As American As You Are
By Mohja Kahf
Sunday, July 22, 2007; B01
A certain Middle Eastern religion is much maligned in this country.
Full of veils and mystery, it is widely seen as sexist. Often violent,
sometimes manipulated by demagogues, it yet has sweetness at the core,
and many people are turning to it in their search for meaning.
I'm talking about Christianity.
This Muslim squirms whenever secular friends -- tolerant toward
believers in Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and Native American
spirituality -- dismiss Christians with snorts of contempt. "It's
because the Christian right wants to take over this country," they
That may be, but it doesn't justify trashing the religion and its
spectrum of believers. Christianity has inspired Americans to the
politics of abolition and civil rights, as well as to heinous acts.
Christian values have motivated the Ku Klux Klan to burn houses, and
Jimmy Carter to build them. You can't say that when Christianity
informs politics, only bad things happen.
This may strike you as odd coming from a Muslim. But, my dears, it's
true: People of faith do not signify the apocalypse for democracy. And
(here comes the Muslim agenda) that goes for believing Muslims as much
as for other religious folk. Muslims, in a very specific way, are not
strangers in your midst. We are kin. Not just kin in the lovely way
that all humans are. We carry pieces of your family story.
I got a phone call one evening from a friend who is a lovable gossip
in my home town. "Have you read today's paper?" she wanted to know. A
letter-writing curmudgeon had mouthed off about how U.S. Muslims ought
to be expelled, as worthless, dangerous and un-American. "What are we
going to do?" she said. We'd worked together on non-pork lunch options
for our kids in school -- we share that dietary law, as she's Jewish.
Anyhow. I invited the letter-writer to coffee. Walter declined, but we
started writing to each other, his letters bearing a Purple Heart
address label; he had been wounded in World War II. Walter was the
crotchety, racist American great-uncle I never had. I sent him family
photos, as you do to even an ornery relative; he replied that he
guessed I was Syria's loss, America's gain.
"Huh?" I said.
"Why, you're a Syrian beauty queen," the old charmer said.
One day, I found a plastic baggie of asparagus tied to my doorknob.
Mystified by this American vegetable, not one I cooked in my heritage
cuisine, I brought it in -- then noticed, sticking to it, the little
address label with the Purple Heart. "Sauté in butter," Walter
advised. He made me promise to come to the cemetery on Veteran's Day;
A year later, I get a knock at my door. It's Walter. "La ilaha illa
allah!" he says, before "hello." "You and I worship the same God. I
know that now." He limps into my living room, and we finally sit down
Muslims are the youngest sibling in the Semitic family of religions,
and we typically get no respect from the older kids -- Judaism and
Christianity. That our older sisters didn't stick our pictures in the
family scrapbook doesn't make us less related, sweetheart. And our
stories are no less legit just because we have a different angle on
family history. Want to know what happened to Hagar after she fades
from the Bible story of Abraham and Sarah? Sit, have coffee, we'll
My cousin was president of a national student group, and reporters
constantly ask her whether Muslim youth turn to religion to reject
their American identity. She grew up in the South, with friends who
went to Bible camp in the summer. "Would you ask a Baptist that
question?" she says, smoothing her head veil.
Does wearing a veil make you less American than wearing a yarmulke or
a Mennonite bonnet? Does reading the Koran (even if it's not Thomas
Jefferson's copy) make you less American than reading the Bible? If
deploring U.S. foreign policy is un-American, then half the population
is guilty. What else you got? Name your favorite symbol of Islamic
difference, and I'll name other Americans who share it. The guy with
all the wives on HBO's "Big Love," does anyone question his
Assimilation is overrated. And it's not what minority religions do in
the United States. Did Irish Catholics stop being Catholic when they
arrived generations ago? People once believed that devout Catholics
and Orthodox Jews could never be "true Americans." Today, I receive
e-mails with solemn lists of why Muslims, "according to their own
faith," can't possibly be "loyal Americans." The work of nut jobs. Yet
purportedly sane people in Washington seem to think it's a valid
The Muslim spectrum contains many complex identities, from lapsed to
ultra-orthodox. There's this wisdom going around that only the liberal
sort are worthy of existence. No, my dears. Conservative Muslims have
a right to breathe as well. Being devout, even if it means prostration
prayer at airports, is not a criminal offense. And those stubborn
unassimilated types may have a critique of the American social fabric
that you should hear.
I grew up Islamist. That's right, not only conservative Muslim, but
full-blown, caliphate-loving Islamist, among folk who take core
Islamic values and put them to work in education and politics, much
like evangelical Christians. One of the things about the United States
that delighted my parents, and many Islamist immigrants, is that here,
through patient daily jihad, they could actually teach their children
Islam -- as opposed to motley customs that pass for Islam in the Old
Look, Islam never really "took" in the Arab world. The egalitarianism
that the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) preached, for example,
never much budged Arab tribalism. The Koran's sexual ethic, enjoining
chaste behavior and personal responsibility toward God on men and
women both, not tribal ownership of women's sexuality, never uprooted
the sexual double standard or the pagan honor code. Honor killing, as
a recent fatwa by al-Azhar University's mufti reminds believers, is a
pagan rite violating Islamic principles. Here in the United States,
religious Muslims can practice Islam without those entrenched codes.
They are also critical of casual sex and immodesty. Such conservative
Muslim criticism of mainstream American culture isn't new in American
discourse. "Unlike Muslims, we Americans believe in women's equality,"
someone will object. Really, that's an essential American trait? Tell
that to citizens who struggle for gender justice. Muslims, pious ones
even, will tell you that they believe in it, too, and are no more
sexist than you. Your sexism just takes forms so familiar that they're
invisible; holding doors open for women doesn't seem nearly as sexist
as walking protectively ahead of them.
Other American values are easily in synch with the Islam of the
devout. Observant Muslims have long seen meritocracy, consultation of
the people by the government and the idea that hard work should trump
family name as refreshing affirmations of Islamic values. "America is
Islam, without the Muslim 'brand name,' " goes a refrain from the
pulpit of immigrant mosques. Usually followed by, "The Old Countries
are Muslim in name, without Islamic values."
This is the Mayflower Compact of these new Pilgrims. That analogy may
not sit well with African Americans, whose ancestors didn't come
voluntarily, and with Native Americans, because it links newcomers to
those who devastated their lands. Nevertheless, this is one way
immigrant Muslims see themselves in this land: as part of a long
caravan of faiths seeking to build the beloved community. This
American narrative merges with the Muslim concept of hijrah --
emigration for the sake of worshiping God freely.
"How green is America!" a visiting relative of mine exclaimed upon
seeing the rolling hills of Virginia. The busy-busy metropolis had not
appealed to him. I hoped to dislodge his stereotype of American life
as fast, crass and dehumanizing. When my husband and I moved to a
small Southern city and took him to the farmer's market, he saw it --
the other America, past the glitz, where folks have time for one
another, as they do in the Arab world. "What church do you go to?" is
the watchword in this America. Like the Arab query "What family?" it
means, "Where do you fit in?"
We fit right in to your sweet bosom. Christianity and Islam have the
genetic structure of siblings. "Allah" is in the Bible. "Eloi, eloi,
lama sabachthani?" the New Testament has Jesus (peace be upon him)
asking on the cross. "Eloi," "Elohim" of the Hebrew Bible and "Allah"
are all derived from the same root word for "God." When I discovered
that fixed-time prayer was an early Christian rite, that Christians
and Jews once practiced prostration, like Muslim prostration in our
five daily salat, it was like recognizing my nose on someone's face in
a photograph, then learning that the picture was of my
Doctrinal differences abound, and each faith has its sacraments.
Exploring these distinctions should be a source of delight, not of
one-upmanship. In difference lie blessing and abundance. The Gospels
detail many moments in Christ's life, but for Mary's own feelings in
labor, you'll want a glimpse of the Koran -- and of Muslim hearts
where the scene lives.
Pious Christian and Jewish values are not inherently in conflict with
American civic life, as secular folk tend to forget. Devout immigrant
Muslims don't belong? That ship has sailed. Myles Muhammad Standish
and Harriet Halima Tubman are here. Not as strangers out of place,
either. This is a letter to your beautiful heart: We are your blood.
Mohja Kahf is the author of the novel "The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf."
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