The peril — and opportunity — of teaching Islam in St. Cloud.
Muslims pray at a Virginia mosque that was the site of an alleged hate crime in November. (EPA/Michael Reynolds)
“Do you want to kill us?”
It’s a question I get a lot. I’m a Muslim Somali American living in Saint Cloud, Minn. My family of 10 emigrated here in November 1993, and I became American by the old-school system called assimilation. It’s been a sprint with no discernible end. It’s even more challenging in places like Saint Cloud, a Catholic town that’s earned the nickname “White Cloud” because of its demographic make-up.
In recent years, though, the city’s demographics have begun to shift. Between 2009 and 2014, our small African American population doubled. Our Latino population grew by about 50 percent. St. Cloud has been adjusting to this change, but it hasn’t gone so well. I’ve watched as residents throw temper tantrums about people like me, about parents who want to make a better life for their children. Around my neighborhood, white people post signs that read, “This is America, and we have a right to offend everyone. Don’t like it, too bad” and “Get prayers out of school.”
There are organized groups that call for a limit on the number of legal refugees allowed to live here. My Somali Muslim friends have confided in me about rental discrimination, customer service discrimination, public school discrimination and employee discrimination.
Once, during a panel discussion on Islamophobia, a couple approached me.”Your people have crowded America,” the wife told me. “You live for free, eat free, and all you do is take … from people like my husband and I. You bring your culture and your religion and want to take over. No more. We’re tired. We just want America back.” Her docile husband nodded in agreement. Afraid to further her hurt, I listened and apologized. As they walked away, the husband left me with a last thought, “You’re okay. You’re an American. You speak English.”
Misconceptions like this spread like wildfire, leveled against university students who made a conscious decision to move away from home or newlyweds who want somewhere beautiful in which to settle down.
In this lack of enthusiasm for diversity, I saw an opportunity. I saw a platform for people like me to educate. So for the last six years, I’ve been traveling around the city, giving talks about my faith. I hope to humanize Islam, Somalia, refugees and others who are different to privileged, white Americans. I, a Muslim Somali American refugee educator, need acceptance in order for me and my people to flourish.
At one recent gathering I sat on a panel vulnerably facing more than 100 inquisitive residents. I was handed a handful of anonymous question. Aware of my inferiority in age, wisdom and religion, I managed to keep a steady smile as I choose my poison: “Who is Allah? How is Allah God?” “Do you feel oppressed?” “How do you pray?” “Why do you wear the veil in America?”
The questions seemed accusatory, but intrinsically, I felt comfortable. The bold arrogance of their inquiry electrified my being, awakening my soul. Surely, Islam did not start with me, nor their Muslim Somali refugee neighbors, or did it?
A particular question pulls me in: “Who is Allah?” I ruminate. Allah is God, Allah is Yaweh. Islam’s holy text is the Quran. The Quran is written in classical Arabic. Like the Bible and Torah, it has been translated to fit the modern times. As a result, Allah, Yaweh and God are all the creator of mankind. I pray to God, Yaweh and Allah. Same difference.
I worry, though, that this explanation won’t really address the fear baked into a lot of these assumptions. So I decide to go with a more controversial point: “Do you want to kill us?” It’s a question I’ve heard a lot over this election season, a fear perpetuated by the way Donald Trump has been campaigning. Trump has scorned Obama for not using “radical Islamic terrorism” to describe the Islamic State. He believes Islam, a religion of over a billion followers, is ISIS. He’s sold that message all over the country.
A sigh of relief fills the room. Suddenly, I appear more human.
Unlike the previous couple, the individuals I encounter here want to learn. At the end of the panels, I get hugs and intimate questions. One elderly man timorously approached me once, asking, “I heard from a friend that all Muslim men can have four wives. Does your husband practice that?”
“No,” I tell him.”
“I can’t imagine they can afford that. Wonderful. God bless you. I never realized we have so much in common.” At the end of every panel, I always feel the room is less eerie. Facial expression change, a light of hope turns on, and people seem more social than the hours before. Some ask me for my email and phone number. I tell them I do this for free and I’d be happy to travel. I am sure my story helps some sleep better at night.
I never expected Trump to win. No way, I thought, would America choose him for a president. I assured myself the American presidency is the most noble and honorable position in the world. Now that he’s been elected, though, I see an opportunity. While Trump has been occupied settling score on Twitter, I have engaged in dialogue to shatter the false assumptions about my faith, race and country of origin. I will display class, compassion, humility and grace in the face of a President who lacks these qualities. Others seem interested too. Since the election, I have received two requests to lead discussions promoting dialogue and diversity.
Wolfgang Mozart said, “Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.” I am confident America has many more unsung geniuses than we realize.