As American As You Are

Visitors walk past welcome mats at the Six Flags Great Adventure Amusement Park on Muslim Youth Day.
Visitors walk past welcome mats at the Six Flags Great Adventure Amusement Park on Muslim Youth Day. (Lynsey Addario - Lynsey Addario -- Corbis)
By Mohja Kahf
Sunday, July 22, 2007


A certain Middle Eastern religion is much maligned in this country. Full of veils and mystery, it is widely seen as sexist. Often violent, sometimes manipulated by demagogues, it yet has sweetness at the core, and many people are turning to it in their search for meaning.

I'm talking about Christianity.

This Muslim squirms whenever secular friends -- tolerant toward believers in Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and Native American spirituality -- dismiss Christians with snorts of contempt. "It's because the Christian right wants to take over this country," they protest.

That may be, but it doesn't justify trashing the religion and its spectrum of believers. Christianity has inspired Americans to the politics of abolition and civil rights, as well as to heinous acts. Christian values have motivated the Ku Klux Klan to burn houses, and Jimmy Carter to build them. You can't say that when Christianity informs politics, only bad things happen.

This may strike you as odd coming from a Muslim. But, my dears, it's true: People of faith do not signify the apocalypse for democracy. And (here comes the Muslim agenda) that goes for believing Muslims as much as for other religious folk. Muslims, in a very specific way, are not strangers in your midst. We are kin. Not just kin in the lovely way that all humans are. We carry pieces of your family story.

I got a phone call one evening from a friend who is a lovable gossip in my home town. "Have you read today's paper?" she wanted to know. A letter-writing curmudgeon had mouthed off about how U.S. Muslims ought to be expelled, as worthless, dangerous and un-American. "What are we going to do?" she said. We'd worked together on non-pork lunch options for our kids in school -- we share that dietary law, as she's Jewish.

Anyhow. I invited the letter-writer to coffee. Walter declined, but we started writing to each other, his letters bearing a Purple Heart address label; he had been wounded in World War II. Walter was the crotchety, racist American great-uncle I never had. I sent him family photos, as you do to even an ornery relative; he replied that he guessed I was Syria's loss, America's gain.

"Huh?" I said.

"Why, you're a Syrian beauty queen," the old charmer said.

One day, I found a plastic baggie of asparagus tied to my doorknob. Mystified by this American vegetable, not one I cooked in my heritage cuisine, I brought it in -- then noticed, sticking to it, the little address label with the Purple Heart. "Sauté in butter," Walter advised. He made me promise to come to the cemetery on Veteran's Day; I did.

A year later, I get a knock at my door. It's Walter. "La ilaha illa allah!" he says, before "hello." "You and I worship the same God. I know that now." He limps into my living room, and we finally sit down to coffee.

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