Muslim for a Month: It’s Not for Sissies…

This is my 9/11 post. Better late than never! And, it’s a little longer than my usual two pages. I’ll be especially brief, next time!
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In 2001, I merely read about a hate crime that changed my life, too. I’m referring to the Mesa, Arizona murder of a 52-year-old Sikh man named Balbir Singh Sodhi. He was a gas station owner from Punjab, India. By all reports, he was a kind man, and a pillar of his community. I was so moved and distressed by this incident that I actually made it the centerpiece of a PowerPoint presentation I gave before the search committee, and my soon-to-be colleagues, as part of my two-day, faculty interview at a university in New York State.

Four days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, now-convicted murderer, Frank Roque shot Sodhi five times, killing him instantly. Roque, claiming his was the act of a “patriot” avenging the American people, later admitted that he’d made a mistake. You see, he’d thought Sodhi was an “Arab” (which, of course, means “violent Muslim”) because of his turban, beard, and attire… In truth, Sodhi was Indian, not Arab; and despite Roque’s defense attorney’s claims of “diminished mental capacity,” the jury returned a verdict recommending the death penalty. In an appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court, Roque’s death sentence was overturned, and he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Over a decade later, though I’d never actually forgotten this incident, or the gross, abysmal ignorance it substantiated, I would once again be reminded, in a more personal way, of the tragedy of Balbir Singh Sodhi. I would have my own frightening experiences, in what remains one of the longest months of my life, of continually being mistaken for a Muslim.

In July 2012, I lost the man who’d become, after some difficult years, my best friend, and the love of my life: my father. Daddy died believing, at least until he was no longer mentally competent, that I was still teaching at the university, and deliriously happy. In reality, I was destitute; homeless, in fact. So, the only reason I was able to attend his funeral, in another state, and fly back home, was because his wife kindly purchased my round-trip ticket. And it was during this time of crisis that my almost life-long connection to Buddhism was finally forged.

In Buddhism, the traditional (if not always) color of mourning is white, not black. So, after Daddy’s traditional Christian funeral, presided over by both a Roman Catholic priest and a Presbyterian minister, I flew home to New York; shaved my head, and proceeded to dress in white, with a white scarf (closely resembling a hijab) covering my head. There is nothing particularly Buddhist about the scarf, itself, or, in this particular sense, a shaved head, as a Buddhist ritual of mourning. This was just my way of mindfully honoring, meditating on, and honoring the man whose funeral I could not have afforded to attend without assistance. And it mirrored to some extent, the Buddhist practice of laypersons ordaining as monastics, for the period of a few hours, or a day, in order to more meaningfully engage in the funereal remembrance and honoring of a deceased loved one.

As a Black woman of mixed race and culture, head coverings are not at all foreign or unusual for me. Black women who identify as “African-American,” African in general, West Indian, or otherwise, often wear scarves and other head coverings, such as wraps, turbans, and gele. But at this particular time, in July 2012, my head covering became a very serious problem. And I must mention, here, that less than a month later, Wade Michael Page, an American white supremacist and United States Army veteran, would open fire at a Sikh temple, injuring four people and killing six others. I don’t know if he thought they were Muslim.

From the first day I donned that white scarf, my perspective changed. Whether driving my car, riding the bus, or walking through the ‘hood, I found myself, somehow, at the center of the universe. Suddenly, nodding my head ‘hello’ and smiling became an act of bravery. The big white guy with the shaved head and swastika tattoo, who used to ignore me, suddenly seemed to be glaring, menacingly. One woman who lived in my apartment building walked up to me upon our meeting in the common area and whispered, “Have you changed, suddenly?” I said, “What do you mean, and how so, ‘suddenly’?” She said, “Did you become a… Muslim… over the weekend?”

A few days later, I attended an outdoor music event. The band performed Motown, Ska, Reggae, and many beloved ‘oldies.’ I was the only one there with a head covering, save for ball caps turned backwards. It was early evening; I’d walked there by myself; the beer was flowing; and people were, literally, dancing in the streets. Despite everything else that had happened, I hadn’t thought twice about walking there alone, at night, in such a venue. By the time I left, let’s just say I’d had my first ‘second thought.’ When I’d entered the concert venue, I was still my old sociable, however be it, less-than-happy self, but my world had become, increasingly, and even menacingly, different.

There was one warm, fuzzy moment when I ran into a friend: 30-ish, white, male, shaved head, tattooed, muscular, alternative-looking, could-be-mistaken-for-a-skinhead, kind, gentle, and born-again-Christian… At first, he didn’t recognize me with my headgear, but as soon as he did he gave me a giant, warm, bone-crunching bear hug. It would have made a great cover for the now defunct Life magazine. Nothing violent happened that evening, but I knew from that experience that I was “now suspect.” I knew that no one would have been surprised in the least if I had whipped out a detonator and blown myself up. I knew that few were capable of discerning that I was not wearing a ‘proper’ hijab, and that it might have occurred to fewer, still, that I might not be a Muslim.

Much to my amazement, doing things I’d previously not thought twice about, like riding the bus, or walking down a street alone, became increasingly difficult and fraught with with dare I say, danger? I knew that though I was suffering, that I dared not call it that because though I could do nothing about how I then felt about the loss of my father, I truly did not have to dress the way I did. I became increasingly disgusted with myself because I knew that unlike a conventional Muslim woman, I could simply remove my head scarf anytime I wanted. I could wear it only when it was “safe,” and “convenient.” And so, every single time I left my home, I’d think, “I can’t imagine what it must be like for someone to walk around feeling as if the only thing people see when they walk into a room, or onto a bus, is a human grenade wearing a hijab, burqa, or turban.” I also had plenty of time to think about people who weren’t Muslim, but “looked Muslim,” and people too ignorant to even care, much realize, that there is a difference between Sikhs and Muslims, as well as between suicide bombers and Muslims.

When my period of [external] mourning ended – and I almost marveled that I lived through it, myself, I went back to wearing my usual, traditional, and sometimes unusual, African-inspired head wraps, or gele, not to mention the occasional hoodie, the piece of clothing used to vilify the young black man, Trayvon Williams (and so many Black men), who was murdered by George Zimmerman. My experience of mourning, colored white, had been tinged with the deep darkness of not only the death of my Father, but a wound reopened by remembrance of Balbir Singh Sodhi, the Sikh man killed for being a Muslim, and the personal irony of my own situation: being afraid that the same thing might happen to me. And it didn’t help matters any that more than once, I was asked, “Are you Muslim?” I’d decided, after “reassuring” my neighbor that I had not “become Muslim over the weekend,” that I would not answer that question, in any way, ever again. My reasoning at the time was that to say “yes,” would have been a lie, but to say “no” would have, somehow, been a type of dishonor, or betrayal, to anyone who was Muslim. But admittedly, and mostly, I was just plain scared.

My “month as a Muslim” taught me a great deal about myself and other people. In Detroit, Michigan, many years ago, I’d lived down the street from a mosque. There was one entrance for men, and one for women. Though, I’d never been inside, I knew I was welcome. The members of the mosque often congregated outside, and were very friendly, and it was a diverse, vital, and congenial neighborhood, in general. Upon returning home to visit my family after 9/11, I was shocked by the broken windows and the sidewalk, then abandoned. Obviously, some folks had forgotten who our neighbors really were…

Many people don’t realize that the Muslim religion is practically singular in the peacefulness of its true practitioners, and their warm, almost unheard-of way of welcoming people of all races and ethnicity. It was this love that transformed the former militant and separatist, Malcolm X, to el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, a proponent of integration, rather than segregation. In fact, there is a theory that the former Malcolm X was assassinated not by “the White man,” but by the so-called Black separatist faction of Islam known as NOI (Nation of Islam), then run by The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, or perhaps, even in mutual cooperation with “the White man.” Malcolm X, in an act of faith, went on The Hajj and came back a very different man. White people were no longer just “blue-eyed devils,” they were his brothers and sisters. In fact, everybody became his brother and sister. So, whoever, or whatever, finally killed him, Malcolm’s perceptual shift couldn’t have been good news for Black separatism, or the America of that time…

And it cannot be denied that it is not at all unusual to find vestiges of segregation in our American Protestant ranks. I, myself, was raised Lutheran until I left the Christian Church at the age of 17. And even in my family’s faith there were two ‘factions’: The ‘Missouri Synod,’ where Blacks were not welcome; and the ‘Lutheran Churches of America’ where we were welcome, most of the time… As a Buddhist, I have been to many Buddhist gatherings where I have been the only brown person. I recall one, right here in New York State, where I couldn’t have gotten any of those people to talk to me even if I had spray-painted a fluorescent orange mustache on the Buddha at their altar. But they were probably just having a bad day…

Nonetheless, whatever the day; whatever the mood; whatever the place; whatever the religion; whatever the race; whatever the ethnicity; we are all ‘buddhas,’ beings of worth. And if you were to ask me what the most important lesson I learned from being “Muslim for a month” was, it was this:

I think it vital, for those of us who know, to let others know that though there are some hate-filled extremists out there,  it takes something much stronger than hate to leave one’s home every day, knowing that to an ignorant number of individuals, they resemble nothing more than a potential ‘human detonation device’ and the reason for 9/11.

The aforementioned murders took place in the summers of 2001 and 2012, respectively. It is only now, over a decade later, that I can even begin to comprehend the pain of those targeted. And let me repeat that I know that “a month of being Muslim” is as nothing, I repeat nothing, compared to actually being Muslim. Please understand that in no way have I meant to trivialize anyone. My own father died, painfully, though much more peacefully than Balbir Singh Sodhi, or the victims of the mass shooting at the Sikh Temple in the summer of 2012, the year I wore white on his behalf. So, for me there was, and will always be a strange connection because I knew that for a while, I looked like “the enemy,” and only persisted in expressing my grief in the way I did because my love for my father was greater than my fear of the seemingly reigning idiocy. Perhaps, that is why Muslims persist in dressing as they do, despite becoming potential targets of hatred and ignorance? Yes, I think it must be love, as well…

I wonder what would happen if we ALL wore hijabs and turbans for a ‘reckless’ day, week, or month?

Assalamu Alaikum.

And as always,

Namaste.

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Suggested Readings:

Please, just read — widely and with discriminating intelligence! Besides getting out and learning what people are really ‘about,’ it’s the only way!

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