Six years ago, I found myself in a situation on Capitol Hill that I could hardly believe was happening.
I walked through the tunnels of the Capitol Building, passed by the Speaker’s lobby, and descended down a series of stairs to approach the room HC-5. I took my shoes off, said my salaams to the other men and women entering the room, and sat down near the front. “Allah hu akbar.” The muezzin started the call to prayer.
More people continued to enter the room. Among them were Congressional staff, officials from various federal agencies (including the Department of Defense, the State Department, and Department of Health & Human Services), and members of the press. The man that sat on my right looked a bit confused, but eager to start the prayer. The man that sat to my left looked familiar, but I could not put a name to the face. Meanwhile, the call to prayer continued. The room was almost at capacity and nearly all eyes kept turning to the man sitting to my left.
As the muezzin ended the call to prayer, the khatib took the microphone and started the brief sermon. He gave his blessings and then introduced two men. The man sitting to my left was Congressman Keith Ellison, the first American Muslim elected to Congress. The man sitting to my right was the U.S. House of Representatives Chaplain, the first Roman Catholic priest to serve in that position. After a brief introduction, the Congressman and House Chaplain sat back down next to me. I was overwhelmed with emotions. “Allah hu akbar.” Everyone stood in unison as the Friday prayer began.
That’s when it hit me.
I was standing in prayer, on Capitol Hill, surrounded by civil servants, and adjacent to America’s first Muslim Congressman and first Roman Catholic House Chaplain – I was practicing my faith with freedom, dignity, and pride.
Immediately after the prayer, I said “as-salamu ‘alaykum” (peace be upon you) to the Congressman and House Chaplain and thanked them for joining me in prayer. I was inspired by their presence and grateful for attending that prayer service. The first Roman Catholic House Chaplain attended the Friday prayer to increase interfaith dialogue, collaboration, and understanding. The first Muslim Congressman openly practiced his faith, was elected by a majority of his constituents, and took the oath of office on Thomas Jefferson’s Quran. It was a beautiful reflection of our country.
That was six years ago.
Today our country stands at a crossroad. Regressive forces within the U.S. and around the world are increasingly hard at work trying to paint a “clash of civilizations” and move us down the path of violent sectarianism, increased segregation, and extreme polarization. In light of the tragic worldwide events we endured throughout 2015, genuine interest in the American Muslim community sharply increased. For some, that interest was grounded in fear and produced anxiety. For others, that interest was out of sincere curiosity.
Being in law school while these tragic events unfolded and fielding questions about my own faith and followers of Islam was – at times – taxing. But nearly every American Muslim will tell you that they have become “accidental activists and cultural ambassadors, a walking Wikipedia and defense counsel of 1,400 years of Islamic civilization and 1.5 billion people.”
However taxing it may be at this point in time, it is vital for the truth, not the twisted rhetoric, to set the tone of the conversation. In law school, we mourn together, we heal together, and we try to understand together. In classrooms, in the cafeteria, during office hours, and at programs we hold on campus, we advance the conversation, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us.
The Dean for Diversity and Inclusion at BC Law recently invited the entire community to a play written by Pulitzer Prize Winner Ayad Akhtar called “Disgraced” at The Huntington Theater Company in Boston. “Disgraced” is about a high-powered New York lawyer, Amir, who has climbed the corporate ladder while distancing himself from his Muslim roots. When Amir and his wife Emily host a dinner party, what starts as a friendly conversation escalates, shattering their views on race, religion, and each other.
What made this play so intriguing to me was the dense nature of the characters and the ease with which they engaged in the complicated political environment. It reflected ugly stereotypes we have in this country while also reflecting some truths on how to survive.
At times, the play made the audience feel uncomfortable through provocative character submissions while expecting its audience to digest the complicated characters and storyline. As the play ended, I wanted more. But, there was no redemption. There was no apology. There was nothing. The audience was left to ponder the truth not just of the characters on stage, but the real world we encounter every day.
Maybe that was the lesson of Disgraced. That perhaps it is time for an uncomfortable personal intellectual pursuit.
I do know that it is time to elevate the conversation on campus and around the country on this crucial issue. I’m proud that my law school—BC Law—is helping us do just that. By arranging viewings and follow up discussions of programs like the show Disgraced, students, faculty, and staff can continue that process of learning through conversations.
We all need to challenge our own biases, to understand those whose lives have been shaped in part by those biases, to overcome regressive tribal impulses, and to seek greater collective enlightenment.
Despite the amplified attention the regressive, fear-mongering forces are receiving, more Americans are coming to the defense of their fellow citizens. Interfaith efforts have increased, collaborations between mosques and local law enforcement have increased, and productive scholarly discussions about the future of Islam and Muslims have been taking place at all major American Muslim organizations.
My own existence as an American and a Muslim, as well as the existence of millions of peaceful American Muslims, directly contradicts the theory of a “clash of civilizations.” As a country we are facing tough challenges, but we should not cower in fear and abandon the ideals that make our country great. We must overcome the vicious rhetoric, understand the reality and concerns of all communities, and engage with the wisdom of generations that have come before us.
One last thing: the experience I had on Capitol Hill six years ago was not from some bygone, enlightened era. The Friday prayers still continue to be held. No amount of hate, fear mongering, and political posturing is going to snap the arch of progress back to its regressive state. Because as a country, we know that we are better than that.