One afternoon this past October, I was sitting at the bar in a packed out Starbucks when a young, Middle Eastern man tapped me on the shoulder. “Is it okay if I sit here?” he asked in a thick accent, pointing at the chair to my immediate right.
I nodded my head and told him that was absolutely okay. I was kind of taken aback that he had even asked. Most people would have quickly hopped up into that chair without a word (seats at Starbucks are hard to come by!). I scooted over to give him some room as he situated himself and pulled some materials out of his bag – an iPhone and a spiral notebook. Being the nosey person that I am, I eyed the content of his notebook as he flipped through the pages. I saw lots and lots of written lines—one sentence written in a foreign language, the next sentence written in English—repeated continually down each piece of paper. The thick accent combined with what looked to be efforts to learn the English language led me to suspect he had just freshly landed on American soil.
“Sir?” he whispered, stretching out his hand timidly to get my attention, “I’m sorry to interrupt you, but could you help me understand how to connect to this place’s Internet?” After I walked him through connecting to the Starbucks Wi-Fi, he gave me some dap (fist bump), thanked me, and introduced himself, “My name is Ibrahim. It’s nice to meet you.”
For the next hour and a half, Ibrahim and I chatted about many different things. He told me he was born and raised in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where his entire family still lives. He grinned from ear to ear as he told me about his hardworking father who has made sacrifice after sacrifice to ensure Ibrahim could come to the U.S. for his college education. And his mother – he could have gone on for days about his love for his mother! It was evident from just the first fifteen minutes of talking with Ibrahim that he loved and missed his family intensely.
As we continued to chitchat, he mentioned something in passing about prayer. I guess he saw my eyes light up because he paused in mid-sentence and then backtracked a bit. “You know that I am Muslim, right? Is that okay with you?” he asked. I could sense the hesitation in his voice and suspected that he had already faced some uncomfortable situations because of his ethnicity and religion. I’ve spent my entire life in the ultra-conservative, right wing South and know well the judgmental, suspicious attitudes many hold toward Muslims.
“Of course it’s okay with me,” I reassured him. “I mean, I’m a Christian and I don’t believe Islam is the truth, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be friends.” He smiled and gave me some dap, again. He seemed super pleased, and I think a bit shocked, at my response. To show him all the more I was tolerant (in the true sense of the word) of his religion, I began to ask him questions about his beliefs and practices. The remainder of our conversation was spent gently, respectfully, and dare I say it – lovingly – dialoguing about Islam, Christianity, and the differences between the two.
As has been true of every Muslim person I have ever met, Ibrahim’s devotion to Allah is something to be marveled at. After I commended him for his devotion (and told him all the devotion in the world can’t make something true and right if it’s not true and right), Ibrahim was quick to say that his practice of Islam is one filled with love, peace, mercy, forgiveness, and tolerance. I’ve read portions of the Quran and don’t think you can really be loving, peaceful, merciful, forgiving, and tolerant to all if you really wish to obey all of its commands. However, I decided not to point this out in that moment, because I sensed what he was trying to get at and didn’t want to detract from his point. I think Ibrahim was contrasting himself against the “devout” Islamic radical extremists like ISIS. I think he wanted to make sure I knew he wasn’t one of them.
Ibrahim is Muslim, but he doesn’t hate people who aren’t. He isn’t some crazy, suicide-bombing maniac. He is just Ibrahim – a nineteen year old young man from the other side of the world who wants to worship Allah and also be friends with people who don’t. When I walked away from the conversation with my new friend that day, I knew he wanted me to know above all else that he was just a nice, regular guy.
My intent today is not to wade into political waters. There are enough folks getting into all that. I wrote this blog merely to remind my American friends that the overwhelming majority of Muslim people are just people, not killers. I have taken massive issue over the last few days with the way many fearful Westerners are vilifying and dehumanizing not just ISIS, but all Middle Eastern, Islamic people. Here are just a couple of comments I’ve seen on Facebook this morning pertaining to the Syrian refugees – not ISIS, but the Syrian refugees in general:
“I say wipe them off this planet. They are terrorizing so many people and countries…. There isn’t any other way around it.”
“They are all programmed to kill and destroy Christians! From the time they can walk and talk!!”
Really? This is ignorance. This is foolishness. This is hatred. This has to stop.
It’s been said over and over, but the horse obviously isn’t dead so I’ll say it again: Not every Muslim is a terrorist. Not every Syrian refugee is trying to infiltrate countries under the guise of helplessness to slay innocent people. It is an extremely small sect of Islam that is responsible for the horrors that took place in Paris and have been taking place in other areas of the world (that we never hear about nor does anyone seem to care about). My friend Ibrahim – and multitudes of other Muslims like him – is not to blame for the hellish acts of ISIS, and he shouldn’t be looked at, talked about, or treated like he is.