It’s a beautiful, sunny and crisp fall day. My twin daughters and I are meeting two of my friends and their girls at a local farm for a hay ride, corn maze and whatever else the farm offers. My girls and I arrive first. They jump out of the minivan and run to the entrance.
We decide to wait for our friends inside. I pay, we enter and then I notice something very odd. I am the lone visible Muslim (I wear a Hijab) in an otherwise orthodox Jewish crowd. Needless to say, I stand out and am drawing some attention. My girls, however, run off to play in an enormous tractor tire filled with dried corn.
Finally, after what seems like a very long time, our friends arrive. One of my friends is Jewish and she has a big smile on her face as she approaches. As it turns out, the farm is having a fundraiser for a local synagogue. She whispers to me that she really dislikes this synagogue because they are “militant and hate everybody”. “Me, for instance?” I ask. “You in particular,” she replies. “So, I am probably not welcome here?” “I suspect not at all!”
She begins a small, quiet tirade about this group’s reputation for widespread intolerance. She confesses that it pleases her tremendously that my presence is likely to disturb their otherwise beautiful day. I look to our other friend, who is a Catholic, and gauge her opinion on the situation and whether it is prudent to stay. She says: “Don’t ask me; I don’t know anything about this stuff.” Before the adults decide what to do, our four girls run by us, screaming and holding hands – they are heading straight towards the unsuspecting sheep. Issue resolved. We are clearly staying.
We proceed to follow our girls around the farm from one activity to the next. To my surprise, I find myself engaging in typical, friendly conversation with the other parents. It occurs to me once again – I must stop confusing liberal with tolerant.
In fact, my friends, who embraced my conversion to Islam the most, are my practicing Catholic friends – the very ones, whom I was most reluctant to tell. They were simply happy for me that I had found spirituality and God.
By contrast, many of my friends and colleagues, who I thought would be fairly indifferent to my conversion, actually had some strong, negative opinions on the matter. At the time, I was working in a research university on the East Coast – very liberal, very progressive and, oh yes as it turns out, selectively intolerant. I recall that it was completely inappropriate to belittle anyone, except for three special categories: republicans, ‘hicks’ (country folk) and religious people.
I remember a comment my boss made to me, when I had complained about a computer programme that our team used. “Stop your Jihad against WordPerfect!” he warned me. Legally actionable – I doubt it. Poor taste – unquestionably.
Of course, I would be as narrow-minded as those whom I accuse of narrow-mindedness, if I made a sweeping statement that all liberals are intolerant of religion. I do know self-described liberals, who are not openly hostile to religion, and even a few, who are devout. But my anecdotal, unscientific observations have led me to the conclusion that liberal and tolerant are not synonyms, and I should never assume that a person’s political and social bent will predict his or her outlook on Islam or Muslims.
What perplexes me still, though, is how my belief in Allah (swt) I actually engender disdain in so many people, a significant portion of whom are the champions of the oppressed and disenfranchised. I want to tell them: “Forget about protecting freedom of speech, if you suffocate freedom of thought.”
My experience in this regard has also revealed to me that I suffer from the same narrow-mindedness. I should have known not to ‘judge a book by its cover’ or, in this case, a man by his side locks.
I remind myself of the perfect words of Allah I: “O mankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another.” (Al-Hujurat 49:13) My friend turns to me and says: “You’re like a peacemaker, making friends everywhere you go. That’s what we need to end this craziness – one person talking to another person, one on one. It should be as simple as that.” If only it were – if only it could be.