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I have developed an overwhelming urge to tell everyone I meet I’m a Muslim.

As a Muslim woman who doesn’t wear a headscarf, I’m often mistaken for a Latina and other ethnicities that my features match. But as anti-Muslim sentiment has risen across the United States, so has my urge to say: “Hey America: I’m a Muslim. Let’s talk.”

That urge took me to the sidewalk in front of Park51, the proposed community centre and mosque near Ground Zero, over Labor Day Weekend. I spent four days with a small but dedicated group of sidewalk activists who for more than three weeks have stood in front of Park51 with signs reading “Peace Tolerance Love” to support its right to build.

The volunteer sidewalk activists are a mix of non-Muslims and Muslims, and newly-minted activists in their 20s as well as veteran activists of their parents’ generation.

We were not there to defend or speak for any of the spiritual or financial backers of Park51. We were there to defend Park51’s constitutional right to build. For me, opposition to Park51 was part of that larger pattern of anti-Muslim sentiment that had expressed opposition to several other mosque projects around the country. It was much bigger than Park51.

The easiest people to deal with, for me, were what I called the “hit and runs” – passersby who thanked us or those who would hurl insults as they moved on.

Those four days in front of Park51 taught me a lot. First, I learned to resist labelling as a “bigot” anyone who opposed its building. Some of those against Park51 were indeed bigots, but as my sidewalk activist friends taught me, when you call them bigots it makes them defensive and it ends up shifting the focus from the issue at hand – the necessary discussion about Park51’s right to build – to the hurt feelings of the people you just called bigots.

And that necessary discussion can bear fruit. Two women who had walked over to Park51 from a nearby protest against the centre had some questions. One wanted to know about jihad. I said I condemned all acts of violence committed in the name of any religion, including my own. After some back and forth, Meryl said we both should launch a jihad against violence in the name of any religion and asked if she could hug me.

“Why aren’t there millions of Muslims like you?” she asked.

“There are,” I answered.

Mary wanted to know how, as a woman, I could remain a Muslim when Muslim women were treated so badly.

I told her I would be lying if I denied that women in Muslim-majority countries enjoyed equal rights but also said I belonged to a movement called Musawah, which means equality and which aims for equality and justice in the Muslim family by working to remove misogynistic and male-dominated interpretations of Islam.

Again, after a back-and-forth discussion, Mary hugged me too.

Later, another woman asked: “Can’t you see that you’re hurting people’s feelings by building so close to Ground Zero? Think of the victims’ families.”

“Can you see when you ask me a question like that you’re assuming that I had something to do with the attacks on 9/11?” I answered. “Those men were Muslim but it was 19 men. None of us here had anything to do with it.”

“But would it be so hard to move it somewhere else?”

“That’s a really slippery slope,” I told her. “There are mosques across the country being opposed. Where do you draw the line? Once you make Park51 move, anyone can say ‘Oh I don’t want Muslims around here. Move them.’”

She too gave me a hug!

I often went home not just ready to collapse but wondering if I had at all helped to stem that wave of anti-Muslim sentiment. Does talking to six or seven people change anything?

One man who identified as a liberal Christian stopped to ask general questions about Islam. He had many. After talking for about half an hour, he thanked me and said it was the best conversation he had had about the religion. So I have to believe that my “Hey America: I’m a Muslim, let’s talk” campaign is worth it.

5 Comments

JOHN 3:16

November 23rd

Nope as a christan i say no building a mosqe on ground zero this is a christian country if anything at all we build a big beautifull church. i mean no disrespect towards muslims but come on now if christians even thought of mentioning something about building a church over there in the middle est on some sacred ground they would be hung to death no questions ask


Gustavo Gutierrez

September 18th

On a side note, someone keeps flagging my comments even when they fall within the commenting guidelines. Mentioning sectarian anti-Christian violence in Pakistan and Iraq is not insulting. This is a fact, reported even on Muslim media outlets and a troubling trend. Iran, despite its political issues and isolation on the international stage, is a fairly safe and stable country that ensures religious freedoms, even to its minority Jewish community. Few Jewish communities survive in the Arab world, is that worthy of being a flagged comment too? For your convenience anonymous flagger, I'll flag my own comment.


Gustavo Gutierrez

September 17th

Mona, your approach to reaching out to non-Muslims is the perfect way to combat stereotypes of Muslims and Islam. There are certainly issues among Muslims, but as for Bible burnings in Iran, that is false. In fact, Iran has a small sizable Christian minority consisting of ethnic Armenians. Unlike in Pakistan, where Christians in Karachi have been the targets of a vicious sectarian campaign, Christians in Iran are safe compared to Christians in neighboring Iraq and Pakistan.


Patel Ayub

September 17th

‎@Molly- AA : yes I do see it that way too; but my stand is different because it is a sensitive issue. As concerns our silence - We need to practice our faith more than either simply praying at the masaajid or masquerading on streets. We have to set an example...that means starting at our doorstep - neighborly conduct. Conduct and character is the sloe basis on which the prophet (S) was able to win over even his most ardent enemies. Unfortunately, as a mass, our conduct does not touch the bar, let alone rise above it. JZK.


Patel Ayub

September 17th

I'm not sure I like the idea of sidewalk campaigning. The prophet(S)'s way is nowhere akin to this. Besides, my feeling is that yes, we should consider the sensitivity of the issue before we expand (build) at this location. Rights are not...... everything. My religion gives me the right to marry 4 women if I so choose, but should I exercise that right ? I refrain from exercising it purely because it would be a sensitive issue for my wife, one whose well being I have more regard for than my selfish desires. So in light of her feelings and our mutual love, I don't exercise my right. This is merely an example. However, I hope it helps to illustrate the type of wisdom (hikmah) necessary for such situations. There are lessons to apply from Hudaibiyah too - if we understand the lessons thereof.
I am not saying that this is the position we should take across the board, but for this particular spot, in light of all that has happened, we cannot behave like children. We need to see the light.






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