To mosque or not to mosque, that is the question. Once again, the lines are drawn in the sand, people are polarizing and taking sides... but there is another way to look at this.
Last year, I traveled to Syria, which has been depicted in the media as the stepchild of the Axis of Evil. Friends were telling me that I should write emails in code to let them know I was still alive. And if I used the word "call" in the emails, that would be a sign for them to contact the State Department on my behalf. If, God forbid, I were on TV, about to be executed, I should blink twice and they would stop at nothing to save me.
By the time I left for Syria, a bit of the fear had rubbed off on me. How much did they hate Americans, I wondered?
I didn't meet any other Americans in Syria, but I met hundreds of Syrians. They came running out of their houses to shake my hand, tell me they love Americans, and press gifts of candy or trinkets into my hands. Call the State Department? I was hoping my friends would, indeed, call the State Department, to offer an antidote to paranoia.
In Palestine, on the West Bank, in the middle of the intifada, the worst that happened to me was that an antique dealer sold me a few bogus Roman oil lamps. The folks I met were funny, cool, savvy and very familiar. I never felt as though they were "the other."
In Quebec, I was at a conference last year and I bonded with Manal, a Muslim Egyptian. We sat together, walked together, ate together. There was never one minute of awkwardness.
When I lived in Europe and Africa for nine years, I spent six of those years in a relationship with an Arab man. The first time I walked into his parents' home, I felt completely at home. The craziness, the intensity, the humor, the food, the hospitality--it was all familiar from my upbringing. The relationship was awful, and it had nothing to do with him being Arab. I think I stayed in it because I was so comfortable with his extended family, and it was so thrilling and exciting to travel with my "ex" to exotic climes where his people did business.
So when I hear the frenzy about the mosque, when I read about peoples' fears of Muslims and Arabs, I just scratch my head. The portrait of angry Muslims, with their fists in the air, screaming out Allah's name, is totally unfamiliar to me. I never met people consumed by hatred. I never met bloodthirsty Muslims or Arabs. I met a few people spewing hatred towards Israelis, which was similar to what I heard from Israelis about Arabs.
When we invaded Iraq, my husband and I went to Tunisia, a Muslim-Arab nation in North Africa. I wanted to experience the invasion from the Arab point of view -- to see how they spoke about it, wrote about it in newspapers and magazines, showed it on television.
After the invasion, I wondered if there would be hostility towards us as Americans. I sat down for breakfast, and the waiter was crying.
"Are you crying about the invasion?" I asked.
"I am so sorry," I mumbled.
"Me too," he said. And what followed shocked me. "I saw an American woman on television last night. She lost her only son. It is so terrible. I weep for her."
He was crying for an American mother, after the invasion of an Arab nation. Compassion didn't have a nationality. I was moved to tears... by the waiter.
It takes a lot of determination and self-control not to buy into stereotypes and hatred. It takes a lot of consciousness to understand that extremists of any stripe are not representative of people in general. That Islam is a religion, like Christianity or Judaism or Hinduism. It is not, inherently, more violent or hostile. What people do with religion -- how they twist and bend it to suit their own agendas -- is an entirely different issue.
We are invading Arab and Muslim countries. We are in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our drones are in Pakistan. We are in Yemen and Somalia. Actions, reactions and counteractions. We are part of the loop of violence. We are not victims of it.
All we have to do is open our hearts to people who are perceived as being different from us, and we become soldiers on the path to peace. We can all be spiritual warriors. All we have to do is live and let live. Learn about and enjoy other cultures. If you sat down with a Muslim-Arab person, you would be shocked -- at how much you have in common. You would probably end up hugging each other for all the misunderstandings perpetuated on both sides.
The cultural center near Ground Zero is a non-event. People can worship, meet and socialize anywhere they want. If it ever opens, you may even want to visit it.
And the next time you hear hatred and racism being spewed, tune into your own heart and make sure it doesn't close up. Keep it open. Keep it open to people around the world. Keep it open to people who are like you and not like you. Do not take the racism and hatred in.
Feel pity for extremists -- in America, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Israel, or anywhere else on the globe. They are narrow, shut down, living in a world of rage and spiritual blindness. Isolate them from your life. But do not isolate yourself from life. Your life is a trip. Enjoy every droplet of it.
Judith Fein is the travel editor of Spirituality and Health magazine. Her new book, LIFE IS A TRIP: The Transformative Magic of Travel, takes readers on 14 exotic trips where, through interaction with other cultures, they can learn lessons that transform their lives.
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