Treasuring Other Images of Islam
The Interfaith Iftar was canceled because of a power outage related to Hurricane Irene. It was to be the first annual interfaith celebration of the end of Ramadan in Chapel Hill. Members of the local Muslim community were sharing the feast at the end of a month of fasting in a gesture of brotherhood with people -outside their faith.
Outreach seems like a wise and timely thing to do as we approach the 10th observance of the attacks of 9/11.
We remember too well the faces associated with those attacks. We can still see the dark, deep-set eyes of Mohamed Atta, the ringleader of the 9/11 hijackers. The gaunt, bearded visage of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden is seared into our memories. We hear "Islam" and think of suicide bombers and American flags burning. These are the only images many Americans have of a religion with which most of us have very little interaction.
There are better images to consider.
For me, the most enduring image of Islam is the building superintendent of the apartment building where my family lived in Izmir, Turkey, when I was 9 and 10 years old. His name was Bashir, and he was a patient and generous man.
Bashir was busy with his young family and had 10 apartments to look after, but he always made time for me. We spent hours each week fishing at the sea wall in front of the building. There were no rods and reels. We used red worms on a hook on fishing line wrapped around a square-shaped piece of cork.
We did this literally hundreds of times in the two years my father was stationed there. And, to the best of my recollection, our hours of communicating without language passed uninterrupted by actually catching fish.
My sister, a high school senior and a free spirit, used to go with her friends to a discotheque several blocks from our apartment. When Cissy broke her curfew, Bashir would retrieve her without prompting, pointing at his watch and saying, "Choke fina, Cissy, choke fina!" - "Very bad, Cissy, very bad!"
Cissy now admits that she looked forward to having Bashir rescue her. She says that by the time he came she was usually ready to call it a night, and Bashir's appearances allowed her to leave without appearing to wimp out.
It says something about Turkey in 1967 that my -sister and I had our run of the city. My parents, by no means lax, trusted us -(probably a mistake in the case of Cissy) and trusted our hosts. Bashir didn't have to be responsible for us. It wasn't his job. Only his innate goodness compelled him to look after us.
That was a long time ago. Most of the Turks we knew are gone.
I was excited to hear Abdullah Antepli, the Muslim chaplain for Duke University and a Turk, on WUNC a year or so ago. I was even more excited to get the chance to meet him at the Wild Goose Festival this past June. Mr. Antepli is a man of good nature and good will - a natural bridge builder.
Aside from being Turks and Muslims, Mr. Antepli and Bashir would seem to have little in common. Bashir was big and rough. Mr. Antepli is scholarly with an easy, infectious smile. The similarity is in the eyes - their kind, soulful eyes. For all their differences, meeting Mr. Antepli confirms that the better spirits I remember from my time in Turkey are still with us.
I should note that not all the Turks we encountered were like Bashir. He would be exceptional anywhere he lived. We met an abundance of kind and patient people in Turkey, along with more than a few who were not. Turkey is where I began to understand that people are just people wherever you find them.
There are extremists. We ignore them at our peril. But if we would marginalize evil in the world, let us do so by seeking out and engaging the good - which is abundant if we can see beyond the images fed to us.
We should consider that among the first victims of the attacks of 9/11 was the entire American Islamic community. This year, may we finally understand that victory over those who attacked us comes not from rising against, but from -rising above those dark forces.
Peace, understanding and reconciliation are the -ultimate repudiation of extremism. Let us choose to be blessed. Let us be -peacemakers.
Kevin Smith lives in Aberdeen. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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