By Arzu Kaya Uranli
October 10, 2015
“Love is a bridge with you and everything.” -Rumi
I attended a gathering at Duke University last Wednesday to listen to Cemalnur Sargut's lecture about the Sufi understanding of Islam through the teachings of it's great master Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi. It was a mesmerizing two-hour session of listening to the Sufi perspective of Islam on divine love with her embracing attitude and heartwarming soft voice. She explained an alternative way of life in the Sufi view and Islamic spirituality -- namely, that "knowledge is a state to be practiced and worship is a journey toward love” for solutions to today's problems.
The following morning I woke up to yet another frustrating piece of news about an incident of Islamophobia in the United States. A California mother refused to let her son complete a seventh-grade history assignment on Islam and sent back a threating message to his teacher. I'm not sure why the mother became so angry about the homework assignment as it simply asked students to name the “five pillars” of Islam and to summarize Islamic beliefs and practices. Tara Cali, of Bakersfield, uploaded a photo of the worksheet to Facebook and boom! It went viral. Thank you social media for bringing our attention to such issues and giving us a platform through which to respond.
Should I describe it as “frustrating"? Should I still be frustrated by such news? Maybe I shouldn't because these types of incidents have become so common and I have written about them repeatedly. However, right after a love-filled lecture about how compassionate and graceful Islam is, this indecent was not a good surprise at all.
First, generally speaking, students in many states in the US, and not only in California, learn about different belief systems as part of world history. This has been part of the school curriculum for at least the past 20 years. I remember helping a neighbor's children in New York and New Jersey on assignments like these when googling wasn't possible. I now understand that I was lucky to have neighbors who saw this as an opportunity for them and their children to learn about different religions, faith traditions and cultures in society.
This incident shows us one more time that ignorance is not bliss all the time. It doesn't hurt to learn about one another. I am not going to question the California mother's pathetic act and shallow world view. I pity her and I'm truly sorry for her son. And I don't even want to imagine how confused he feels about the situation.
However, as a mother of another seventh grader who has chosen to live her life based on her faith tradition and raise her children with Islamic values, I feel obligated to speak up. Yes, speaking up is a moral responsibility for Muslims. Yes, we should play an active role in fighting the lack of knowledge around us. As a minority -- comprising 1.5 percent of the population -- with limited resources, Muslims nevertheless have a voice in America. That said, it is not only the responsibility of the Muslims to present themselves and their values but also of others to listen and comprehend. We are all responsible for getting to know each other, but breaking someone else's prejudices is not possible without their cooperation. As a good Christian, that mother should have known that it is her responsibility to love her neighbor. I wonder, how can she love them if she doesn't even want to get to know them?
The incident reminded me of Ms. Sargut's answer when asked, “How can we still love someone whose heart is full of hate for us, who oppresses us and treats us unjustly?” Sargut narrated a hadith from the Prophet Muhammad, saying, "Only Satan remains silent against injustice.” Commenting on this, she said, "So we have to speak up and fight back, but protect our hearts from hating -- because hate will turn our hearts into a hell. But if we keep our heart loving, it will be a paradise.” When our hearts are in paradise, we gain a positive energy from it, and we exude its beauty to make the world a better place.
Everything happens for a reason. I think it was great timing for me to remember this principle in order to keep my heart calm and pure. At a time when never-ending bigotry is overwhelming us, we should keep reminding ourselves and others that it doesn't matter how ugly the idea we are dealing with is, we should always do everything with grace and good manners. There will be more unfortunate incidents such as this letter, or what the young inventor Ahmed Mohamed faced last month. We'll hear more unpleasant declarations from politicians like Ben Carson, Donald Trump and others as the presidential election approaches, but we'll continue to do the right thing and in the proper manner.