Talk to a Muslim

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

When interviewed by Krista Tippet on the National Public Radio Show “On Being,” Samar D. Jarrah, of the Islamic faith, said, “I have lectured to thousands of Americans. No one has ever asked me a question about science, as if all that Islam has given to humanity is a bunch of nutcase terrorists.”

Arab lecturer Samar D. Jarrah is a Kuwait-born Palestinian-American journalist and educator who co-hosts True Talk, a global affairs talk show on WMNF in Tampa, FL, and I heard her speak live to a group that had no Muslims at all in the audience.

“I’m not sure why Americans have a difficult time understanding us all of a sudden,” Samar said, “because it hasn’t always been this way.” She said she is often astounded by things she reads about “people like me.”

She grew up in Kuwait, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan and never dreamed that “One day, I, Samar, would be asked to speak publicly to Americans in defense of the faith.” She came to the States in the 1980s, and no one asked her much of anything having to do with her religion. She added that she never asked anybody what religion they were either because she thought it was okay in this country to be any religion or none, and no one had to talk about it. She did not wear a scarf nor did she prostrate herself five times a day to her god, but she knew lots of Christians who also never went to church.

She believed that once she was an American, that would be it, and she said for many years they all seemed to get along. “Even after 9-11,” she said, “when we American Muslims were as shocked as anyone and were somewhat nervous about our own safety because the terrorists were Arabs, I was treated the same as always.”

“We are American,” she said, “and if we practice Islam or not, our religion does teach this: that it is our duty to follow the laws of the land where we live. Not Sharia law, American law.” Samar said that she swore to uphold the laws of the U.S. when she became a citizen. It is her oath, she said, and she lives by it. So do the Muslims she knows.

A terrorist is a terrorist; a Muslim by name is not a terrorist, just a Muslim.

There is a non-fact going around in this day of false accusations that Muslims follow Sharia law before any of our civil laws. She said, “The use or advocacy of violence to spread a religion is unacceptable in Islam. And it is false that we have any intolerance toward other religions.”

It seems that it is Westerners of certain faiths or beliefs that foster an intolerance.

Samar said it has only been in recent years with the rise of terrorism all over the globe that Muslims have been grouped together to be loathed.

“Most Americans do not know that Islam came out of the same religious heritage as did Judaism and Christianity,” Samar said. There are still Christian women in the Arab part of the world who wear scarves at all times, not just when they go to Mass as was common even in this country until the late 1960s or so.

Samar has traveled extensively throughout North America, Europe, the Middle East. She is an educator, and it has become her purpose to explain her life and her religion to any who are interested. When she attended a lecture recently by an American public official speaking on Islam, she said, “The inaccuracies we endured listening to this man are too many to mention. But just imagine that you were listening for two and half hours, with a full house of a few hundred people, being told who you are and what you believe in, and what you need to do to be accepted in this country.

“Imagine, also,” she said, “the presence of fully armed law enforcement personnel wearing bulletproof vests, armed men and women in civilian clothes in the hall and you have to ask yourself: Is this supposed to make me feel safer?”

Being a Muslim in this country right now is almost as bad as being Japanese at the start of World War II or German during WW I.

Samar said that the speaker talked about the terrorist groups of Taliban and al-Quaida without any explanation of the history of their founding in Afghanistan in the context of the Cold War, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or of the U.S. arming and funding the Mujahideen, which then morphed into the Taliban and al-Qaida.

“ISIS also suddenly appeared in this fellow’s lecture without any history of the political context,” she said, “such as mention of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which effectively managed to destroy that nation state. There was no mention of the fact that neither al-Qaida nor ISIS existed in Iraq before the U.S. invasion.

“When President Trump recently issued the ban against Muslims from six countries entering the U.S., it made me wonder if when I went to Cairo to see my sister would I be able to return,” she said. “But I soon realized it wasn’t so much about Muslims as it was about fostering fear, fear of Hispanics and building a wall to keep them out as much as fear of me as a Muslim and keeping me out. Other things will be manufactured to make Americans afraid.”

Samar thinks this is a way to get votes as well as an effective way to instill fear, which makes a people easier led. The shunning of the Hispanics and then the Muslims may just be the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.

“But being Muslim in America makes me a better Muslim,” she said. “One with more hope for the future. I’ve had hundreds of amazing messages of love and support from people who are not Muslim. They invite me to talk to them because they want to know more about Islam from a Muslim, and for this, I’m forever grateful to be a Muslim in America.”

Her point of course, is that we do have freedom of religion here. We have had it since Dec. 15, 1791, 226 years ago. Amendment I of the Constitution reads, in part: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”

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