Face your prejudices, open your mind | COMMENTARY

“It’s a healthy experience to interact with others who do not share our religious or political beliefs.”

As a leader of my church’s Sunday Adult Forum, I had a goal: to put a human face on Islam for the members of the congregation and community.

We invited a Shia Muslim woman, Marwa al-Musawi, to speak to us. Marwa is the director of diversity at Green River College where I work as an adjunct professor. She is 29 years old, married, with an 8-month-old daughter named Miriam.

She shared her experience as a girl of 12 having to flee Iraq, first traveling with her family to Iran, then Jordan and finally to the United States. Her parents had been vocal in their opposition to Saddam Hussein and had been forced to flee for their lives.

Opposition to people unlike us is part of our history. It was 154 years ago, during the American Civil War, when there were riots and demonstrations against Irish and German Catholic immigrants. They were viewed with suspicion and fear because they were different. Many Protestant Americans believed Catholics represented the “Great Whore of Babylon” noted in the Book of Revelation.

When I was a teen, my mother warned me about her fears that if the Catholic candidate John F. Kennedy won the 1962 presidential election, we as a nation would be taken over by the Catholic Church and forced to convert. Of course, Kennedy won and her fears were not realized. She never admitted that perhaps her thinking had been wrong.

Today, we live in an era when my mother’s irrational fears have been replaced by new irrational fears toward Muslim citizens and immigrants.

Marwa told us what her life is like as a Shia Muslim living in the Auburn area. She explained that she wore her hijab (head covering) because it is a statement of faith and identity. She also strongly stated that men do not oppress Muslim women. Men and women are equal before Allah, according to the Quran.

She had spoken at another Lutheran church in Federal Way just before she came to Enumclaw. Her husband, fearing that Enumclaw might be less tolerant of Muslims than Federal Way, asked her why she was willing to speak.

The 40 or so attendees of her lecture greeted her with courtesy and friendliness. Several thanked her for coming.

One person noted, “I was a little hesitant about attending (picture preconceived thoughts about Muslims), but I decided to sit and listen and see what she had to say. What a nice surprise. She wasn’t that much different than any other young, bright American woman raising a family, balancing a job, a family and religious beliefs. She was interesting, articulate and personable, and kind thinking…. (Afterward) I told her she had opened my mind. It was a powerful, profound and beautiful thing.”

It’s human nature to put people who are not like us into boxes. We tend to turn them into objects instead of seeing them as the human beings they really are. Only through human contact and interaction do we begin to realize that people are just people, no matter what they believe or where they are from. We all have strengths and weaknesses. We are all human.

At Green River College I teach Muslims, other religions and numerous nationalities in my classes. I also deal with white Americans whose thinking is very different than my own. The experience can be jarring when I learn how they perceive their world.

But, by listening to others’ stories and beliefs, I am constantly reminded that what I believe may be wrong and what others believe may be right. It is a humbling experience that I need to be reminded of on a regular basis.

It’s a healthy experience to interact with others who do not share our religious or political beliefs. It’s important to break down the bubbles of unreality we all tend to retreat into because we feel safe there. It’s important to talk to, and especially listen to, those who strongly disagree with us.

Do you have the courage to face your own fears and prejudices? We all need to open our minds. It is a powerful, profound and beautiful thing.

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