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The Cost of Intolerance

August 3, 2011

Monday was the start of Ramadan*, the month of fasting for observant Muslims. I won’t lie – this can be a difficult time of year. But I also know what to expect now. My first experience with Ramadan was interesting, but I’m glad I’m a more seasoned gora these days. As a non-Muslim, I don’t fast, but living with one who does can come with its own set of interesting experiences.

Apart from that though, recently an old topic has come back into the news, although not with near the media attention it did before. Maybe I’m just noticing it more, since it was first in the news last Ramadan. It seems that plans for Park51 are moving forward at a good rate. Park51 is the name of the interfaith center that was dubbed the Ground Zero Mosque last year. Never mind that it isn’t actually at Ground Zero, and is a lot more than a mosque. At the time, it was the source of much frustration on my part, not least of which because it really showcased how little people understand Islam, but also because it showcased how much people like to talk of freedom, without any real grasp on what that means. The truth is I grow more and more impassioned about interfaith relations as time goes on, probably because I fall more and more in love with a man who doesn’t share the same faith as me.

Last year, it just so happened that the last day of Ramadan, Eid ul Fitr, was on the eve of September 11th. This was at the height of the circus surrounding Park51. Eid ul Fitr is celebrated with a big dinner and last year was no exception for our family. My husband and I went to dinner with a host of our friends at a special restaurant in New Jersey. We didn’t know it at the time, but it would be our last Eid and our last 9/11 as residents of NYC. Sitting at our table eating a huge buffet together were three Muslims, one Christian, one Sikh, two Zoroastrians, and two Hindus. Five separate religions represented at one table, brought together because of a Muslim holiday.

As dinner wound down, our conversation made its way to the dominant topic those days, particularly when Muslims were present – Park51. Two of the Muslims at the table, including my husband, were of the same mind. The center should move; it should not be built there. Of course, we know now that it won’t be moving, but at the time they felt that keeping it there would do nothing to help the Islamic cause and that it would, in fact, harm the reputation of Muslims in the U.S if the center stayed. My husband went one step further. He believed very strongly that Islam is a religion of peace and he feels that Muslims should accept peacefully the will of the majority of non-Muslim Americans, in order to prove that Muslims in general are peaceful and seek peace from others.

He had a point, but I don’t agree with him ultimately. As a social liberal and a woman married to a practicing Muslim I have a vested interest in seeing that those who seek to fuel the fear and hatred of Muslims do not get to call the shots in this country. For me the issue of whether or not an Islamic cultural center or even a mosque is built near Ground Zero is no less than an issue about the very reason this country was established.

When Baba and I decided to get married many people asked the question “What about the children?!” At times it felt quite insulting, to be honest. The implication was that we hadn’t thought through all the issues and it would blow up in our faces. I remember one person in particular telling me that it was absolutely impossible, even inconceivable, that two individuals who didn’t share exactly the same faith would work out. Ever. (I feel I could successfully argue that there are as many religions as people on the planet, since I’ve yet to meet two people who agree on everything, but whatever.) All because of the children! Won’t someone think of the children?!

We’d doomed these currently fictional souls to moral confusion and spiritual ambiguity and they would go to hell along with my husband. How could I even think to take a husband who wouldn’t be joining me in the afterlife? Even more upsetting to me was that I knew the answer to all these questions and generally didn’t like to give it to the ones asking. Usually, they were the ones who would least like the answer. Baba and I had discussed this and it’s complicated, but we know what we are going to do for the most part, (as much as any two people, not yet actually parents, know these kinds of things). I agreed that they will go to the mosque with their father and learn about and practice Islam with him. Indeed, I’m going to encourage their learning. That’s not to say they won’t learn about Christianity, and that’s not to say I’m not allowed to take them to church if I wish. Like I said, it’s complicated, but we both feel comfortable with the decisions we’ve made in this regard. And as many of you know, I have my issues with Christianity, Pauline Christianity in particular. Suffice to say, that it is entirely possible that my children will be Muslim not only by birth**, but by faith and I intend to do nothing but encourage their spiritual choices and their spiritual journey. This is the kind of statement that a childless woman can make easily, of course, and no one is perfect, but that’s the plan.

When my husband walks down the street there is no visible sign that he is a Muslim. No label attached to his suit, no special clothing he wears. Most Americans are uneducated enough that they don’t immediately identify his religion by his name*** – something Indians have learned since they were children. He’s fine with that, of course. Why wouldn’t he be? Often, when people do know they start to treat him differently, even if it’s just to be shocked that he seems so “Western” and “nice”. I myself get treated different when it’s revealed that my husband is Muslim. They assume I’ve converted and that he beats me – because, for some reason, the two are synonymous. I can see it in their faces, and it makes me so angry I want to start beating them. Not everyone reacts to our news like that of course, but the awkward pause happens often enough that I get knots in my stomach when I have to mention it.  I don’t want my daughter to feel like this. I don’t want my son to feel like my husband. And the only way to ensure their hypothetical happiness in this regard is to fight back against xenophobes and Islamophobes. How can I be sure that the choice they make is even their own, when so many others hate Islam for no other reason than ignorance, whether it be Western ignorance or the terrorists’ ignorance? I want my children to make their spiritual decisions based on their own religious views, the desires of their heart, and no one else’s. Even more than that, I want them to feel that the decision to keep practicing Islam, should they choose that, is not something they should fear. I want to know that if they do choose something other than Islam it’s not because of fear, either. If the current atmosphere remains, their choice and their lives, one way or the other, will be determined in some part by this religious discrimination. I want my children to reap the benefits of those of us fighting against this religious intolerance. A choice made out of fear is no choice at all.

I don’t want to concede even one inch of this fight for tolerance. I’m glad that Park51 isn’t moving. I’m also happy that it is finally getting some good press, these days. Perhaps, I am wrong and my husband is right that giving in can be part of winning. But where do we draw the line next? How far away from Ground Zero is far enough? Who decides that? What next will be considered “hallowed ground”, off limits to certain people? And how long do we have to wait for true religious freedom in a country that claims religious freedom is one of the most important founding principles? Being committed to religious freedom is a lot easier when you’ve tasted the bitter truth of what it means to be in a minority religion. But privilege has rotted many of us of our sense of what this freedom actually means.

After dinner that night, as we made our way back to the city, we had sweeping views of lower Manhattan. As usual for the days leading up to September 11th, two bright towers of light coming from Ground Zero hit the clouds above them and reminded me of what intolerance has cost this country so far. I imagined the motley crew of nine very different people eating together. We are friends because we see each other as friends, and not as “others”. It’s as simple as that. I hope that image is my children’s and this country’s future. And I’m willing to fight for that.

To those who are interested, Park51 is currently accepting donations. Please read up on them here.

*For readers unfamiliar with Islam, Ramadan is the month of fasting for Muslims worldwide. They must not eat or even drink water from sun up to sun down. The dates change yearly, because the Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar, and so it moves backwards 12 days each year. Ramadan in January is easier than Ramadan in August, as it will be this year. Eid ul Fitr is the celebration the day after Ramadan ends. It is one of the two largest Islamic holidays. Eid ul Adha is the other, more festive one.

** In Islam, conventionally speaking, whatever the religion of the father, the children are assumed to be that religion until they can speak for themselves. It’s one of the reasons that, traditionally, Muslim men can marry Christians and Jews, but Muslim women can’t.

***I’m continually surprised by this, because his last name is actually a very well-known Arab word. One we know and use quite a bit. However, there are two accepted pronunciations for this word, and his name is the lesser used pronunciation by the media. I suppose that’s why people don’t get the association right away.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 4, 2011 4:12 am

    Great post, Starling. Being married to a Muslim, and living in New York certainly gives you a fascinating perspective. “I want my children to reap the benefits of those of us fighting against this religious intolerance. A choice made out of fear is no choice at all.” Beautifully put. I can understand, and share, your frustrations about the resistance to park51. I’ve been following it all from here in Melbourne, and have been seeing a similar level of near-hysteria about ‘asylum seekers’ on our shores (a xenophobia amplified by certain media organisations with Right leanings and much to gain from toxic fear-mongering). People running from intolerable persecution = a threat to Aussie values and borders. How can people talk about rights and freedoms with a total disconnect from compassion and shared humanity?
    I’m looking forward to your next posts.

  2. August 4, 2011 8:50 am

    Thanks, Laura.

  3. August 4, 2011 10:03 am

    I have personal issues with the word “intolerance” because of certain connotations, but I agree with much of what you’ve expressed here.

    From this side of the . . . whatever. . . I can say that I get extremely frustrated with Christians who complain about the way Christians are treated (and I can agree with more and more of that–not the point), but then go and do likewise. Many Christians (who often get labeled as Right-wingers), and many Right-wingers (who often get labeled as Christians), throw out as much vitriol as they get. Just one more of those things that makes it harder and harder to be a Christian in this culture. I feel that I’m being misrepresented quite often.

    I don’t think we can all just get along. I do think there are often fundamental things that we will disagree on. But what I love about your example about you and your friends at that table was that you were just people, hanging out together. You weren’t those different religions that night, you were just people. That’s our common bond, whatever we believe. Many in this country see people who are Other, and then group and stereotype them so they can deal with the Other-ness. Like, ‘I don’t understand or know you, so I’ll put you in this nice little box so I can go on with my life.’ Yes, I may disagree with you on a lot of things–maybe everything! But you’re still a person, and, especially as a Christian, I should be able to see YOU and recognize your value and worth, even if I disagree with everything you say and do. I also think, especially as a Christian, that I shouldn’t bitch and moan about how much you’re stepping on my freedoms (even if you actually are).

    I personally won’t be donating to Park51, but I’ve long thought the hullabaloo was just ridiculous and insulting.

    • August 4, 2011 12:44 pm

      Amy, your comment really solidified my decision to post the video I just posted. Thanks!
      The common bond – humanity and the human experience – can’t be underestimated, and it’s, I think, very uncomfortable to acknowledge for so many reasons that are not limited to hate or fear. Ego, as well. We like to think our experiences make us special. The truth is we have so very much in common that it shocks me at times.
      Fear, love, understanding – these are all choices. We choose fear, we choose love, we choose to explore or not to. We even choose anger. We don’t like to think about it like that, but it’s true.
      I have a theory. I think the main reason most people don’t wish to know or explore or understand others is not because they think the others are wrong, but because they are afraid they will discover that they themselves are wrong. They worry that their faith will be challenged and that is scary. Hella scary. I know. But once you’ve explored, you can understand your own faith so much better and then it becomes unshakeable faith. There isn’t the sense of loss that so many people fear. I think it is the fear of losing something that makes people choose ignorance.
      It’s weird, but I think that being in an interfaith relationship has actually done more to push me in my spiritual journey towards Christ, than the opposite. I would like to clarify, though, I said Christ and not the dogma commonly associated with Christianity.

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