By JENNIFER WARNER COOPER
It was fear that drove me to attend the Muslim convention in Hartford on July 7.
In the days and weeks that followed 9/11, we were gripped with incomparable fear. Mothers on soccer sidelines whispered about gas masks on e-Bay. We questioned the efficacy of duct-taped plastic wrap as a household barrier against chemical warfare.
The hysteria has since been quelled, but the fear remains, simmering, and reminders of our vulnerability – a car bomb in Glasgow, Michael Chertoff's "gut feeling"- are too frequent.
But I fear more than potential acts of terrorism: I fear the angry swell of our own anti-Muslim backlash. I fear the ugly vitriol spewed forth on the Internet, where anonymous commentators unleash torrents of raw hatred. When The Courant reported on the Muslim convention, the reader responses on the paper's website were so hateful and profane that the editors shut the comment thread down.
I fear for the Pakistani and Indian boys and girls in Glastonbury, who
hear other children hiss "terrorist!" as they brush past in school
hallways. I fear for the West Hartford teenage Muslim who denies his
faith to avoid being bullied. We've become a nation that sanctions hate
against 1.2 billion fellow inhabitants of the planet – very frightening.
In an effort to confront my fears, I attended the annual convention, which offered a free symposium for non-Muslims.
The speakers were an eclectic mix: A burly Texan praised Allah in his
Southern drawl and spat harsh criticism of hypocritical Christians,
while Yvonne Ridley, a British journalist who was kidnapped by the
Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, spoke about women in Islam. A professor
defined "jihad" and asserted that "Islamic terrorism" is as oxymoronic
as would be "Christian Nazism." He denounced radicals who commit
violent acts in the name of Allah, and lamented that no one is
listening to this Muslim condemnation.
For lunch, non-Muslims were invited to join groups hosted by two
Muslims. The unholy trinity of fear, uncertainty and doubt tapped on my
shoulder, warning me of a recruitment effort, but I pushed my
hesitation aside and got in line.
I joined three college women, a married Congregationalist couple and
two middle-aged Catholic women. Our hosts, a Waterbury man and a New
Jersey woman, were gracious as we sat down to curried chicken and
lentils. The recruitment pitch never came.
What came instead was an inquisition from one of the Catholic women,
who demanded of our male host, "You all seem nice, so why are so many
of you terrorists?"
He didn't flinch, and began to explain that "there are over a billion
Muslims in the world and a small percentage …," but he was
interrupted by the woman who was now purporting that Muslim physicians
in the U.S. are the financial backers of terrorism. She said she'd
formerly had a Pakistani doctor but dropped him because of his
Her words sat for a moment like an ugly and unwelcome centerpiece on our table. And then, we talked.
We talked of the stuff not usually discussed among strangers: Adolf
Hitler. Impressionable youth. Al-Qaida. The bombing of abortion
clinics. Timothy McVeigh, George Bush, Britney Spears. Headscarves.
News bias. Immigration reform. Hatred. We spoke, listened and thought.
The call to afternoon prayer came at 1:15, an ethereal chant offered by
a singular male voice. Thousands of Muslims made their way to the
enormous prayer rugs in the center's cavernous exhibition hall. I
recognized a young girl among the flurry of "sisters" as a classmate of
my sixth-grader. She saw me and squealed, as if in gratitude, "I can't
believe you're here!" We held hands for a moment, then, adjusting her
headscarf – her hijab – she ran off to prayer.
In afternoon sessions, I learned that followers of Islam wear loose
clothing in the interest of modesty. I learned that observant Muslims
don't drink alcohol or eat pork, and that a husband's polygamy is
acceptable if a woman's marriage contract permits it. I learned that
Islamic laws prohibit abortion and the killing of innocent people. And
that in Islam, as in any other faith, extremists twist religious tenets
to justify hateful deeds.
When I left the conference and entered the parking garage, I saw a
Muslim woman walking in my way. Her face was covered, except for her
eyes, by a veil – a niqab. My discomfort and uncertainty returned:
Should I say hello? Is she allowed to speak to me? Does she hate me? Is
she afraid? Am I?
We approached one another. A casual voice came from under the niqab, "Hi, how're you doing?" I could see the smile in her eyes.
I responded in kind. As people do.
Jennifer Warner Cooper is a free-lance writer from Glastonbury.