This may surprise you. You might not think of Mike Pence’s state of Indiana as the kind of place I would wish to be during the Muslim holy month of fasting. Nevertheless, just a few miles down the road from former Klan Grand Dragon David Duke’s hometown lies the college town of Bloomington, Indiana, where I was closer to the American Muslim community than anywhere else I’ve lived.
In part, this was because I was a graduate student in the department of Near Eastern Languages, where most of my classmates and friends were Muslim, either born or converted. In part, this was because I had just returned from a challenging, wonderful, intense, overwhelming two years in the Peace Corps in rural Jordan, and I gravitated towards Arabs and students of Arabic who could maybe begin to understand that experience and my complicated feelings about leaving my little Muslim kingdom.
When I had first come to Bloomington, as a new Masters student and a newly returned Peace Corps Volunteer, I knew no one there. After meeting the other new students in my department at IU, one of my first stops was at the Unitarian Universalist congregation in town. I knew I would find “my people” there — raging liberals with eclectic intellectual tastes … in contrast to the raging liberals of more specific intellectual tastes in my department….
Within a few weeks, I approached someone — it may have been the minister — about what I could volunteer to do for the congregation. The subject of my having lived in a Muslim country came up, and he asked, “Do you know Elizabeth?”
“Of course!” A round-limbed young lady of about 88 years old, frequently in lavender, usually with a walker, Elizabeth was a fixture at the front doors of the congregation, always quick with a cheerful greeting and, more often than not, some advice or a surprisingly raunchy joke.
“She always coordinates our Ramadan iftar dinner with the Bloomington mosque, and she could always use some help.”
So I approached Elizabeth, who already knew me by name, too, and who put me in touch with a woman at the mosque who had volunteered to coordinate from their end, an American-born Muslim I’ll call Jane. It wasn’t complicated from our end. The UUs would provide the space and advertise the program to our community, and the mosque would provide everything else: set-up, food, a speaker to explain Ramadan and the fast, a prayer leader, plenty of hungry Muslims, and cleanup after. (Of course, on the night of our iftar, there were plenty of UU congregants around to help with set-up and clean-up, too!)
The whole endeavor was a well-oiled machine, having very little to do with Elizabeth and me, or even with the fact that this was a yearly event at the UU church. While the Bloomington mosque suited the Muslim community there just fine on most Friday afternoons for prayer, it was a relatively small building. Especially given how attendance swelled during Ramadan, it was difficult to hold community iftar in their building, so the Muslim congregation coordinated with larger houses of worship around town who could accommodate their full fasting community, with the additional benefit of being an opportunity to educate the town about its Muslim community and build interfaith bridges that could have all kinds of later benefits.
It didn’t hurt that Muslim-owned restaurants and groceries all around town — Turkish, Moroccan, Afghan, Indian, Lebanese… — took turns donating massive quantities of fragrant, delicious, filling food to share with the hosting congregation. As early as the 1930s, IU had built its reputation on recruiting one of the most diverse student bodies in the country — more than a third international students — and many of them seem to stay in the area and open restaurants serving their native cuisines.
Some of my professors and classmates were there, and many of my friends from the UU congregation, but also Muslims from across the student body and the community — men and women, families with children — whom I had never met and didn’t recognize.
Our Rev. Bill and the mosque’s imam introduced themselves on the dais of the sanctuary as old friends who had done a lot of work together, for peace, for students, and for the local community. Some explanations were offered of Ramadan and the rituals daily prayer. When the time was exactly right, at the very moment that the setting sun would first be touching the horizon, the imam gestured to a man in the corner, and the resonant rising and falling drone of the adhan–the call to prayer echoed through the sanctuary. Rev. Bill stepped aside and the imam turned his back on the congregation, adjusting a pair of microphones at the edges of his prayer mat so we could hear as he led the prayer.
We had been invited to watch, even to participate, but it felt wrong to me to insert myself into this holy moment, so I stepped out and across the way to the Fellowship Hall. Children ran, laughing, around the big wood-accented room, while women in hijab and women from our congregation arranged big aluminum catering trays on a row of long tables.
There must have been dates there, or perhaps on the many round tables — traditionally whole dried dates are the first food eaten to break the day’s fasting, as the Prophet Muhammad did 1400 years ago. My neighbors in Jordan had usually paired their dates with rosewater, or hand-squeezed lemonade, and thick Turkish coffee for those whose caffeine addiction had been pounding in their temples for hours. For many others, cigarettes would immediately follow the meal.
Soon enough, the prayers were over and the crowd of mingled Unitarians and Muslims filled the Fellowship Hall for food and conversation. That was when the most consequential and transformative thing happened that evening, but it would be a week or more before I heard that story.
To understand the real impact of that single shared meal, and why it has stuck with me through the intervening decade, I think the story of Sayyid Qutb is important context.
If Osama Bin Laden is the most famous terrorist mastermind claiming to represent Islam, Qutb may be the most consequential. Born and raised in Egypt, in 1948 he departed for what is now the University of Northern Colorado on a scholarship to study the American education system. Upon his return to Egypt in 1950, he published a scathing repudiation of American culture, and in one of his later books, he describes some of his experiences as a person of color in America, and particularly the experience of attending church dances in Colorado as alienating, and as defining moments in his rejection of Western secularism. He went on to be hanged for plotting the death of Egyptian President Gamaal Abdel Nasser, and Qutb’s extensive writing on Islam is widely cited by Osama Bin Laden and other terrorist masterminds as inspiring their reigns of terror.
Although the the data we have on suicide bombings by those claiming to represent Islam is not sufficient to yield any statistically significant answers to who becomes a suicide terrorist, it is frequently noted that many perpetrators are well educated. Many have graduate degrees, often from American and European institutions, and inasmuch as we are able to discern their motivations from their statements, family members and failed bombers, radicalization happens far, far too often through the experience of being Muslim in a non-Muslim institution.
Ten days or more after the iftar, I was greeted by Elizabeth in the church vestibule as usual. She wanted me to know that she had heard from Jane, who had in turn heard from several young men at the mosque about their experience of iftar with the Unitarian Universalists. They were all students at IU, mostly in the engineering department, a small group of Saudi friends who had sought Jane out together to tell her their story.
Like everyone around the world, these guys were familiar with America’s problematic reputation well before they arrived, and they came with some solid and not too flattering expectations. They had been in the U.S. for a couple months now, and they told Jane, “All the bad things we were warned about in America … they were true.”
She didn’t elaborate on those expectations, but I could guess. It was the height of the worst violence against American troops in Iraq, and America had only recently supported Israel’s deadly all-out assaults on Lebanon and Gaza in the summer of 2006. Islamophobia was high, on top of America’s usual racism, distrust of immigrants and impatience with broken English. Particularly on a college campus, liberal American views on relationships and public affection are on full display, plus IU could be something of a party school (or maybe that’s just because I lived behind Greek Row…). It’s easy to imagine the stereotypes that might have been reinforced for these Saudi students.
“Before the iftar, we wanted to leave America and never come back,” they told Jane, “but at that iftar, we started talking to the Unitarians, and they really listened to us. Finally, we’ve met Americans who want to get to know us, who respect us, who think the way we do on some things. It completely changed the way we feel about America. We feel okay staying now.”
This is how peace happens: breaking bread together, stuffing our faces with pilaf and sweets and talking together.