Unsure of the public’s reaction in the days immediately following 9/11, Dr. Saleh Sbanaty and his family refused to go outside for fear of violence, heckling, or worse. One day, however, necessity got the better of them and they traveled to the grocery store to pick up a few things. While walking the aisles toward the cash registers, Dr. Sbanaty felt a hand on his shoulder.
He turned around to see a woman he had never seen before. She looked him in the eyes.
Though for a moment time seemed to slow to a halt, Dr. Sbanaty’s pulse quickened. Would she yell? Would she spit? Dr. Sbanaty did not know.
“You are welcome in this community,” she said.
Instead of insults and hate, she spoke words of encouragement and acceptance, even though she knew nothing of the man before her– a professor of engineering at Middle Tennessee State University and a devout Muslim. She was able to see him as a person, not a talking point.During FLP’s hiatus, we’ve seen religiously-motivated violence, political unrest, anti-American protests, massacres, shootings, the bizarre national argument over same-sex marriage fought over a fast-food chicken sandwich, debates over foreign and domestic policy, bombings, landmark Supreme Court decisions and more– and all the while we argue and denigrate one another as we disagree. Much of it has left me confused and disappointed; everything seems so broken, so irreparable.
This feeling of disappointment at humanity’s ability to talk about tough issues hits home for me. Many of you will have heard of the controversy that began some time ago surrounding the construction and opening of the mosque and Islamic community center in Murfressboro, TN. I’ve even written about it a couple of times on Faith Line Protestants.
During my orientation at Sewanee last August, we heard from Dr. Saleh M. Sbenaty, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro who has advocated for the building of the mosque and spoken on its behalf to the media on numerous occasions. The story at the beginning of this post comes (albeit slightly paraphrased) from the talk he gave that day a couple of months ago.
His daughter, Lema, a strong, proud, hijab-wearing young woman, joined him at our orientation and delivered the powerful story of her experience in the Murfreesboro community as both a student at the university and as a worker at a local pharmacy. She too has spoken publicly on behalf of the Murfreesboro Islamic Center, and has even appeared on CNN and other prominent news outlets to share her story and fight common misconceptions that follow Muslims in this country.
It brought tears to my eyes to hear how she had been treated– how customers had refused her service at the pharmacy, and how people stared and jeered and taunted. The Sbanatys aren’t strangers to the Murfreesboro community; indeed, Dr. Sbanaty has lived in Middle Tennessee for around a quarter of a century, and the area is the only home his children have ever known. Lema spoke with as much of a drawl as any good country girl I know, seeming just as at home in her cowboy boots and fashionable jeans as she did in her head scarf. Yet she and her fellow Muslims have found themselves treated in recent years as outsiders rather than neighbors.
In addition to his identity as a Muslim and a university professor, Dr. Sbanaty is also from Syria, having obtained his undergraduate education at Damascus University. You could see the pain in his eyes when he talked about the current struggle plaguing his home country. I felt ashamed that here in America we couldn’t offer him something more than just less persecution, less danger, than what he would now face in his home country.
Despite their recent struggle with parts of the community and country-at-large, Lema and her father had positive stories to tell in addition to their sad ones– stories of the mountains of support they have seen from local churches and other groups that have come in to advocate on their behalf.
Yet this support seemed betrayed when the construction of the mosque hit so many snags. Arson, vandalism, and legal obstructionism have all taken their toll on the Muslim community in Murfreesboro, despite the opening of the mosque last summer. It makes me think: with all the arguing, name-calling, and ill-informed discussion, what do we lose in the background? What stories go untold, unheard? Surely something gets lost among our soundbites and rapid-fire commentaries.
Something Dr. Sbanaty said about the situation in Syria struck me rather deeply. He urged us to consider that, despite the simplistic narratives fed to us in the drone of endless news cycles, the actual environment in many of these countries that produces such violence comes not simply from the Muslim faith, but from the years of oppression, mis-management of funds, militarism, and complex socio-political and even tribal contexts that produce what we have seen in everything from the Arab Spring to the anti-American sentiment prevalent in some of the region. (Our own military intervention in these countries might also have something to do with it, I’d wager.)
What gets lost among the rubble of our terrible discussions, I think, is personhood. Polarization erases personhood. Whether it be in Murfreesboro, TN or Damascus, Syria– polarization pushes stories and individual experience out of the way for an easy stereotype or an easier cliche. What this presupposes about human dignity should give us pause.
As a Christian, I believe in the inherent worth of all God’s children.Therefore I also believe in the inherent worth of all these children’s stories, their lives. Just as Frank Fredericks’ wonderful post earlier this week about the parable of the Good Samaritan challenges us, I too want to challenge us to think: what goes unnoticed when we are unwilling to listen? What stories go untold?
Interfaith work can be a way of telling those stories. Tell them. Hear them. Share them.