Monday, April 11, 2011

"They've failed themselves."

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Prior to moving to Virginia to take up studies here at EMU, I was an information technology (IT) worker, or a “computer guy” to the layperson. My last full-time job in the IT world was as Manager of Software Quality Assurance at a health information management systems company in West Des Moines, Iowa. The IT world is a marvelously diverse one in a number of ways, which is particularly apparent in the vastly white state of Iowa, and my last employer was no exception. Amidst the numerous and wonderful working relationships I had with people from cultural upbringings far different than my own, one in particular stands out: my relationship with Mohamed.

Through circumstances whose details escape me now, Mohamed's and my working relationship eventually came to a place where our faith commitments – his Muslim, mine Christian – somehow naturally came up in conversation at the office. He and I both were in supervisory positions in different departments whose collective work brought us together for business, and it was around the edges of these meetings where our deeper conversations began to form. This prompted us to begin having periodic lunches together at a nearby Mexican restaurant, wherein we would gather over chips and salsa and the “Speedy Gonzales” lunch dish to further discuss our faith journeys and the challenges to people of faith in our secular age. In our talks, Mohamed would wisely point out that he was not the representative for all Muslims everywhere for all times, but simply one representative among many in a long tradition. So read on to learn more about my friend, Mohamed, and were his life as a Muslim in America has taken him...

Mohamed was born in the 1970s to parents who were Palestinian refugees living in Kuwait. As a young couple, his parents had lived in a Palestinian village in what he describes as relative peace and harmony – in spite of British occupation – with neighbors both Jewish and Christian. That changed, however, after Israel secured its statehood in 1948. In the conflicts that followed, Mohamed's parents moved to Gaza City and in 1956 were compelled to leave their homeland for Kuwait, where Mohamed was later born. Mohamed describes his parents as having a somewhat nominal Islamic faith at the time, and in Kuwait the children's education in the public school system was emphasized as much or more than their family's Islamic faith. In fact, even while still living in Palestine, Mohamed reports that his parents and their neighbors thought of themselves as “Palestinians first.” In his childhood in predominantly-Muslim Kuwait, Mohamed reports that the only Christian with whom he had a significant bond was his family's nanny, an immigrant from India. Though she left the family's employ when Mohamed was only five years old, he remembers her fondly as a “loving mother,” since his own mother was working outside the home.

In 1989, after having graduated the year before from public high school, Mohamed moved to the United States to begin his college education in computer science. At the suggestion of his older brother, he eventually landed at Dakota State University in Madison, SD. Despite being near his brother who was studying at SDSU, moving to the States was a massive culture shock to Mohamed, who describes wrestling with an identity crisis further compounded by the first Gulf War in 1990 and '91. This war solidified a sense within Mohamed that there was no going back to Kuwait after graduation. On a lighter note, it was at Dakota State that Mohamed met his future wife, a European-American from the Midwest, and a Christian at that. It was through this developing friendship and love that Mohamed began to see more clearly the differences between two groups of friends he hung out with: the “Bible study crowd” and the typical college “party crowd.” As he began to see the former group as more trustworthy, this injected a new dimension to his identity crisis: “Am I American or Middle Eastern or Muslim?”

After graduation Mohamed got a job in Des Moines in February of 1993 and was married the following month to his college sweetheart. That same year, Mohamed's parents moved to Des Moines. They were initially very unhappy about Mohamed's decision to marry an American Christian woman, but Mohamed stood firm in his decision and describes the family dynamics as having improved since then but still being a challenge at times. Mohamed and his wife are now in the process of raising three children, the oldest being a young lady of twelve.

It was decided beforehand that their children would be raised in the Islamic faith, but at the time, Mohamed wasn't exactly sure what that might look like. He and his wife were still somewhat nominally faithful to their respective traditions. But about six years ago, something started to change in their family: Mohamed's wife began taking her Christian faith more seriously. Through a Bible study group, she became convinced that being a Christian involved much more than she had previously thought, especially in the ethical dimension. In response to this, Mohamed began to have similar questions about his own faith. He felt a sense of challenge being issued from his wife's religious development.

Mohamed and I began our talks about seven years after this “religious turn” in their marriage. In the midst of our talks, he went on the hajj – the pilgrimage to Mecca – for the first time in December, 2007. Typically having only a mustache and short hair atop his balding head, I remember Mohamed coming back from Mecca with a shaved head and a full beard, making jokes about getting through airport security. At our lunch chat following his return, I was able to start detecting distinctions between Islamic traditions based on Mohamed's own accounts of the trip. Far from a monolithic “religion,” Islam has a long and internally conflictual tradition and is a polyphonic expression still today. Muslims on the hajj in Mecca come from many different places and perspectives in addition to the broad Sunni tradition from which Mohamed practices. In his recounting the experience of circumambulating the kaaba – the stone cube in the heart of Mecca and the most holy site in Islam – he spoke skeptically of those Muslims who would touch the large stone and attribute to it talismanic power. This, to the Sunni tradition, is idolatry, the very idolatry Sunni's believe that Allah's prophet, Muhammad, came to eradicate. Even still, the order for peace in the holy city calms even these tense divisions.

When Mohamed and I talked recently on the phone, I took a line of questioning that attempted to get at what he wished Christians would know about his faith. Initially, his response was an insistence that people not allow the popular media to form attitudes and beliefs about Islam or Muslims. He appreciates people who ask questions and not simply assume, and in fact would love people to ask more questions. After discussing this for a few minutes, I asked Mohamed: If I had used the word “American” instead of “Christian” in asking my question, would that have made any difference? He quickly caught on to my reasoning and chuckled. It seems that for this Muslim American-Palestinian man (which is how Mohamed himself orders his self-description, contra his parent's being “Palestinians first”), the lines between “Christian” and “American” can sometimes be elusive, perhaps especially so in the Midwest where Christianity still factors heavily in to regional culture. When I switched the question to explore in what ways Mohamed had experienced Christians in America as having failed him, he thought for a moment and said, “They've failed themselves.” In line with his and his wife's experience over the past number of years in engaging their respective religious traditions more deeply, he sees a failure of nerve on the part of most American Christians to appreciate the radical nature of their own faith. It's far too easy to be nominally Christian, which certainly is not the case for many Muslims in America.

Back in their home, Mohamed tries to take the kids to the mosque once a day for prayers, although he describes this as “hit and miss,” perhaps not unlike my attempts to read the Bible and pray with my daughter nightly. Three years ago, Mohamed and his wife decided to begin home-schooling their children, which presents another challenge to raising Muslim children, given the majority of their time is spent with their Christian mother. As part of their overall education, Mohamed and his mother have been teaching the children to speak Arabic (in their Palestinian dialect), a move directly motivated by the fact that the Qur'an is written in Arabic and is theologically untranslatable. This helps unify the education of both language and the faith in their home. When the kids ask “Why do we have to learn Arabic?”, Mohamed can answer, “Because the Qur'an is written in Arabic.” When the children then ask “Why do we have to read the Qur'an?”, this can lead directly into a theological lesson. Challenges will persist, though, for this family in suburban Iowa. Mohamed's daughter, for instance, is becoming a young woman. How will she respond if asked by her father to don the hijab, the head covering?

Other questions linger for me. Mohamed's wife, for instance, does not attend a church in the congregational/denominational sense, instead being a faithful member of a Bible study group. My questions following this discovery attempted to get a sense around what tradition this study group was steeped in. But as an outsider looking in, Mohamed wasn't sure, though he reports this as being part of her group's conviction that the church was never meant to become institutionalized and all that they need is right there in the Bible. How it's interpreted in this group remains a mystery to me, so for a seminary-trained Christian in the Anabaptist tradition, and a licensed minister in the Church of the Brethren, I wish I could have another conversation with Mohamed's wife, although I don't have the personal connection that I do with her husband. Questions seem to linger for Mohamed as well. In addition to his concerns about their daughter, he wonders about the differences between he and his wife and how it will impact their raising of the children, even going so far as to put it in salvation/damnation terms. How does a family hold together when each spouse thinks the other is bound for hell? Or for his wife, that the children are bound for hell?

My heart and prayers go out to this family. Mohamed has been a wonderfully gracious conversation partner over these few years, and I sincerely hope to keep in touch in the years to come. From early on, I think we modeled genuine inter-religious encounter that didn't shy away from differences, but rather treated the other with respect, admiration, and perhaps even curiosity.

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