“Islam is a death cult.”
Those words, crudely painted on a wooden sign, were once visible on Mountain Road in Jaffrey, fewer than five miles from the public library where I presented an “Ask a Muslim Anything” program — not far from where America lives, works and worships.
The sign is gone now. I was sorry to see it go — in its ignorance it was a clear reminder that the same First Amendment that empowers us to speak, publish, worship and assemble freely protects cowards and heroes, bigots and pluralists.
It protects us all.
“May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land,” wrote President George Washington to Rhode Island’s Touro Synagogue in 1790, “continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig-tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
Today, as a child of the “Stock of Abraham,” as a Muslim whose faith tradition traces to Prophet Abraham and as a first-generation American, I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with the rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric I see on bumper stickers, signs in woods, letters to the editor and other attempts to marginalize, delegitimize, and disenfranchise America’s diverse community of Muslims — a community present in these lands for 400 years.
To counter such un-American sentiments, and inspired by the model of itinerant Methodist ministers — circuit-riders who journeyed from town-to-town preaching the Gospel in the 18th and 19th centuries — I’ve been traveling across New Hampshire and beyond as an itinerant Muslim, from one public library, school, church, retirement community and Rotary Club to the next, engaging neighbors in a program I call “Ask a Muslim Anything.”
I speak about my life, what it’s like to be Muslim in America, and how I came to convert to Islam. I talk about Islam and its history — especially in America — and about the Middle East, terrorism and associated political and social issues.
I’ve found that, when engaged in small-scale or one-on-one conversations, my neighbors — even those critical of Islam and fearful of Muslims — are willing to listen and engage if engagement occurs in what are perceived to be safe or neutral places like libraries and houses of worship.
So those are the places I go for conversation, and not a day passes when I’m not humbled by people’s courtesy and curiosity, even when they’re speaking out of fear or out of not knowing what they don’t know.
They ask about ISIS and Al Qaeda, about women and prayer. They ask about Shari’ah, Sufis, Sunni and Shi’a, about apostasy, honor killings, and terrorism — about issues that both Muslims and non-Muslims struggle with.
I explain to my neighbors that Islam has been part of America’s religious and political fabric for generations, and that there was little anti-Muslim rhetoric in the early days of the Republic; that John Quincy Adams had a copy of the first Qur’an printed in America with him when he defended the Amistad mutineers, many of whom were Muslim; and that Benjamin Franklin wrote in his autobiography that he wanted a meeting hall built in Philadelphia so inclusive “... so 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 want my neighbors to understand that, while it’s true that the Qur’an is the literal word of God, that it doesn’t mean that all its contents are meant to be read literally; that Islam in not monolithic; that Muslims are as fully within the Abrahamic tradition as Jews and Christians; and like those other traditions we, too, are challenged by those who attempt to corrupt scripture for privilege, profit, and power.
Nothing is off the table — except disrespect. I speak, to the best of my experience and knowledge, of faith, tradition, understanding, conflict and identity.
I do this not to proselytize but to reconcile — to reaffirm and strengthen bonds of comity and faith — and I’m overwhelmed by the beauty and generosity of the responses I receive, all seemingly reflective of the belief that, as the Qur’an 49:13 tells us:
“We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another.”
We come together to know one another.
Robert Azzi of Exeter has a blog, theotherazzi.wordpress.com. He will bring his "Ask a Muslim Anything” program to the Laconia Public Library on Thursday, March 21, at 6:30 p.m.