and Islam in general. The panelists answered with responses most Americans rarely hear but need to understand.

Each panelist roundly and universally condemned terrorism. They spoke clearly and passionately about those who have “hijacked” Islam and perverted its teachings. Osama especially, was able to reference a number of verses from the Quran, saying them from memory, citing the source and then translating them from Arabic to English. He had memorized the Quran as a boy when studying in a madrassa religious school in Bierut, Lebanon.

His moderate, even progressive interpretation surprised and impressed. The Islam he shared, along with Rose, Saad and Ahmer, was one that offered compassion, commitment to the community, openness to differing opinions and passion for the very same American ideals and form of government the rest of us hold dear.

These are the stories and the perspectives many in our churches will never hear if we rely on our traditional media sources. But we can offer a valuable service to civil discourse and deepened understanding if our churches and pastors can provide other options that involve real people and their actual stories.

It is a little risky. I was a little anxious. But the outcome, learning from our Muslim neighbors, was definitely worth the trouble.


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