Thursday, June 09, 2016

Understanding ‘others’ essential in today’s world

(For The Register-Guard: June 8, 2016)

My childhood classmates came from diverse religious backgrounds. This included Farooq and Yasmeen, among others, who were Muslims. Of the teachers, I still recall Yusuf Ali, who was the machine shop instructor. Thanks to India’s diversity, and to life in an industrial setting, we Hindu kids went to school with Muslims and Christians, and even my highly religious and orthodox grandmothers did not worry about “traditional values.”

As a kid, I did not know that there were Muslims in America. When the name of a boxer, Muhammad Ali, appeared in the newspaper, The Hindu, I assumed he was one of our people who had moved to America.

In the grainy black-and-white news photographs more than four decades back, Ali easily looked like one of us — only immensely more handsome. When my brother and I fought, much to our mother’s displeasure, we sometimes imagined that we were boxing like Ali, though neither one of us knew anything about the sport.

As a fresh-off-the-boat student, I made friends for the first time ever with a student, Siddiqui, who was from India’s arch-enemy — Pakistan. Toward the end of my first year of graduate school, when I was getting introduced to life here in America, I was amused by the sight of my classmate John — a white skateboarding dude — practically worshiping a basketball player named Kareem.

Even while the mullahs of Iran were always in the political crosshairs, the Iranian-­Americans in Southern California went freely out and about — and were seemingly one of the more prosperous groups, too. In those early years of my life in America it seemed as though nothing was said or written in public that was against Islam and Muslims.

After such a healthy head start in my life in the old country and then in this adopted home, it shocks me to no end now when I hear or read virulent anti-Muslim remarks, especially from those seeking or holding elected office. The anti-Muslim rhetoric makes a mockery of the noble idea of freedom to practice religion — a freedom that has been a foundational principle of the United States.

While neither Farooq nor Yasmeen lives in the United States, I think of those old schoolmates when very serious people make yet another anti-Muslim comment. I recall how Siddiqui and I shared the foods that we made as struggling graduate students. When we know people and have developed meaningful relationships with the “other,” it becomes difficult to tolerate sweeping statements that condemn hundreds of millions of Muslims because of a minuscule minority that bombs and kills.

Muhammad Ali’s death provides us with yet another context for learning about Islam, and about Muslims in America.

Islam in America is nothing new. Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of the Quran, which provided him with more than a passing familiarity with the religion and its practices.

Researchers estimate that between 15 percent to 30 percent of slaves were Muslims. One of those was Omar Ibn Said, whose life-story has been well documented. Imagine the double whammy of being a slave who was also a Muslim, after having been raised in what is now the West African country of Senegal!

Islam’s holy month of Ramadan, which began on Sunday, is another opportunity to get to know the religion and its faithful. For a month, most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims will fast from sunrise until sunset, to remind themselves about the mortals that we humans are and about the fragility of life without food and water. This fasting alone, which humbles the rich and the poor alike, ought to trigger the curiosity of those who harbor only suspicions about the “other.”

One of the challenges in this rapidly globalizing world is for us to understand the “other.” While in centuries past it might have been easier for people to spend an entire life fully within their own respective tribes, we live in a world in which mixing of people and ideas is the norm, not the exception.

It is also clear that the momentum of globalization will not slow down — it will only pick up more speed. This requires all of us to broaden our horizons. To borrow from the late Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore’s “Where the mind is without fear” — a poem Yasmeen, Farooq and I read in school — we need to create a world of freedom that has not been broken into fragments by narrow domestic walls. It is difficult work to create such a heaven right here on Earth, but is an effort worth pursuing.

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