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July 16, 2015

Eid letter to a Muslim mother: Reflections on friendship and faith

Religion Parenting
Muslim mother and child File Art /for PhillyVoice

Tomorrow is Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the conclusion of Ramadan. I look at you and imagine your upcoming celebrations at the mosque and in the graduate school housing down the road.

“It is God who has produced you all

from a single self;

so here is an abode, and a lodging.

We have defined the signs

for a people who understand.”

-The Quran 6:98

You sit on the wooden park bench closest to the playground slide. A baby boy rests in your arms. He holds your stylish sunglasses, finding they make a satisfying teething toy.

A game of tag ensues around you. Children race up the platform and shout joyfully as they zoom down the slide, landing near your feet. I notice your gentle presence, your oasis of calm. I also note your attire. Wearing a long skirt, a long-sleeved blouse and hijab -- a headscarf -- you stand out in the crowd.

Children continue to play. Parents stand watch, share stories and routinely check their cellphones. My husband pushes our 3-and-a-half-year-old son in a nearby swing. They laugh.

I decide to walk over to you and say hello.

“Hi, my name is Amy,” I say with a smile. I admire your happy, drooling son. “How old is he?”

“Five months,” you answer. You look up at me. Your eyes are friendly, warm and bright. “My name is Fatimah.”

“May I sit down?” I ask.

“Of course,” you reply. Then you warn me, “My English is not so good.”

Over the next 20 minutes, I discover you have a fine command of your third language. We easily dive into a conversation about our children, the local mosque, the near ending of the month of Ramadan and living abroad.

“Where are you from?” I inquire at one point.

“Iraq. Baghdad.”

We look at each other for a moment. You wonder if I still want to reach out in friendship. I wonder what hell your eyes have seen and your heart has known. The conversation shifts to government corruption, life during war, ISIS and the profound hunger you have for security.

“I’ve never been to Iraq,” I tell you. “The closest I’ve been is Iran.”

“You traveled to Iran?” you ask with surprise.

I describe how I teach comparative religion and philosophy. I’ve traveled, studied and lived abroad in Jerusalem, Egypt, Turkey and Iran. We discover a shared connection to scholarship and travel. You describe how you are in the States for a few years with your husband as he finishes his Ph.D. in agriculture. The Iraqi government funded his program as an investment in the future health and development of your country post-war.

“When my husband completes his studies, we return to Baghdad.” You look at your son as you say these words. I wonder what the future will hold for your family.

“What has it been like making friends here?” I inquire.

You tell me that it’s hard. All of the friends you’ve made thus far are from the mosque. A circle of fellow immigrants has embraced you. While you are grateful to make new friends from Iran, Lebanon and Turkey, it has been difficult to make meaningful connections with non-Muslim-Americans. This saddens you.

“When I say I’m from Iraq, things change,” you reply, looking at me. “They think I am a terrorist.”

We sit quietly for a moment.

I watch my son and husband play. I remember a story Clark, my husband, relayed to me just two days ago.

“Well, that was frustrating,” Clark stated, coming in the front door. He proceeded to describe a tense discussion he had just had with our next-door neighbor, an eccentric and rather crass man in his 60s.

At one point, their conversation shifted to the young Egyptian family who recently purchased a home in our neighborhood. “I don’t want those people living next to me,” our neighbor told Clark with disdain. “Look, I openly admit it. I’m a bigot.”

“How to respond to a statement like that?” Clark wondered aloud. “I have no idea if anything I said changed his mind.”

According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted last summer, 41 percent of Americans view Muslims in a negative light. Respondents to the poll were asked to imagine a thermometer and rank religious groups in accordance to how warmly or coldly they perceived them. For example, if one felt “as warm as possible” toward a particular group, the ranking of 100 was applied. Forty-one percent of Americans placed Muslims in the “coldest part” of the “feeling thermometer” at 33 or below.

This negative perception directly correlated to both the age of participants and whether or not participants knew a Muslim personally. For example, younger Americans tended to rank atheists and non-Christian groups more favorably. The 38 percent of respondents who reported knowing a Muslim personally ranked Muslims more warmly than those who held negative views of the religious group and didn’t know any Muslims.

“Knowing someone from a religious group is linked with having relatively more positive views of that group,” concluded the Pew Research Center’s report entitled “How Americans Feel about Religious Groups.”

Yes, knowing someone from a disliked group can aid an individual in opening her mind and heart to the complexity, reality and humanity of the group in question. Consider the many films, books and stories reflecting the dismantling of prejudice through friendship and the discovery of a shared humanity. Wisdom traditions around the world highlight our common origin. “It is God who has produced you all from a single self,” teaches the Quran.

My attention shifts back to the present moment. Tomorrow is Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the conclusion of Ramadan. I look at you and imagine your upcoming celebrations at the mosque and in the graduate school housing down the road.

I look at you and see the reflection of dear friends. Mehnaz, Durriyah, Reem and Karima -- names of women who have profoundly shaped my life for the good. Through decadelong friendships, I’ve come to experience the wide diversity of Islam in America. From a Sufi poet who, over a glass of wine, tried to convince me to convert and go to Mecca with her, to my strictly observant friend who only listens to music if drums are the sole accompanying instrument -- I’ve learned so much. I have laughed, prayed, cried and shared countless stories with these women. From Eid celebrations to accepted invitations to speak to my Islamic studies students, I treasure the memories shared.

While I’ve presented at least a hundred lectures on the basics of the five pillars and Islamic theology, what interests me most about the study of religion are the nuances, struggles and wonders of each individual adherent’s story. After all, the human heart makes religion meaningful in the first place. The world’s holy books, places and stories mean very little without the human spirit that breathes life into them.

I wonder what Eid will be like for you this year. For I know the joy and challenge of celebrating traditions and rituals far from home. For a year, Clark and I lived in Bogota, Colombia, where, as a new mom, I taught ethics and philosophy at a bilingual school. Like you, I have held a 5-month-old and struggled to navigate a new culture, language and life abroad.

“Would you like to meet again, Fatimah?” I ask.

You nod with a smile. I watch you carefully repeat each numeral as you enter my number into your phone. I remember doing the same with Spanish numerals in Colombia. I look at you and see myself.

“It’s been good to talk,” you state, shifting your little one on your lap. “Call me.”

“I will, and Eid Mubarak to you and your family,” I reply. Eid Mubarak -- may your holiday be blessed.

“Yes, Eid Mubarak.”

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