One evening two years ago, when my soft-spoken Libyan brother-in-law Naji was visiting us in Chapel Hill, we ran into a friend who was out for a walk with his mentally ill wife.
He wrapped his arm protectively around her as she spoke. Her thoughts burst out all at once and scattered everywhere, like a flock of birds at the sound of gunshot. Her husband patiently waited for her to finish rambling.
When I commented later that our friend cares for his sick wife with remarkable grace, Naji nodded.
“That’s his jihad,” he said soberly.
He meant that caring for a loved one who is ill is a spiritual trial – and that God rewards those who struggle mightily, in private ways, to increase their patience, tolerance and compassion. This is how my husband, Ismail, and every other Muslim I know understands jihad: as a quietly heroic internal struggle, a constant effort to become a better person.
At the time of Naji’s visit, it seemed that every day terrorists, pundits, or politicians were misrepresenting Islam in the news. This bothered me, especially since I had recently converted, but the claims of ISIS or Islamophobes about my precious new faith seemed too outrageous to be believed by any reasonable person.
Besides, it was all so far away from my life in Chapel Hill. Little did I know that the following year, three beautiful young Muslims would be murdered in our hometown, or that a year after that a presidential candidate would advocate barring Muslims from this country and tell stories about shooting them with bullets dipped in pig’s blood.
Emboldened by Trump’s hateful rhetoric, people seem to have become more and more vocal about their Islamophobia. My best friend’s son Yusuf – a handsome teenage soccer star with a shy smile – was eating lunch in the school cafeteria when another kid sat down across from him, declared Trump was right about Muslims, then leaned forward and asked if Yusuf planned to blow anyone up. When Yusuf stood up to leave the table, his tormentor taunted him with calls of “Allahu Akhbar.”
Not long after that, on a cold day at the park, I saw a dad point to a kindergartener in a ski mask. “Hey, you look like Isis!” he said – and then, pumping the air with his fist, he began to chant, “Allahu akbhar!” My skin prickled at the callous misuse of words that are sacred to Muslims, but I hesitated to speak up.
As much as I wanted to judge this man for his comment, it was not entirely his fault: ISIS caused this problem by presenting such an obscene distortion of Islam to the world. As one of many blonde moms in skinny jeans at the park, it was easy for me to blend in, but my Muslim friends who wear headscarves don’t have that option. One of them was yelled at the other day during her subway commute by strangers who called her a terrorist. Normally compassionate, quick-witted, and outspoken, she called in sick the next day because she could not face her morning commute.
A framed piece of Arabic calligraphy hanging on the wall in my home reads Allahu Akhbar. Often translated as God is great, it actually means God is greater. Than what? Than anything that divides us: our skin color, our faith, our ethnicity, our class, our politics. And God is greater than hatred and ignorance.
Because we believe this, my husband, Ismail, will host and I will moderate a discussion at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 6, at Flyleaf Books, 752 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in Chapel Hill, called “Straight Talk with Real Muslims.” An eclectic panel of your Muslim neighbors – including a potter, a ghost hunter, a passionate Tar Heel fan, a prison doctor, and a former bartender – will answer any question about Islam, terrorism, politics, faith, or anything else that comes up.
There will be no “experts” in the room – this will not be a scholarly or academic discussion – just real people speaking sincerely about what matters to all of us. Please join us – and together we can counter hateful rhetoric with down-to-earth, openhearted conversation.
Krista Bremer is the author of “A Tender Struggle: Story of a Marriage.”