Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Meet Your Friendly Neighborhood.....


I couldn't believe this when I saw it in the St Paul Community Ed Winter Class Schedule. The best was the last line: "Participants will be able to meet with a local Muslim family."

After I stopped laughing (I mean, after all, when is this going to stop? ...meet your friendly neighborhood Jew? Come one come all and see the bearded Sikh? If so, I could make oodles of money renting out my less honky-tonky friends...), I realized that I kept going back to this class description, wondering what on earth it would be about. After I poked all the fun I could at it (joking that I would show up with pigs-n-a-blanket to share...and then act all offended...), I thought, hey, if something draws my curiousity and attention (and ridicule) so much, why not just GO?

So, on Tuesday night, I did. There was no Muslim family (bummer) but there was a very nice man from the Somali community, with a great power point presentation. I was a bit surprised, as the advertisement didn't say it would have a Somali focus, but given the demographics of Minnesota, it made sense. I was slightly disappointed, but the nation of Islam is quite diverse after all...

I wondered...who would GO to things like these? Who couldn't make their own Muslim friends? Turns out, there were seven other people there - mostly teachers, interested in learning more about Islam for their students' sake. There was also a mid-fifties couple there - a belligerant guy who had read too much about Muslims in Time magazine ("yeah, don't you all believe in 1,000 vestal virgins?") and a woman, who confessed to me that she liked cemetaries.


On the whole, it was a very good presentation. I consider myself a pretty culturally aware person, and I pay attention. (It helps that one of my best friends is a Bosnian Muslim - hope you're enjoying your tonkatsu, Emira!) That said, I feel I learned a few things.

For example:
  • There are 1.5 billion (billion!) Muslims in the world. That's about 1/6th of the global population. Wow!
  • Arab Muslims only make up 18% of that population.
  • There are 7 million American Muslims - the largest group of American Muslims come from South Asia (Pakistan/India/Bangladesh). Note: America is allied with all of these countries.
  • The root of the word "Islam" is "silm", which means "peace." This is where the words "salaam" (hello) and "Muslim" (one who surrenders to God" derive.
  • You know how Muslims need to face east (Mecca) when they pray five times a day? They are actually facing the Ka'bah, a stone structure whose sole purpose is to symbolize the direction you're supposed to pray. I always thought they were praying towards a mosque or something...
  • Some Muslims are uncomfortable around dogs because Muhammed said the saliva from dogs is severely unclean.

All in all, it wasn't a total waste of an evening, but I can't say it was worth $5. I still can't shake the feeling that it is a bit strange - after all, why Muslims? Shouldn't we, as a pluralistic society be learning about all faiths? No wonder non-Christians dislike Christians so much - we make others explain themselves to us, rather than the other way around (withOUT trying to convert them). I don't think Christian Americans (especially caucasian ones) always realize how mainstream their believes are - how white-washed Christian this nation really is - and offputting it can be, however innocuous, to those who don't fit in to that mold.

On a side - but related - note, I watched a really awesome movie this past weekend called "Murderball". It's all about the US Para-Olympic Quadrapalegic Rugby team. They're just regular jocks, but in wheelchairs. The movie moved me, because it shows the guys just being...guys. They don't fit into the "norm" and get treated differently by well-meaning idiots (one guy told a story where his girls aunt said - "I heard you were going to the Special Olympics, good job!" His comment: "In her eyes, I just went from quad to retard in 4 seconds..!") It is a terrific movie.

I couldn't help but compare the teacher's lecture to my life in Japan, when I was the "other" making presentations to school kids about "America". I constantly stuck out, having to justifying my existence. It's tough - and I found very few Japanese reached out to me in a non-fetishitic (as in "oo let's have an American friend!") kind of way. Sticking out of the norm takes courage, guts and it is very easy to become a cynic. This only makes me love those who's differences haven't managed to make them sour on honky-tonks like myself, even more. :) (You know who you are...)

So, my prior experience, coupled with the movie, coupled with this lecture Tuesday evening has kept my heart full while my mind has been busy with work this week. I haven't had time to digest it all, but the more I think about it, the less afraid I am to be different, and yoke myself to someone who is also different. In the end, those who want will still see us as retards, even when we're Olympic Gold Medalists. Only I need to know the difference.

M is for Muslim;



Nate said...

The more you know about something, the less you're afraid of it, I think.

I agree that the premise is silly, but the effect hopefully made a few people less susceptible to the fear-mongering of "Islamofacism" and "Islamists" that I hear all the damn time.

A book I'd recommend, and that I think more people should read, is Reza Aslan's "No God But God." I knew only a little about Islam before reading this, and it was a breath of fresh air.

andria said...

Oh I love the Midwest. It's not that we don't try to understand other cultures, it's that it just comes off so... awkwardly. Kudos for going and learning, learning rules!

Also, your point about the way you felt when you lived in Japan-- not that I live in another country, but a co-worker asked me the other day what it's like being the white girl in Smith Hill, "Do you feel like people stare at you and treat you differently?" she asked. I love being the other.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mtanga,

I recommend you to check the site www.theinimitablequran.com . It explains why Muslims believe in the Quran. It is run by Hamza Tzortzis, a Greek convert to Islam.

Kind Regards