In the wake of a tragedy like the Ft.Hood shootings Thursday, anger, fear and the need to know why is normal. Regaining a sense of safety and a feeling of control is part of the healing process. Unfortunately, for some the emotions of the day are going to lead them to believe that because the shooter in Texas was Muslim, his motives are widely held and that other Americans who are Muslim feel the same way or might behave in a similar manner.
After 9/11 Muslims in the United States were unfairly tainted with the same ideological brush as the terrorists who wrought so much death and destruction. It was wrong to have done this, and it would be wrong to make that mistake again in the wake of Ft. Hood.
It’s easy to generalize. We do it all the time. All Democrats are bleeding heart liberals who long for a semi-socialized nanny state. All Republicans are money-grubbing religious right pawns who would sell their own children if it meant saving privatized health care and the Dow closing up an extra 500 points. But some Democrats are fiscal hawks, like my late father, and some Republicans are like my mommy blogging buddy, Jessica, who believes in health care for everyone and civil marriage for all. No one is a stereotype. When the world is sorted down to the individual, the views change and it becomes more personal.
During the uproar that followed the Danish newspapers printing of cartoons that depicted the Prophet Muhammad, I was teaching an English as a Second Language (ESL) class to a room full of immigrant high school students in Des Moines, Iowa. Probably not a place best known for ethnic diversity, Des Moines does have sizable communities of Hispanics, Bosnians, Sudanese and Southeast Asians. My class was boy-heavy that year, and most of these young men were Muslim.
I was new to the school. The students didn’t know me well enough to guess at my reactions yet. It was the last few minutes before the bell, and there was a heated discussion about the cartoons going on between two of the Muslim students and another young man who was using his lunch hour to catch up on the computers that lined the classroom. It was his belief that the depiction of The Prophet was not a big deal. Jesus was depicted after all. God was sometimes imagined in all forms of visual media.
“I read in the newspaper that in movies, this Muhammad has been pictured too, “ he said, finishing his argument.
“That’s not true,” a young man named Ravi countered and he turned to me. “They say that but it’s not true.”
Ravi was an interesting kid. Pakistani and so wanting to fit in, yet not always able to mesh the culture of his birth with the American life he found himself living. We’d had a difficult semester, he and I. The ESL teacher the previous year had been a man, and my male students were having a tough time adjusting to my female version of authority. I’d been teaching for 17 years and had never been challenged as much as I was in the few months I worked with these kids.
“The Prophet is never shown in movies,” Ravi explained to me. “His voice can be heard or it’s like that movie where God speaks from the burning bush. You know that one?”
I did and I nodded. Ravi and I rarely connected, and I wanted to hear what he had to say because I had a feeling he was going somewhere important with it.
“Are you a Christian?” he asked.
I was a cradle Catholic. Until I’d moved to Des Moines, a city that is more evangelical Christian than it looks, I’ never been asked about being Christian. Like most Catholics, I assumed that Christianity and Catholicism were the same thing.
“I was raised Catholic,” I said.
“So you know Jesus?”
“Yes, I do,” I assured him.
And he smiled. He could be such a sullen kid, but this smile lit him as though he’d discovered something wonderful. We both knew Jesus.
“Jesus was a great prophet too,” he told me. “We know about him.”
I nodded, the bell rang and Ravi left my room beaming at the connection we’d just made. I was no longer this white Christian woman who harped about punctuality and missing homework. I was someone who knew that Jesus was a prophet, just like he did.
It’s too easy to focus on the differences between cultures and religions. It’s not so easy to take a few moments, really listen, and discover the common ground.
US Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan is a Muslim. He is also an American, a soldier, a doctor and a whole lot of other things that his actions yesterday will likely overshadow forever. But he is the sum of parts, just like we all are. No one thing makes us who we are, and some of those things are shared by others and some are not.
Today, when the temptation to paint with wide brush strokes threatens to overwhelm better sense and the golden rule of do unto others that we are all taught as children, remember that there are common touchstones at the intersections where we all will find ourselves as we journey through life that matter more than the differences we too often allow center stage.