Muslims: A Well Kept Secret
As far as I can remember, September 11, 2001 was the first time I became aware of Muslims. I’m sure I never heard the word Islam before that day. Even in the midst of the attack, I didn’t have any reason to believe that the more than 1 billion Muslims in the world at the turn of the century were out to kill Americans- if so we would have been dead already. In the aftermath of the attack, President Bush spoke about Muslims to a joint session of congress on September 20, 2001- his words should be spoken today: “I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your faith. It’s practiced freely by many millions of Americans and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah, blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends. It is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them.”
Shortly after the attack there was the controversy about a mosque to be built near ground zero. Was it good Muslims wanting to build a place of worship, or was it radical Muslims wanting to add salt to the wound? I had no idea what to think. This controversy seemed to be the beginning of blaming all Muslims for the attack.
Issues about Muslims went out of view when we invaded Iraq. There was the Taliban but they just seemed like total extremists and I really didn’t think about them as Muslims- the news was focused on Iraq. This changed when we left Iraq and ISIS began their assault. They said: “Either be a Muslim or we will kill you”. This led to grizzly murders and suicide attacks. And then it hit politics- President Obama was being criticized for not naming the enemy and not going after it effectively. There was the birther movement which not so subtly suggested the reason President Obama wasn’t going after ISIS was he was a Muslim, as if that would have been a bad thing. And then came the 2016 presidential campaign which targeted both Mexicans and Muslims as people who were out to get us- which I never believed for a second.
The problem is that since 9/11 we haven’t had much positive information about Muslims. Continued bad news has a way of wearing you down, drip by drip, stoking fears. So the combination of negative news, occasional terrorist attacks, and campaign rhetoric, made me suspicious of what I didn’t understand about Muslims. This became the trigger for doing a photo essay because my criteria is that the topic is important and people need to know more about it. Understanding Muslims couldn’t fit this criteria any more perfectly.
The first time I thought about approaching a mosque to do a photo essay was after candidate Donald Trump called for the shut-down of Muslims coming into the United States. This made me fearful about how Muslims would be treated. But I backed off out of a feeling of uncertainty. I was uncomfortable because the only information I was getting about Muslims was bad information, even though I knew it couldn’t all be true. But as the inauguration approached and I again feared what could happen to the Muslim community, I went on-line to find a local mosque. When I approached the Islamic Society of Chester County (ISCC; www.isccpa.org) on Jan 14, 2017 about doing a photo essay, I didn’t know what to expect. I thought they might be suspicious of my motives: “What’s this guy up to?” To my surprise and amazement, all of my perceptions and uncertainties about Muslims just melted away. If you don’t know the Muslim community and wonder what Muslims are really like, read on- they are “A Well Kept Secret”.
This photo essay is not meant to be a scholarly study of Muslims and of their religion, Islam (“Submission to God” ). That would be way outside my skill set. This is about getting to know Muslims face to face as real people. With so much in the news that seems to demonize Muslims, or at least put their motives in question in a way that inspires fear, this photo essay is about demystifying Muslims and bringing their humanity into the light.This story is based on my two month experience with the ISCC. I attended several prayer sessions, a fundraising banquet for feeding the hungry, an interfaith youth group, a family night dinner, and I conducted interviews with ISCC members and a family. My purpose is to create openness in non-Muslims to think beyond the unending bad press and to consider reaching out to the Muslim community to find out what these people are all about. I cannot say my small experience defines all Muslims everywhere- there is a wide range of Muslim cultures around the world. Surely no one would say all Jews are the same or all Christians are the same, and there is good and bad in every group. But for more than fifteen years, Muslims have been in the crosshairs with sweeping generalities like those made in the recent campaign, or direct accusations such as made by General Michael Flynn, former National Security Advisor to the Trump Administration. He asserted that Islamism (the application of Islamic teaching to government) is a vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people that has to be excised! Does such language remind you of anything from the last century? I hope it does.
No amount of research could have prepared me for what I experienced when I met Muslims for the first time. I surely can’t translate that to the written word. It would be like trying to describe the taste of a fresh strawberry to readers who have never tasted one. Real understanding requires human connection and that’s what is required to really know Muslims. More contact between Muslims and non-Muslims would go a long way to reducing suspicions that have been fueled by so many events and damaging rhetoric since 9/11.
This photo essay has five parts:
- Introduction to The Islamic Society of Chester County
- Separating Islam and Mainstream Muslims from Terrorism and Brutality
- The Warmth and Generosity of Muslim People
- Muslim Home Life
- Bringing Muslims and non-Muslims Together