My friend Sim is a strapping young man in his 20s. He is fitter than I could ever dream of becoming. Sim has run in the New York marathon for two years in a row, and hopes to run in many more to come. When you meet Sim you're immediately struck by the warmth of his smile. Opinions are unanimous, Sim has a heart of gold -- and the good looks to go with it!
Sim was recently flying back to New York from visiting with his parents in Texas, when the chipper middle-aged Texan lady sitting next to him asked in the most disarmingly matter-of-fact manner that only Texans are capable of, "You're not a Muslim are you?" A question possibly prompted by Sim's full-length beard and turban. When he responded, "No, I'm Sikh," the woman was visibly relieved, so much so she hugged Sim (short for Simran, in case you're wondering), adding "I'm so glad you're not a Muslim. They want to take over America with 'Siran'!" Simran, being the gentleman that he is, smiled politely, but later revealed to me that he had no idea how to respond to the exchange. And it's true, it wasn't a "simple" exchange that had occurred, which could or should be explained away as another example (and aren't there so many?) of unwitting Texan folk who can't tell the difference between a Sikh and a Muslim.
Admittedly, there is the initial (perhaps inevitable) surface explanation: Muslim men and Sikh men look so alike. It's very easy to mistake one for the other. And we cannot forget the terrible repercussions of such misapprehensions (as with the murder of Balbir Singh four days after 9/11 by "a patriotic American"; and the mass shooting at a Sikh temple just in August of this year).
But then a little beyond the surface explanation lies something much more disconcerting. What if Simran had been a Muslim? What would the chipper Texan woman's response have been then? "Oh, you're Muslim! You Muslims want to take over America with 'Siran'!" Perhaps there wouldn't have been any verbal response, but just a worried sucking-in-of-air and pursing-of-lips, followed by a deathly silence? However, what could be said for certain is that a hug would not have been forthcoming!
So what does this all mean? What does it mean for an average, middle-aged lady from Texas to embrace a Sikh man, and at the same time declare Muslims to be hell-bent on taking over America with "Siran"? It perhaps doesn't require an opinion piece to reveal that a hug is a universal sign of affection, conveying for Simran all kinds of meaning: "You're one of us!" "You're not one of them!" "I'm so sorry that I could even think that you were Muslim!" "I'm so embarrassed!" "I'm so relieved!" ("And you're so very handsome!")
But what are we to make of this mythical "Siran"? Is it a simple case of the Texan lady's mixing of Iran with a dash of S-haria? A terrible brew of Syria and Iran? Perhaps we will never know. What "Siran" does convey though is the fear of the Other, the unknown Other. So much so that we don't even know its proper name. What we do know, however (that is, the camp who doesn't know who "Siran" is), is that it is the ne'er-do-well (dare we say "evil"?), evil power that is behind Muslim plots to take over America, the country that symbolizes for so many the principles of freedom, liberty and civilization. The Other, by definition, is not one of us. He, she, it is everything that we are not. The Other is against freedom, against liberty, against civilization.
And this is where the true problem lies as far as Muslims, real flesh-and-blood Muslims of America, the Millions of Muslim Americans who identify with a faith tradition of 1.5 billion flesh-and-blood Muslims who have chosen to make virtually every corner of the world their home: they are part of the intricate, complex, beautiful, exasperating, wondrous, paradoxical, loving (enter your choicest adjectives here) tapestry of humanity. To seek to cut them out is fundamentally impossible. But even to imagine cutting them out by turning to medieval notions of "us" vs. "them" (which was to a degree possible during the middle ages, but certainly not in this age of the global village), is to cut out a portion of our own humanity. We are who we are, in the truest deepest sense, as a result of our coming to know each other -- in the truest, deepest sense.
So, without lingering further on the unconscious media-garbled fears that the Texan lady may have been channeling, I'd like to conclude with two observations: One of the greatest problems facing humanity today is the glut of misinformation and half-truths that so many media outlets rely on for their revenue (not to mention political and big business interests that rely on the same misinformation for their own ends).
The second observation is more of a dream (which is not entirely divorced from reality, as it has, on occasion, been known to happen). When chipper, but somewhat ill-informed, Texans meet men (or women) whom they think are Muslim, and upon inquiry find out that they are indeed Muslim, rather than inwardly recoiling (or even outwardly manifesting their horror) at the prospect of coming face-to-face with a Muslim, they seek to go beyond themselves. That is, they attempt to go beyond the limiting identities that they have assumed for themselves in such situations (American/Western, as opposed to non-Western; modern, as opposed to anti-modern; freedom loving, as opposed to freedom hating, and so forth). In so doing they reach out to the Muslim, human, person sitting across from them and begin: "You're Muslim! I've heard so much about Muslims, but I've always wanted speak to a Muslim in the flesh-and-blood! Perhaps this is my lucky day?"
A conversation ensues...
We continue to have the audacity to believe that there is something redemptive and transformative about a genuine human-to-human encounter, that the recognition of our mutual humanity can cut through echoes of hatred and prejudice.