I was in Burundi on 9/11. Prior to that day I never gave Islam a thought, I never had reason to say Muslim. But much changed that September day. People started devouring books on Islam, seminaries hosted forums with Muslim scholars and cable news shows began to feature Muslim clerics in an effort to understand. The deeds of that day stirred both interest and fear.
I felt it in transit between Africa and the US, pushing through crowded airports like Nairobi and London. Passing Duty-Free shops and coffee stands I brushed up against more Muslims in one lay-over than I ever did in my California hometown. Standing alongside Muslim men in the security line made me uneasy. I wasn’t sure what I felt, so I defaulted to fear.
When I returned to Burundi a few years later I noticed the sound of Arabic riding above our little neighborhood, crackling over the loud speakers. I feared Islam taking root in another impoverished country. What if it happened again – young people exploited and deployed? The Muslim hospital, schools and mosques in the capitol city made me nervous.
Over time I learned more about Islam. I discovered all Muslims were not radical. I found out there were various sects of Islam like the multiple denominations of Christianity. The Quran has hard passages about infidels and jihad it must grapple with – and we have herem warfare that commands liberal killing (men, women, children and livestock) of enemies that we must confront. Muslims practice prayer, fasting, generosity and hospitality. So do Christians. The more I learned, the less I feared Islam and more I noticed common ground.
But my fear was put to rest in the context of friendship. There were brief encounters that sanded off my outer rough edges, softening me for contact with Muslims. But it was one friend, a woman in my neighborhood, who banished any remnant of fear my heart harbored. She welcomed me into her home and made me sage tea. She hugged my daughter and let me play with her sons. We shared park days under shady trees. We talked of fears we had for our brown children and dreamed of how they could add something beautiful to the world. I would melt down and she’d throw her arms around me to sooth my anxieties away. She would melt down and I would rush to her front door with Reese’s peanut butter cups and an embrace to quiet her tears.
We talked about our faith, the traditions that shaped us and the places that lent a hand. I listened to her tell me why she wore the hijab and what Ramadan means and what the inside of a mosque is like. She held my hand tight as she squeezed her son into the world, my iPhone capturing the first moments of his life. She allowed me to hold him, only minutes old, and kiss his forehead. Love really does cast out fear.
This was the season where Muslim mamas loved all the fear out of me. Women from Palestine, Djibouti and Romania gave me a safe place to listen and learn and love. They spoke from their heart and Arabic words slipped out from time to time when no other word would due. The more we laughed and loved, the more I realized fear didn’t stand a chance.
When I returned to Burundi this summer we were a stone’s throw from a mosque. I did not see it, but I heard the call to prayer each day. It made me remember to pray, too. The mosque in the middle of town, trimmed in green and finished with gold, became a welcomed landmark as we criss-crossed town in mid-day traffic. Unfinished minuets made me a little sad – I imagined them painted and singing out the call to prayer one day. As I watched the birds flying around a mosque dome one afternoon, I realized that I was smiling. My response to a mosque was no longer one of fear. I had changed.
This is not an ode to Islam. This is a testimony to a simple truth – love slays fear. Accepting love from a Muslim woman dislodged all fear and freed me to move about the world in greater liberty. Leaning into that love changed the way I saw the world. Fear no longer is my default emotion when it comes to my Muslim friends. We believe differently, but we need not fear one another.