You know, I actually keep a Muslim database in my head. For security purposes. Here are just a few of the people who are on it:
When I was in high school I joined the Amnesty International letter writing club that met after school, and there was a Muslim girl from my school who was already in the club who taught me how to write letters filled with hopeful messages to political prisoners.
A while later I went to visit a local mosque with this same Muslim friend of mine and a Jewish friend of mine, to meet my Muslim friend’s mother there. My friend’s mother wore a hijab, and even though my Jewish friend and I didn’t ask her any questions about it I guess she was used to getting questions about it from her daughter’s friends because she sort of preemptively told us a story about it. This hijab-wearing mother worked in health care and she said, “When I see Christian patients, little kids, at the office, sometimes they call me Mother Mary, because of my scarf, and I love that, because Mary is a very holy woman in our tradition. It’s such an honor that children think I might be her. All our religions, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, come from the same source. We are all really one people.” Then she said she hoped we would come back to the mosque again sometime, and mentioned that there were donuts upstairs if we wanted to grab some on the way out.
My senior year of high school, I was supposed to go to prom with this one kinda-friend, kinda-maybe-more-than-a-friend of mine, only we argued and he decided to go with someone else and I was going to go all alone or maybe even not go at all, and it was seriously going to be THE END OF THE WORLD for me at seventeen, except that this other friend of mine, a Muslim guy, asked me to go with him. His parents were a little nervous about him going with me because my family wasn’t Muslim, and my mom was a little nervous about me going with him because his family were Republicans, but our parents let us go anyway. He picked me up in his compact car because his parents weren’t down with putting teenagers in limousines, but he opened that tiny car door for me with a flourish like I was a princess, and we both laughed. And he talked about Star Trek the whole way there, which was awesome actually because I like Star Trek, and when we got to prom he confessed to me that he’d never actually danced with a girl before, and I replied, “That is great news, because now I know you will have no idea that I am a terrible dancer.” So I taught him to dance, badly. And in return, the whole night, this Muslim friend of mine very politely pretended really hard not to notice that I kept glancing past him to spy on the guy I was supposed to have gone to prom with.
(Now that same Muslim friend who totally saved my senior prom night when we were teenagers is a doctor who saves children’s lives at my local ER.)
In college I fell in love with the Classical Sanskrit playwright Kalidasa after reading Sakuntala and the Ring of Recollection in translation. There weren’t any Sanskrit classes at my college but there WAS a brand new Hindi department, so I decided to take a class in Hindi. The entire shiny new Hindi department at my University was really just one professor, a Muslim woman from India. She spoke five languages and could make great puns in every one. (She was also really patient with my retroflex consonants. Which were terrible.)
That same year I almost lost my financial aid package at the university, because my mother, who, after a family tragedy, had recently, suddenly, sold everything she owned moved across the country, had failed to fill out some paperwork on time. I was scared and and embarrassed to talk to the school administrators about my dilemma; I was 19; I was painfully shy; I didn’t want to have to explain all of my family problems in detail to strangers. My “official” adviser wasn’t much help. My Hindi professor was the one who, even though she was busy running an entire new department by herself, took the time to persuade a secretary from the Comparative Literature department to talk to a dean who talked to five different people in the financial aid department until eventually I could get approval to be declared a financially independent student, so I could stay in school even though my parents had stopped supporting me. My professor confided in me, “When I first came to study in this country, I had so much trouble with the financial aid department at my school! They lost my paperwork twice. I lived on beans and rice for a year.” Then she said, “Don’t give up. And don’t ever be ashamed to ask for help when you need it. Be proud instead that you are willing to work so hard to get a good education regardless of the circumstances you face at home. You must finish college.”
At the same university, in a class on mystical religious poetry from around the world, I met a young Muslim woman who had moved here from Iran, who didn’t like to be called Iranian. “I am Persian,” she would say. Unlike my high school friend’s mother, she didn’t wear a hijab. She had memorized hundreds of lines of Sufi poetry. She was excellent at flirting. She taught me how to make proper Persian tea, in a glass cup, with cardamom. “That boyfriend of yours is no good,” she told me. “He’s controlling. You should leave him.”
A few weeks after the tenth or so time she told me that, my (Catholic) boyfriend punched a hole through our apartment wall. Right next to my head, which he missed by just inches. My Persian Muslim friend was totally right.
My Muslim database also lists the doctor who, when my baby was having an allergic reaction to amoxicillin and was screaming in pain, held my hand and looked me in the eyes and told me everything was going to be okay. The little girls from down the street who I always see dancing in their front yard, with their mothers’ garden’s flowers in their hair. Their dad, who owns a store a few blocks away, who smiled so patiently the first time my son paid for a chocolate milk himself, and helped him count his change.
This is my Muslim database. I keep a list of these names, and the names of many other Muslim people I have met, in my mind, for security reasons. Because any time I see my social media stream or the cable news channels fill with examples of hateful Islamophobia, these are the wonderful, kind people I personally know who are threatened by that fear and hatred. These are the people I want to do a security check on, to make sure no fear-driven ignorant fool, who is apparently too confused to tell insane terrorists– who violate their own religion’s tenets by claiming to justify the murder of innocents is in its name– apart from perfectly ordinary, sane Muslim people, has slashed my friends’ tires or thrown rocks through their windows, or worse.
These friends on my personal list are the same people a frontrunning U.S. presidential candidate just said should have their places of worship shut down, should be forced to be placed on a government list, should be forced to carry around a special extra ID marking them as somehow less American, or maybe even less human, than I am.
The people in my Muslim database are real human beings and they are my friends and neighbors and they are as American as I am, and as entitled to freedom from religious persecution as I am. And I will stand up and speak out to protect their security, and their freedom, and their civil rights, just as I would defend the security and freedom and rights of any other group of Americans threatened with discrimination on the basis of their religion.
I hope you will, too.