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Reflecting on “Having the bags packed…”

In November of 2001 we were living in Cairo working for the ELCA. I was serving as the pastor of St. Andrew’s United Church of Cairo, an international congregation with a large refugee ministry in the heart of downtown Cairo. The U.S. and its allies had just started bombing Afghanistan in response to the events of September 11.

Living in the largest Arab country during these times was “interesting.” While our responses to 9/11 were probably similar to every other American’s, the difference was that we were living thousands of miles away from family and friends in a region that had become the direct focus of American foreign policy. The State Department, through the U.S. embassy in Cairo, provided emergency preparedness advice in case of uncertain public responses to the military actions. We were told to stay home when possible, or at least avoid public gatherings, and have our passports in order. We were told to literally have a bag packed by the door with important items so that, if necessary, we could be evacuated quickly. So, we did. The bags sat by the door for several weeks.

I remember writing a few articles for the Lutheran about our time called “Views from Cairo” and lamenting how that when I was growing up, we had always had fire and tornado drills, and were prepared for “snow days” when we would not have school. Now, my kids at the international school were having “war days.”

Throughout the fall of 2001, as we tried to go about our daily lives and work, we were constantly stopped by Egyptians who did not threaten us for being American, but rather asked us if we were okay and if there was anything that we needed. We were overwhelmed with Egyptian hospitality by perfect “strangers” (if there can be such a thing in Arab culture) that sought us out as Americans to make sure that we felt safe in their country. (A little secret: living abroad you learn that Americans have a peculiar way of dressing and acting that is different from other European citizens. It’s not too hard to tell us apart in a crowd…)

As events continue to unfold in this country, in response to both acts of violence by individual Muslims acting on their religious beliefs, and the political rhetoric that has now demonized a whole religious community of various ethnic, racial, national, and even theological persuasions, we are now at a precipitous moment in our nation’s life.

As I read the following blog post by American-Muslim, Sofia Ali-Khan, I was immediately reminded of our time in the fall of 2001. However, the big difference here is that while I and my family were guests living in another country, this American-Muslim is a U.S. citizen. Unfortunately, American hospitality does not stack up with Egyptian hospitality.

We are at a precipitous moment. We can cave into fear as so many are doing; but does not the Angel proclaim to us both at the birth and resurrection of Christ, “Do not be afraid”? (Luke 2:10; Matthew 28:5)

From Sofia Ali-Khan:

Dear Non-Muslim Allies,

I am writing to you because it has gotten just that bad. I have found myself telling too many people about the advice given to me years ago by the late composer Herbert Brun, a German Jew who fled Germany at the age of 15: “be sure that your passport is in order.” It’s not enough to laugh at Donald Trump anymore. The rhetoric about Muslims has gotten so nasty, and is everywhere, on every channel, every newsfeed. It is clearly fueling daily events of targeted violence, vandalism, vigilante harassment, discrimination. I want you to know that it has gotten bad enough that my family and I talk about what to keep on hand if we need to leave quickly, and where we should go, maybe if the election goes the wrong way, or if folks get stirred up enough to be dangerous before the election. When things seem less scary, we talk about a five or a ten year plan to go somewhere where cops don’t carry guns and hate speech isn’t allowed on network television. And if you don’t already know this about me, I want you to know that I was born in this country. I have lived my whole life in this country. I have spent my entire adult life working to help the poor, the disabled and the dispossessed access the legal system in this country. And I want you to know that I am devoutly and proudly Muslim.

I am writing this in response to a non Muslim friend’s question about what she can do. Because there is much that can be done in solidarity:

If you see a Muslim or someone who might be identified as Muslim being harassed, stop, say something, intervene, call for help.

If you ride public transportation, sit next to the hijabi woman and say asalam ‘alaykum (That means ‘peace to you.’). Don’t worry about mispronouncing it; she won’t care. Just say “peace” if you like. She’ll smile; smile back. If you feel like it, start a conversation. If you don’t, sit there and make sure no one harasses her.

If you have a Muslim work colleague, check in. Tell them that the news is horrifying and you want them to know you’re there for them.

If you have neighbors who are Muslim, keep an eye out for them. If you’re walking your kids home from the bus stop, invite their kids to walk with you.

Talk to your kids. They’re picking up on the anti-Muslim message. Make sure they know how you feel and talk to them about what they can do when they see bullying or hear hate speech at school.

Call out hate speech when you hear it—if it incites hatred or violence against a specified group, call it out: in your living room, at work, with friends, in public. It is most important that you do this among folks who may not know a Muslim.

Set up a “learn about Islam” forum at your book club, school, congregation, dinner club. Call your state CAIR organization, interfaith group or local mosque and see if there is someone who has speaking experience and could come and answer questions about Islam and American Muslims for your group. They won’t be offended. They will want the opportunity to do something to dispel the nastiness.

Write Op Eds and articles saying how deplorable the anti-Muslim rhetoric has gotten and voice your support for Muslim Americans in whatever way you can.

Call your state and local representatives, let them know that you are concerned about hate speech against your Muslim friends and neighbors in politics and the media, that it is unacceptable and you want them to call it out whenever they hear it, on your behalf.

Out yourself as someone who won’t stand for Islamophobia, or will stand with Muslims—there is an awful lot of hate filling the airways, and there are an awful lot of people with access to the media and/or authority stirring the pot about Muslims. Please help fill that space with support instead. Post, write, use your profile picture or blog to voice your support.

Ask me anything. Really. Engage the Muslims in your life. Make sure you really feel comfortable standing for and with your Muslim friends, neighbors, coworkers.

I can tell you that in addition to the very real threat to their civil and human rights that Muslims are facing, we are dealing with a tremendous amount of anxiety. While we, many of us, rely on our faith to stay strong, we are human. This is not an easy time. What you do will mean everything to the Muslim Americans around you. Thank you for reading and bless you in your efforts. Share freely.

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