There was a time that I was mostly innocent of knowing anything about Islam.
I remember learning about Islam in school in the ’80s; it was a religion practiced by a bunch of people in parts of the world I’d never been to, lumped in my mind with Hinduism and Buddhism and Shintoism into the category of “other weird religions.” My, how times change.
The only real interaction I had with Islam was over the Israel/Palestinian crisis. I am unabashedly a supporter of Israel. That’s what being half-Jewish gets you, really. I’m not a hard-liner about it, but Israel has a right to exist, and I viewed the Islamic world’s hard position on Israel and a lot of the PLO’s actions in the ’90s with extreme skepticism. The Israelis needed their home, and the Palestinians, well, they were Arabs and had an entire Middle East to live in: They didn’t need that tiny, tiny strip of land.
Then 9/11 happened.
I remember watching the towers fall. I was an adult, twenty-five years old, standing in a bathrobe in front of a TV trying to make sense of the impossible pictures and death. It was like a bad action movie, only it was real, and those dots falling out of the collapsing towers were real, live human beings, plummeting to their deaths. My father was in Washington, DC during the attacks, and watched the third plane strike the Pentagon out the State Department window. And then the last plane crashed out in Schwenksville, its valiant passengers daring to try to do what was right, and etching their names in the pantheon of American heroes.
And I remember very distinctly watching, on that very same day, video of Palestinians dancing, dancing, dancing, and cheering in the streets. Celebrating the deaths of another man. And I thought to myself — regardless of religion — who does that? Who dances when another man dies?
In that moment, Islam became a dirty word.
Good men don’t dance in the streets when their fellow men are murdered. Therefore, these men I see cannot be good.
In five seconds of video, Islam went from a “religion of peace” to an absolute evil. The Palestinian claim to Israeli land? Forfeit, null, and void. The Arabic claims of mistreatment at the hands of Americans? Voided. The claim that Islam was on equal footing with all other religions? An absolute falsehood.
I was then supportive of efforts to seek out Bin Laden. The perpetrators of that evil had to be found, and stopped. And while I tried hard to be reasonably fair, it was impossible for me to give Islam an equal shake with every other religion. It had perpetrated an unfathomable evil, and though there were those who claimed it was still a religion of peace, that the Wahhabists who wrought that terrible crime were unsupported by the majority, the video of the Palestinians dancing and celebrating spun on endless loop in my head, and contradicted any contrary claims about their religion.
But I am a researcher by nature, and I read. To better understand our joint foe, I read about them: About the origins of Islam and Mohammad, about the Sunni/Shia split, about its early spread, about the European and American mistakes there in the 19th and 20th centuries, about the birth of Wahhabism, about the origins of Israel and the Palestinian crisis, about Bin Laden and the growth of Al Qaida, and about Islam in its present day.
To my chagrin, many of the things that were predicates on which America founded its attacks in the Middle East in the early 2000s were false. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Afghanistan was a failed state of guerrilla thugs, not a violent Islamic power bent on world domination. The Iranian revolution was, frankly, more directly America’s fault than it was anything else, and they had every right to be angry over us propping up the Shah.
But still, I viewed Islam with considerable skepticism. Knowing it better raised a lot of questions about it, but it was still an enemy at the gates, and it still had to be stopped. Those 1.6 billion people were all either potential violent attackers or brainwashed accomplices or simply dupes.
I equally distinctly recall the moment my position on Islam changed. Thank you, Mr. Khizr Khan.
I suppose I knew that there were Muslims in the military before Mr. Khan spoke at the Democratic National Convention. I saw the crescents at Arlington National Cemetery. But it didn’t come home quite the same way as it did when he spoke. Here was a husband and wife, devoted parents who had lost their only son. Their son had made the ultimate sacrifice: He had joined the military, gone overseas at his country’s asking, and came back in a box draped with an American flag. And far from being bitter, Mr. Khan was defiant. Their family had offered the ultimate sacrifice for America, and the only thing that Mr. Khan asked, the only thing he insisted on, was respect for the Constitution and what it stood for. Respect for America, for the rights and freedoms and truths it was founded on. Respect for his home — and nothing about his religion.
He was an American first, and a Muslim second.
That moment struck me. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I had always seen Islam as an overriding force: Its adherents were Muslim before all else, and therefore couldn’t really be human first. They couldn’t be humane first. And they certainly couldn’t be American first. But here was Khizr Khan, and he and his wife had sacrificed more for the belief that all men are created equal than anyone I knew had. Here was a man shaking a copy of the Constitution on live TV, and insisting that it was more important than who belonged to which religion, that its insistence of freedoms and rights mattered more than our petty squabbles, that its assurances and guarantees were worth any price. Here was a good man holding up that document I hold so dear and insisting that it was worth the ultimate sacrifice — that he had paid and I had not.
Over the course of the next month, my animosities crumbled. I read and I read and I read and I read, and a decade of hateful walls began to fall down.
Today, I still have some skepticism of Islam. But it’s mostly academic: I have some real, hard questions about its founding, and equally hard questions about its early spread. I have no good answers about the Israel/Palestine mess. And many of the bad things I had formerly attributed to Islam I now rightly attribute to problems in traditional Arabic culture, such as the region’s abysmally poor record on women’s rights.
But all of those are isolated components. 1.6 billion people mostly view Islam as a peaceful, stabilizing force, and I now respect that as it is. There’s a tiny fraction of a percentage of those people that are troublemakers, and while a tiny fraction of a percentage is large in absolute numbers when multiplied by 1.6 billion, it’s still a tiny fraction of a percentage. Christianity is neither better nor worse on its percentages. Most Muslims want the same things I want: To have a home, to have a job, to have a daily meal, to have a spouse, to raise their families, to watch their children learn and grow, to live in a peaceful place, to have meaning in their lives.
Which is a very long and roundabout way of saying that I finally see Muslims for simply what they are: People.
Not evil monsters, not villains, not caricatures, not a violent force to be opposed at all costs, and certainly not the standing army in an impending clash of civilizations: The followers of Islam are people, other human beings, mostly good most of the time just like anyone else, and neither more nor less than that.
It’s a shame it took me so long to get there.