We are settled into Reza and Aida Mansoor's West Hartford family room, talking about what it's like to be The Other.
And I'm wondering how many times the Mansoors — Reza is a Hartford Hospital cardiologist, Aida has a master's in community health and is studying to be a Muslim chaplain — have to explain their faith. And I wonder if that ever gets tiresome.
In the wake of 9/11, Connecticut Muslims realized they needed to be proactive.
"We didn't want extremists on either side speaking for us," said Reza Mansoor, one of the founders of the Muslim Coalition of Connecticut.
Reared in Sri Lanka, Mansoor is accustomed to being in the Muslim minority. His wife, Aida, was born in England and lived in Africa, but returned to England for college. If racism is a toxic combination of ignorance and fear, shouldn't fear dissipate when ignorance is eliminated?
The coalition began to plan periodic events with people of other faiths. They volunteered with organizations such as Habitat for Humanity — again, with Christians, Jews and others. They organized a speakers bureau. They got proactive.
Their latest event is a panel about the importance of the prophet Abraham to Christians, Jews and Muslims. Representatives from the three faiths will begin the discussion at 4 p.m. today at Newington High School. The Muslims will also discuss the importance of the hajj — a Muslim's pilgrimage to Mecca.
Not only do the religions share Abraham, "we believe in one God and doing good deeds," Reza Mansoor said. But that gets lost, doesn't it?
I often think of Mansoor and his family when a Muslim appears in the news, like the accused shooter at Fort Hood; or when I read of anti-Muslim actions, like the recent Swiss vote to ban minarets. Years ago, I heard Mansoor speak at a Hartford prayer breakfast, where he explained "jihad" — a word woefully misunderstood by most of us non-Muslims — as a personal struggle for improvement. There was something about his patient demeanor that struck me, and I sat thunderstruck at how ignorant we can be about that which we refuse to know.
But, Mansoor says, "If I want to live in America and be comfortable in my religion, I think we have to explain ourselves. When something like Fort Hood happens, people start pointing fingers and looking at us; Muslims get very hurt at that. We didn't do it, but if we don't explain, people will start doing it for us."
And they may not do so knowledgeably. The most common offense is cherry-picking violent verses from the Quran as proof of the religion's intent, but one could do the same thing with the Hebrew scriptures, and if violent verse is scant in the Christian scriptures, more than a few Christians have found inspiration to commit violence in the name of their religion. As Mansoor says, heinous acts are committed not because of religion, but in spite of it.
But until we all get comfortable, the Muslims — as were the Irish Catholics and the Japanese before them — appear to be our scapegoat. Rabia Chaudry, an immigration lawyer who organized today's event, said, "At some point, it will move on. It almost feels like people need a common enemy to feel patriotic." Unfortunately, right now is the Muslims' turn.
As we're talking, the Mansoors' 12-year-old son, Yusuf, sits by quietly. Yusuf is still wearing his suit coat from school, and his mother gently teases him about being too lazy to change clothes.
Daughter Yasmin, 14, is upstairs, but Yusuf doesn't move from the couch. The Renbrook School student says he's considering a career in law because eventually he would like to be president, as in President. And then he starts talking about China and the difficulties of writing a research paper about such a closed society.
And why would anyone want to be president?
Because, says Yusuf, who better to lead the country than someone from a group that's so misunderstood?
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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