As I sit here contemplating Representative Peter King's (R-NY) upcoming "Muslim radicalization" hearings, trying to discern if my stomach ache is the result of the cookies I'm scarfing or the prospect of congressional hearings that specifically target one community, I'm comforted by rapper Lupe Fiasco's new single, "Words I Never Said."
Over a deliciously lush and crunchy beat, Lupe opines: "Jihad is not holy war / Where's that in the worship? / Murdering is not Islam / And you are not observant / And you are not a Muslim."
Lupe was one of my favorite musicians while I was in college. I listened to Food & Liquor every day for months after it came out, doing my best to rap along. I regularly drew inspiration from his thoughtful lyrics; but when he addressed his Muslim faith, I mostly tuned out, my awkward attempts at rapping dropping to a low mumble.
I was a religion major in college, but I merely studied it. The ivory tower of academia provided a comfortable distance from religious people. I wasn't interested in religion on a real-world level -- after years of wrestling with my sexual orientation and my Christian beliefs, I decided I was an atheist, determined that religion was inherently problematic, and turned a blind eye to religion's positive impact.
I may have been unwilling to engage the issue of religion, but politics -- now that got me going. I was co-Chair of the College Democrats in 2006, the year that the Democratic Party achieved a majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate. After years of being in the minority, we were energized by a new wave of grassroots Democratic activists.
That fall we hosted Keith Ellison, who was running for U.S. Congress in Minnesota's fifth district, where I lived. He was elected, and we were elated. That he was the first Muslim elected to Congress, however, didn't really register for me.
It should have. I didn't just love politics in college; I was also committed to community service. I volunteered with an organization called the Campus Kitchen at Augsburg College (CKAC), a satellite of a national organization called the Campus Kitchen Project. We worked to aid hunger relief efforts by recovering unused food from the campus cafeteria and distributing it to community agencies. After a semester of volunteering, I requested to lead the volunteer shift I'd been trained on, a weekly visit to deliver food to Minneapolis' Brian Coyle Community Center (BCCC).
Just blocks from my school, BCCC served the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, one of the most densely populated areas in Minnesota, with nearly 2,000 apartment units in a two-block area. The makeup of the neighborhood was primarily Somali immigrants, the majority of whom were Muslim.
Because I was there at least once a week, I started to become an active member of the BCCC community. As a result, I began to understand better the joys and challenges the Somali immigrant community in Minneapolis faced. When a young girl with round brown eyes and a red head scarf described her ﬁrst encounter with snow, I felt like I was experiencing Minnesota winter for the ﬁrst time. When I missed a week due to a bad cold, everyone grinned at my return and told me how much they had missed me. They even tried to coach me on some rudimentary Somali, but always playfully chided me for not sounding forceful enough: "You sound too Minnesotan!" they'd say with a chuckle (they were right: I did). But when it came to matters of religious life, I disengaged. They were free to their religion, but it didn't mean I had to listen to them talk about it.
I realize now how wrong I was; how I missed countless opportunities to build bridges of understanding with a community I honestly knew very little about, aside from my academic study of Islam.
One such opportunity was around Ellison's election. Many in the community were ecstatic about his victory. I recall the tangible feeling of pride exuded by many at BCCC that month. I, too, was proud of Ellison, but for a different reason. I was thrilled to have someone who represented my values. Many of the people at BCCC were too, but for them the thrill was magnified: they had a Muslim Congressman.
It's no wonder. In a nation where Muslim voices are hardly heard, the elevation of a Muslim into a position of cultural authority was truly groundbreaking.
Last fall, in the wake of the thwarted Portland bombing, my friend and mentor Eboo Patel wrote an inspiring blog post that served as a rallying cry to the Muslim community to speak out more. He wrote:
"It would be perfectly understandable if, in this time of Muslim terrorism and Islamophobia, everyday Muslims tried to slink into the shadows, to hide in the mosque. But it would be a huge mistake. Now more than ever, we need Muslim community leaders to be loud and proud about Islam's glories, to inspire a new generation to follow in the footsteps of the Muslim heroes who bent the arc of the universe towards justice."
While reading his blog, I immediately thought of Rep. Ellison, and what an inspiration he had been to the Muslim community I worked with in Minneapolis. I realized that he had given a voice to so many people who did not have one, and how important this was.
When I posted a link to Eboo's piece on my Facebook page, a friend commented on the FBI's involvement in the Portland incident, and a subsequent arson attack on a Portland-area mosque: "I'm starting to wonder how any of this makes our country more secure or keeps our citizens safe. It certainly made things more dangerous for Muslims in Corvallis."
I, too, wonder: how are these "radicalization" hearings supposed to make us safer? I look around and I see a country deeply divided over the place of Muslims in America's civic landscape -- a nation roiling with fear and uncertainty, where hundreds of people will protest a Muslim relief organization while screaming things like "go home" and "terrorist" and waving American flags -- and I feel ill over how little we know about our neighbors.
Hearings like this have happened before -- to members of my own community, no less, during the anti-gay "lavender scare" and the explicitly anti-atheist undertones of the "red scare" in the 1950s -- but we must not let them happen again. As a society, we too often do what I was guilty of in college: in an attempt to protect ourselves, we deafen ourselves to the stories of those who seem "different."
I understand the desire to investigate religious extremism, but these hearings are a gross affront to our freedoms and our principles. Instead of having "Muslim radicalization" hearings, I want to propose something truly radical: let's promote voices of inclusion instead of drumming up unwarranted suspicion and inciting fear. Let's start listening to the stories of American Muslims, instead of demanding they defend their innocence.
If you agree, I hope you'll take a moment to sign this petition and invite others to do the same. But let that just be a start; we must actively work to cultivate a cultural ethos of listening. When a significant majority of Americans claim to not even know a Muslim, and a majority of Americans support Rep. King's hearings, it is clear that we are not doing enough to listen to the stories of Muslim Americans.
Though I now work in Boston, I've maintained my Minnesota residency. To Rep. Ellison: thank you for standing up for what is right. Seeing you speak out against these congressional hearings, I couldn't be prouder to be a Minnesotan. I hope you, Eboo, and Lupe will continue to speak out, and that the rest of us will learn to listen.
Follow Chris Stedman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ChrisDStedman