Last night I participated in a panel discussion on “the religious other.” The panel was held at a Nashville Presbyterian church, so the “other” consisted of three Jews and two Muslims. Chance Dillon, my intern at Wisdom House, moderated. He did (in case he is reading this) a marvelous job.
Two things of interest happened during the event. The first was the realization that the same year one of the Jewish panelist’s sister was making aliyah (moving to Israel) to live freely as a Jew (1958), the father of the Palestinian American panelist was flying to the United States from Palestine (by which she meant Israel) because he could no longer live freely as a Muslim.
This was a moment ripe for deeper discussion, but it passed almost unnoticed. I am working with Chance to bring the two of them together over lunch to explore this further.
The second thing of note was a question a Christian man asked me after the event about the hijab worn by the Muslim woman. He wanted to know why she has to flaunt her Islam, and why she just doesn’t dress American. Her dress makes it clear that she doesn’t want to be American, and maybe wants Americans to be Muslims. The idea of a Muslim American just didn’t make sense.
I suggested he ask her, but he was intimidated. I said that it was an affirmation of her religion, and that to be American is to honor the differences this man wanted to erase. He disagreed. I pointed to my yarmulke and asked why this doesn’t bother him when the hijab does. He said it did bother him, but it was harder to notice. We both made mention of the fact that the Imam was dressed in a blue business suit.
I was wearing all black (as I usually do) either in imitation of my rebbe or in honor of Johnnie Cash. I’m never quite sure which.
What troubled me was my inability to make a convincing case that Americans are not monolithic. We think, eat, speak, act, dress, pray, and play in many different ways. He could see only one: Republican, pork, drawl, haughty, golfer, Protestant, and… well, I couldn’t tell what his game of choice was so perhaps he was a free-thinker after all.
Anyway, just asking the question about the hijab is a huge step in the right direction. For many Americans listening to a Muslim, let alone talking with one, is a novel and potentially life-changing event. I applaud meetings like this and urge all of you to sponsor them in your own houses of worship. And, in case you are wondering, the next one with this group will take place in the Imam’s mosque.