This Saturday, the street was packed with cars. There was no more on-street parking, so teenagers, clad in blue t-shirts directed the cars to off-street parking at the high school. Blue lights flashed from the police cruisers as the officers directed the through traffic around the crowd. Something big was happening.
As it turns out the mosque in our neighborhood was inaugurating their new sanctuary. The mosque has been opened for three years, but apparently, the center could not be an official house of prayer until it had been visited and blessed by the head of their religion. For the last three years, the members of the mosque had been conducting worship services in the dining hall. Today the Dai al-Mutlaq, their spiritual leader, would bless their mosque and the entire mosque would finally be open to the membership. The celebration would last all weekend and the mood of the worshipers was high. Imagine if the Pope were visiting one of the local Catholic Churches. That is the level of excitement that was present Saturday morning. The worshipers were filled with laughter and good feelings. The families greeted each other with warmth and laughter. Everyone was dressed in their finest – the men in crisp, white prayer outfits, their heads topped with ornate Taqiyah’s; the women in colorful and ornate hijabs. It reminded me of Easter Sunday…well, almost.
As I drove through and around my Muslim neighbors, I began to notice an odd feeling. I was resentful. I found myself disliking the white prayer robes and embroidered prayer caps that the men wore. I felt animus toward their long beards. I looked at the women in their colorful hijabs and was offended. If that wasn’t bad enough, I also began to feel fear.
A woman jogged by, dressed in compression shorts and a running bra, a stark contrast to the Muslim women who were covered from head to toe. I began to wonder if the jogger was offensive to them. No. That’s not exactly right. What I wondered was if their offense meant that a culture-war was looming on the horizon; was my neighborhood going to be the battleground? The prospect made me angry.
My thoughts seemed, to me, irrational. That was when it hit me: Joseph, you are prejudiced. I didn’t like the realization. I didn’t like the feeling of disliking people for no better reasons than the way they were dressed and their religion. I felt ashamed. I felt dirty. I had to check myself.
I also knew from where my bigotry sprang. I have met Muslims, but I don’t believe I actually know any people of the Muslim faith. All I know of Muslims is what I see on the news and read in the paper. Unfortunately, the media is filled with stories and images of religious practitioners who are violent, intolerant, and irrational. The Muslims I meet through the news are blowing themselves up, murdering children, and mutilating women. What I know of American Muslims is that they seem bent on transforming America into their image of a Sharia paradise.
As a Black man, living in America, I have felt the sting of prejudice, of people doing exactly what I was doing: driving down the street and being fearful and/or resentful of me because the only thing they know about Black people is what they see while watching episodes of The First 48. How many times in my life have I walked down the street and had white people cross to the other side of the street, or lock their car doors as I passed? How many times have I shopped and been followed around by sales people suspicious that I might steal? How often have strangers made assumptions about me merely because I am Black? How many times have I been stopped by police officers simply because, as one officer put it, (referring to my color), “I was wearing the wrong coat.”
Perhaps, the picture that I am being fed by media is incomplete. I complain about media bias against other groups: Blacks and Conservatives…Black Conservatives. Why would media representations of Muslims be any more fair?
I knew nothing about the men and women who flocked to celebrate the dedication of their place of worship. I don’t know where they work. I don’t know their senses of humor, I don’t know their politics. Other than the fact that they are Muslim, I have no information on which to base any of my feelings.
As is turns out, the worshipers attending Saturday’s celebration are members of the Dawoodi Bohra sect of Muslims, which is based in Mumbai India. Two generations ago, the Dawoodi began immigrating to America with the charge to be loyal to their new countries and to spread peace and harmony. The Dawoodi number about one million members world – wide and are known for their religious tolerance. In fact, during the blessing, the Dai al-Mutlaq urged those in attendance to be loyal and engaged American citizens. Oh, and the Dawoodi are Shia, which means they are brothers to the Muslims currently being slaughtered by Isis in the Middle-East.
Prejudice is a poison that can infect a body and make it sick – make the mind sick. The antidote is as simple as a bit of human interaction. Take a moment to talk to people, find out who they really are and what they really believe. It turns out that getting to know a bit about people who live in one’s neighborhood isn’t so difficult and even easier if you use the internet.
This mosque is the Dawoodi’s first mosque in the Los Angeles area. Congratulations! Welcome to the neighborhood.