Photo of Imam Hassan Selim
Yeah, okay, so I know they’re out there. We see them every day on the television, these “radical jihadi terrorists” bent on America’s destruction. It’s just that I’ve never met one. I’ve only ever met nice Muslims.
Yesterday, I sat down to lunch with Imam* Hassan Selim, a young man from Egypt who moved to Cedar Rapids to be with his wife, a native of this city whom he met while she studied abroad. Hassan was an active participant in the Egyptian revolution, part of that larger protest movement we call the Arab Spring. You can read a little about his story here.
We had never met before, but we enjoyed a wonderful lunch and long conversation. I hope there are more to come.
At one point in our discussion, we were talking about the value of visiting other places, learning about other cultures. I told him a story about when I went to Russia as a high school senior in 1995. This was only a few years after the break-up of the Soviet Union, and for most of my childhood I had known Russia to be the dark realm of our enemy, a terrible place full of communists who hated freedom. It wasn’t that my parents ever told me this. My culture did, and the message somehow stuck.
Still, the exchange program was presented to us as a free trip sponsored by Iowa State University with funding from the federal government. This was a new age. Russia was maybe not so bad anymore. We students had to apply for the opportunity to go there, as if it was a privilege.
Even if it was only a trip to crappy old Russia, I figured I might as well fill out an application. When else would I be able to afford to travel half-way around the world with a group of my friends? Plus, a big part of the program was about studying the use of this new thing called “e-mail”, which I had never heard of before. Supposedly, with “e-mail” you could send a letter to your Russian pen-pal and it would arrive instantaneously, whereas an actual letter might take a month to arrive. That sounded pretty cool to me.
Low and behold, my application was accepted, and that month in Russia turned out to be one of the best months of my life. I saw so many amazing places, made wonderful new friends, and learned a whole lot I didn’t know about the world. I even fell for a beautiful Russian girl and had a brief but bright romance. This place and people I had always thought of as distant and threateningly “other” suddenly meant so much to me that it was hard to leave them for home.
After hearing my story, Hassan told me about his trip to England. As you probably know, Egypt does not have a great relationship with Israel, and much like we heard about Russia, Hassan listened his entire life to propaganda about those “evil Jews”. Then, shortly before traveling to England, he found out that his host family was Jewish.
He was scared. Friends and family were worried for him. Some suggested that maybe he shouldn’t go. Or, if he did go, he would have to be extremely vigilant. Those Jews could sneak poison into his food or find other ways of harming him.
Of course, when he met his host family in England, they turned out to be very kind, generous people. They were hospitable and thoughtful enough to accommodate any of his needs. Initially confused by their warmth, Hassan soon realized that his Jewish host family was offering genuine friendship. He could not believe how wrong everyone back home had been to label an entire people as evil.
“From then on, I decided that I would not accept other people’s opinions as truth until I had the chance to experience that truth myself,” Hassan told me. He applied this kind of test to more than just the stereotypes he had heard about other cultures. It also helped him think more carefully about his religious beliefs. Today, as an Imam, Hassan gently encourages his congregation to do the same, to use critical thinking as a tool to strengthen their faith.
I resonated deeply with this idea. Too often in my own tradition, I see people proclaiming without question a set of beliefs or practices handed down to them from previous generations as inerrant truth. They don’t think about testing those beliefs or how old assumptions born from a certain history can be harmful when carried into a new reality.
I also thought about the Muslims I have met in my life. In spite of the way Muslims or Arabs are often depicted as America’s unholy enemy, I have to tell you every single one of them I have ever met has been friendly, thoughtful, and generous to me. Frankly, I have often thought they put “Midwestern hospitality” to shame.
Of course, I know there are bitter, hateful, violent “Muslims” out there. I know that we have been at some state of war in various Muslim countries for decades. There is a history that prompts such negative feelings toward Islam and the Middle East.
However, I have also met bitter, hateful, violent people right here in my own neighborhood, people who wholeheartedly advocate the killing of innocent people across the world simply because our government has labeled them as “enemy”. But knowing these people exist down the street from me does not mean I think anyone would be justified in labeling all people in Cedar Rapids, Iowa as violent extremists. To assume so would be totally absurd. Still, you know, we Americans do it all the time with entire swaths of the world’s population, and often churches join right in.
I won’t. I refuse to participate in the demonization of whole cultures or nations when I know for a fact I could find friends in every group of people I am asked to hate.
Instead, I want to do like Jesus did. I want to break bread and sit with those I am taught to call outsiders. I want more conversation, more beginnings of friendships like I experienced yesterday with Hassan. I want to ignore what the kingdoms of men tell me to think, and instead live like Jesus taught us to, as a citizen in the Kingdom of God.Like this? Click to subscribe!
*In Sunni Islam, “Imam” is a title given to a Muslim cleric, like “Pastor” in a Christian church.