November 30, 2001

Commentary

I Was a Catholic Schoolgirl:

What Franklin Graham Doesn't Know About Me

By Asma Gull Hasan
An American Muslim

Until last week, I had never heard of Franklin Graham, Billy Graham's son. I also presume that he had never heard of me either: a twenty-something, American Muslims author of Central Asian descent. Despite our never meeting though, Franklin felt free to comment on my religion. He said, "The God of Islam is not the same God. He's not the son of God of the Christian or Judeo-Christian faith. It's a different God, and I believe it is a very evil and wicked religion." So the first time I did hear of him, he was calling my beliefs evil and wicked - an introduction of himself to me I'm sure he intended to make.

His feelings come out at a time when American interest in Islam is at an all-time high. Everyone from Bill Maher of the ABC show Politically Incorrect to President George W. Bush now has a copy of the Qur'an. Muslim mosques all around the country have been holding open houses at what I would guess is a record pace and volume. For me, I have never been busier in my life —since the week after 9/11, I have given over twenty interviews to the media, six speeches, taught at two different schools over a three day period, including the Catholic school I attended as a little girl in Pueblo, Colorado, and have written several editorial pieces.

I was a Catholic schoolgirl-me, a Muslim. My parents never had a problem with it because my mom herself had been a Catholic schoolgirl at a missionary school in her native Pakistan, like many of my parents' Pakistani-American friends Yet many Americans use as emotional ammunition the false assertion that Islam and especially Pakistan require no tolerance for non-Muslims.

I wish Franklin, who suffers from a case of the very same intolerance he accuses Muslims of, could have spent the weeks after the traffic and horrible 9/11 attacks with me, following me around and listening in on the various interviews and speeches I've given all over the country. He would have heard that Muslims believe they are praying to the same God as Christians and Jews and anyone who prays to God. He would have also heard that the Qur'an says that although it is justified to retaliate in self-defense, it is more meritorious to forgive. He would have heard that, even though Muslims do not believe that Jesus is the son of God, they do believe in him as a prophet of God and in his birth to a young virgin named Mary (Maryam in the Qur'an - Islam's holy book). In the Qur'an, Mary asks the Angel Gabriel (Gibreel in the Qur'an), who had just brought her, to quote the Qur'an, the "good news" of a son, how it could be that she could have a child. The Qur'an reads: "She said: `O my Lord! How shall I have a son when no man has touched me?' He said: `Even so; God creates what He wills. When He decrees a thing, He says to it, `Be!' and it is."

I can sympathize with Mary, sexually and otherwise. I've been dumbfounded and perplexed by many of the events including and since 9/11. The Twin Towers that I had attended my law school graduation party in were now gone, destroyed by people claiming to act on behalf of my religion - the religion that I had been all my life that had never inspired me to violence of any kind. The backlash against American Muslims scared me into staying home, only leaving for special occasions like giving one of the aforementioned speeches. I still live like a criminal under house arrest, as if I have an electronic bracelet around my ankle that will trigger at Franklin's headquarters if I were to leave my home casually. My sister, a doctor in Los Angeles, told me she overheard her co-doctors saying. "All the Mahzlems need to be killed or sent home. "Where would I go? I was born in Chicago and raise in Colorado as a Muslim Cowgirl. Maybe Mexico would take me. As Mary asked Gabriel, how can I be with child if no man has touched me, I want to ask God, how can so many people who have never meet me hate me? How can Franklin call my religion and therefore me evil and wicked?

The sixth graders I spoke to at Kent Denver School last week know more than Franklin does about Islam. I would fault Franklin for his ignorance, but he is in fairly decent company. Others who know nothing about the religion of Islam yet speak publicly about it anyway include New York Times Magazine writer Andrew Sullivan, lawyer Ann Coulter, Hispanic comedian Paul Rodriguez, as well as religious fundamentalist Cal Thomas, who masquerades as a political pundit. If any of these people actually knew the basics of Islam, I would not mind so much. But it's obvious to me that they have all picked up a copy of the Qur'an at their local bookstore and anointed themselves experts after scanning the index for the word "kill" and "infidel."

I have been so disappointed with the rampant intellectual dishonesty and vitriol among some of my fellow Americans. Besides quoting out of context, they ignore the historical context of the Qur'an, translational conflicts, as well as overall themes and often the very next line in the verse, which exhorts Muslims to forgive those who wrong them. These wanna-be intellectuals completely ignore the realities of the Islamic world and American Muslims. If out of 1.3 billion people, only 10,000 - 20,000 are either nuts or committed politically to being against American, Muslims are no different than any other group out there. Certainly by being one of the largest groups in the world, Muslims are entitled to their fair share of black sheeps who act out independently of Islam.

Blaming Islam is very alluring. Blaming Islam and assuming that all Muslims, robot-like, read the Qur'an and march off to stereotypical armed jihad is persuasive. Blaming Islam is simple and easy. But Islam is not the explanation for terrorism. Using Islam as an explanation is tempting - the scapegoating prevents us from facing the hard questions. The scapegoating keeps us in the refuge and safe haven that existed as a reality before 9/11. Blaming Islam as a blanket, catch-all for all that is wring in the world is certainly easier than dealing with the complex issues of local, native, and usually un-Islamic culture practiced by many Muslims in the world, the effects of globalization, and the leftovers of a very Cold War.

Even more perplexing than this seemingly deliberate inability or smoke screen to understanding Islam was the positive outreach to American Muslims by Americans. Many non-Muslim Americans have held vigils outside mosques in response to the backlash against American Muslims. I watched video of non-Muslim Americans holding hands, forming a chain around a mosque, wondering how in the world so many non-Muslims actually care about Muslims. A few days after the 9/11 attacks. I watched on television in disbelief as President Bush and his Secret Service took their shoes off per Islamic custom and entered a mosque in the DC area. As he spoke about how American Muslim women who wear hijab should not be afraid to leave their homes and that those who attack them should be "ashamed" of themselves, I said to my father, who was sitting next to me, "This blows my mind." President Bush's speeches have continued to amaze me. One day he pointed out that over a billion people find comfort in Islam and noted that it was a religion of peace.

While I'm glad Bush visited a mosque, I also feel a little pathetic that a mere visit by our president to my place of worship has me so excited. Don't I deserve better? I've been so beaten down as an American Muslims even before 9/11 that even the smallest and most token kindness moves me to tears. Don't America's estimated 7 million Muslims deserve better? Or all of us religious people just supposed to fight it out, locked into the kind of perennial vendettas the Prophet Muhammad and the Prophet Jesus worked so hard to eradicate?

Franklin thinks hating Muslims is acceptable. Wicked people should be treated with wickedness under his logic. Patrick Flanagan, an Irish-American Catholic, is for hate too. He sent an e-mail to my website after I appeared on the Fox News show Hannity and Colmes. He wrote: "How many Muslims fought in the American Revolution. Try zero! How many in our civil war. Zero again! My family has fought in every major American conflict and paid in blood and death for our freedom. Muslims have done very little. Very little! But you have the balls to demand more." When Muhammad began receiving the revelations of the Qur'an, his message, the message of God according to Muslims, was in fact about demanding more. The poor and the hungry, the widows and the orphans of Arabia 1400 years ago were ignore at best and more often mistreated. Arabian society had been based on vendettas and tribal warfare. Muhammad's mission was to end all that, and he succeeded, unifying Arabia in peace before his death in 632 A.D. Through Muhammad, God told the people of Arabia and the world that their actions in their lives would not be forgotten. In fact, people would be held accountable. Hence, zakat (Arabic for charity) became a pillar of Islam - all Muslims, from 1400 years ago when Islam was founded until today, are required to donate a portion of their income to someone worse off than them.

Mr. Flanagan said in his e-mail, "Listen! I never invited you here." He does not know that my father was actually invited to the U.S. because of his medical specialty in Neurology. My dad along with thousands, maybe millions of other immigrants, are welcomed to the United States daily to provide vital jobs that American-born citizens are lacking in. Further, Flanagan does not know that many of the slave brought from Africa to America, about 20 to 30 percent, were Muslims. Anecdotal evidence shows that a small but significant number of these African slaves fought in the American Revolution against the British and many more also in the Civil War. Perhaps zakat motivated them as well or Muhammad's example as set out in the Qur'an of instigating social change in an oppressive society. Muslims explored North America before Columbus did too - definitely before Flanagan's Irish ancestors arrived.

What do Franklin and my e-mail pen pal Flanagan want? Taking their views to the logical conclusion, they want all American Muslims out or gone. Goodbye to all the medical doctors like my dad and sister and all the other health care workers. Goodbye to other law school graduates like me and lawyers and teachers. So long to all the computer engineers. Where does it end though? Are non-Abrahamic faiths next, like Hindus and Sikhs, or are they acceptable since they aren't "wicked"? Jews don't accept Jesus as God or the Son of God either. Will Franklin and Flanagan expel them too in a modern-day Inquisition? Franklin and Flanagan, and all of us, have a choice: they can take pride that I was Catholic schoolgirl, even thought I am Muslim, or they can continue to divide and conquer. The latter will eventually turn America into a Christian version of Saudi Arabia, a country whose human rights record we validly abhor. Yet, it Franklin and Flanagan want all people not like them out, they obviously want to emulate Saudi Arabia.

Franklin should be proud that in our country, we celebrate our diversity. We stand as a shining beacon unto the rest of the world that differences —in opinion, in ethnicity, in religion, in class, in gender— and the celebration of those differences is what makes us uniformly strong. Franklin should be proud that at an event center named for his father, the Reverend Billy Graham, in San Francisco, an unity event drew a 20,000 plus crowd. Franklin should be proud that he has the opportunity to meet those who don't share his views or beliefs. Franklin should be thrilled that a little Muslim girl became a Catholic schoolgirl in American.

Asma Gull Hasan is the author of American Muslims: The New Generation. She is a 2001 graduate of New York University School of Law and is working on her second book, tentatively titled Paradise.

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