In November 2018, at Manchester’s Palace Theatre, I was humbled to receive the 2018 Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications’ First Amendment Award, given in part for the work I’ve been doing in my “Ask a Muslim Anything” program around New Hampshire.
“I want to open up new perspectives for my audiences,” I said to guests, “especially for those who don’t often agree with me, and expose them to points of view I believe are important and which they might not have previously considered.“
One of my favorite stories, I told guests, is from Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography where he writes about Philadelphia and how, when it was in need of a large assembly hall, he solicited funds in order to build a hall so grand “… that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service …”
I speak from whatever podium, pulpit, or lectern is offered, not to preach but to share in dialogue my thoughts on Islam, Muslims, identity and conflict, and next weekend, at the Manchester City Library, I will again speak.
I speak because I believe in, as novelist Chimamanda Adichie warns us, the danger of a “single story” — that if we hear only a single story about another person, country or religion we risk not only critical misunderstanding but miss opportunities to affirm each other’s humanity.
The “single story” narrative I challenge — these days imagined through Orientalist and racist memes that Islam is monolithic and violent — is wrong and un-American.
After 9/11, when I realized that as a Muslim I’d always be seen as Other by nationalists who perceive America as primarily white and Christian, my life changed; I became more active in public and interfaith dialogue.
As an outgrowth of that activism I began my “Ask a Muslim Anything” program, which so far I’ve presented in more than 50 New Hampshire libraries plus many other venues. In those spaces I’ve found Americans who are curious, courageous, and courteous, who with humility welcome civil discourse in the public square.
I share this because I know that when one story is privileged above others we deny ourselves access to the richness of human experience while also jeopardizing America’s security and national interests.
Muslims did not just happen, like “Topsy,” on 9/11.
On 9/11 America was attacked by people Americans didn’t know speaking the language of a religion they knew nothing about by terrorists who claimed to be acting in the name of God. In the aftermath of that horror, many Americans became, with some justification, fearful and distrustful of the Other and it took hard work and belief in the fundamental goodness of all humankind for Americans to find commonality of interests and move beyond into dialogue and trust.
What we’re witnessing today in the public square, however, is different from what we saw in 2001. Today, America is, I believe, afflicted by a particularly virulent disorder, by waves of xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia that have nothing to do with religion; it’s about demagogues manipulating public sentiment for personal power, privilege and profit.
Affected by that affliction are communities of minorities, immigrants, peoples of color, Muslims and others who are not considered white and sufficiently Eurocentric.
Today, there are even some Americans who believe that Muslims shouldn’t be allowed in America, that if they are here they should be registered and monitored and, indeed, there are many who believe that American Muslims shouldn’t even be allowed to practice their faith.
It’s ugly, it’s unfair and it’s contrary to the aspirations of our Founding Fathers, of our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and of our national security interests.
I know that most Americans aren’t haters, even those who are still fearful and I know most Americans aren’t responsible for the ignorance and invective that today resonates in so many public spaces.
That’s why I do this.
In my first public program since receiving the Nackey S. Loeb First Amendment Award I will be at the Manchester City Library on Saturday, Jan. 19, from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. to present “Ask a Muslim Anything.”
Your questions set the agenda: I promise to try and address your thoughts and concerns about Muslims and Islam as fully as possible. Bring friends and questions. Nothing is off the table except bad manners!