Love Thy Neighbor?

A few days ago, a friend of mine posted a pair of maps on Facebook, purporting to show a causative link between terrorist activity in the US and the concentration of Mosques related to that activity. It brought back a memory from the days after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. As could be expected, many extremists and racists in the US began targeting Muslims and individuals thought to be Muslim in retaliation for these attacks. While this activity wasn’t particularly widespread, any such activity has to be condemned and prosecuted. It’s neither morally just nor patriotic to target people groups for any reason. This brings me to my story.

The 9/11 attacks took place on Tuesday, and the following Saturday I found myself eating in the food court of a local mall, surrounded by shops, waiting to meet some friends at the theater for an afternoon movie. To my left, about 30 feet away, was a flag shop, the kind that sells flags from all countries and states around the world. I sat quietly, eating my lunch, when I noticed a man of either Arab or Persian descent, with his son who appeared to be about 5 years old. They stood about 10 feet away from me, staring into the flag shop. I could hear every word they said.

The man seemed indecisive, shifting nervously from one foot to the other, while his son looked up, confused and wondering why they stood in front of a flag shop at all. “Daddy, why are we buying an American flag?” the boy asked, over and over again. The father stood silently, not answering his son at first. He would look down at his son and flash a nervous smile, occasionally patting a reassuring hand on his son’s back. This went on for about ten minutes while I finished up my chicken sandwich. Finally, the father answered his son. I’ll never forget what he said for the rest my life.

He knelt down next to the boy and said, “Because we want them to know we are not dangerous.”

I sat for minute in my chair and let that statement sink in. This man was afraid, not because he had done something and feared retribution, but because he knew retribution might come anyway. So what did I do? I did nothing. I finished lunch, watched the father and his son go into the flag shop, and went to my movie.

But I should have done more. I should have introduced myself, apologizing for my intrusion. I should asked the man about his heritage, learned a little bit of his story and what brought him to the flag shop on that day. I should have gone into the shop, gotten a flag from his country of origin and the American he felt he needed. I should have said, “Fly these flags proudly, as they represent your heritage. No one need prove their loyalty to America. Just act with integrity and dignity. Nothing else really matters.”

These two things present a real conundrum to me. My personal experience with Muslims has been overwhelmingly positive. I have found them to be a welcoming, proud people no matter their ethnicity or cultural background. I have attended a Friday service at a Mosque. But these experiences stand in contrast to the media coverage of Muslim countries. If that coverage is to be believed, then persecution of minorities and women is rife throughout the Muslim world. We are treated with stories of stoning, execution, imprisonment, genital mutilation, and a general lack of freedoms. Christians in Saudi Arabia and Iran face imprisonment for openly expressing their faith. Women cannot drive or leave their homes without their husbands in some countries. So, which experience is most representative of Muslim culture?

My answer is, it doesn’t matter. I cannot take my frustrations for the oppression in other countries out on my neighbors. I am charged to love them, to take care of them when they need me, and accept them where they are, regardless of whether they share that sentiment or not. America remains a great nation because we allow such diversity to live side by side with the expectation that all men and women will respect the rights of their counterparts. This is an ideal, of course, and imperfectly practiced at best.

But no one need hide their heritage or prove their loyalty to America out of fear of retribution. No fathers need tell their sons, “We want them to know we are not dangerous.”