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The Muslim Next Door: The Qur'an, the Media, and That Veil Thing Excerpt from The Muslim Next Door: The Qur'an, the Media, and That Veil Thing

by Sumbul Ali-Karamali


My father tells a story of tea etiquette. In India, he says, if your host offers you tea, you must decline, because to immediately accept a cup of tea would show greed. If your host offers you tea again-as he must, if he is at all hospitable-you must decline a second time, showing your host consideration and a disinclination to be troublesome. But the third time your host offers you tea, as he will, because no host would willingly allow a guest to depart his house bereft of refreshment, then you may gratefully accept.

When my father arrived as a graduate student in California, alone and unknown, having left his new wife in India until he could save enough money to send for her-it would be two more years-many people in his university town invited him for meals or coffee. (Tea was relatively mysterious and unknown in 1960s California.) When his hosts offered him food or drink, my father declined, as is only polite. I can imagine how taken aback he must have been when his host acquiesced immediately and my father waited in vain and hungrily for another offer of food! It was difficult enough adjusting to a strange country and its customs. Like other immigrants, he had no wish to appear more different than he already did. Struggling to assimilate into a new culture, coming from a country in which his religion was in the minority, my father certainly saw no reason to start discussing Islam with his American friends and acquaintances.

When I was a child, my father told me never to discuss religion, mine or anyone else's. He himself never has, because religion, he emphasized, should be a private matter, not a public one. I remember that his hair, still black then, sprouted in vertical peaks all over his head as it always did when he had been tugging at it to facilitate his thought processes. He told me India came to house one of the largest Muslim populations in the world because the indigenous Indians saw that the new Muslim immigrants were worthy people who believed in a humane religion that treated people as equals.

So do not talk about your religion, he said. Be the most worthy person you can be and show them, he said. Show them that to be a good Muslim means to be a good person. And that is what I tried to do.

But it didn't work.

Perhaps I was not a good enough person. Or perhaps I -- and other Muslims -- were too complacent, idealistic, and enmeshed in the daily struggles of balancing Islam and our Indian-Pakistani ethnicity with the culture of an American society that had barely heard of Islam. Above all, we were too silent. We never saw the stereotypes avalanching. We never realized those stereotypes were gradually wrapping themselves around the collective Western psyche with all the insidious menace of a choker vine, until they began to routinely represent a religion so warped and grossly distorted that we could no longer recognize it as our own.

Islam is not encapsulated in the grim, glaring Newsweek photograph of Osama bin Laden. Islam is not epitomized by the deeply angry, bearded face of Ayatollah Khomeini. Islam is not apotheosized by the suicide bomber who detonates civilians.

Islam is one of many American faiths. Muslims are ordinary people who share the same monotheistic tradition as Jews and Christians. We struggle with the same daily conflicts and challenges as our non-Muslim neighbors.

But the common western perception of Islam has become a contorted, evil caricature of the real thing, like some reversed portrait of Dorian Gray, where the normal reality hides in the attic and the visible portrait becomes increasingly repulsive. Especially since the end of the Cold War, we in the United States have been bombarded with daily, unchecked, untrue, public denigration of Islam to an irresponsibly defamatory degree. The words of ill-informed fear-mongers, designed to convince us that Muslims are essentially different from the rest of humanity, are accepted by too many people as truth.

Islam is the second-largest and fastest-growing religion in the world, with somewhere between 1.3 and 1.8 billion adherents worldwide. What touches the souls of Muslims, over one-fifth of the world's population, so that they feel compelled to bow their heads to the One God, despite the dangers of hostility and ostracism?

Copyright 2008 Sumbul Ali-Karamali