On the evening of September 11, 2010, nine Christian women gathered in a prayer circle in the basement of a small Midwest church, and were asked to reflect on where they have been spiritually since 9/11. Heavy glances crisscrossed the darkened, candlelit room. More than a few sighs filled the air. It was not a prayerful moment, although it was planned to be one. Thousands of Americans soldiers were dead, and more than tens of thousands were wounded. Hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths and injuries were reported in Afghanistan and Iraq. And the polarization between people of different faiths was growing mountainous. Overall, it was a mournful nine-year anniversary of 9/11.
As the only Muslim woman in the room, outside their prayer circle, I was there to observe their prayer session by the invitation of my friend C. As they sighed and tried to find words to console and inspire one another, I could feel their despair about creating a more peaceful and understanding world. They were truly concerned about America's position in maintaining peace in the world, but after the events of the last decade, they ran out of hope.
When they don't have hope, what could they pray for?
Pitched into this darkness, I heard myself say, 'Well, actually, I am feeling hope.' There was an uneasy creak of folding chairs and tired faces. Their looks said, 'Please, not another voice of denial…' but they were kind enough to listen to what I had to say. 'I think America has the greatest potential for peace,' I continued. Glimmers of candlelight played across the eyes in the room. Having heard a Muslim woman say this was new for them.
'Well, I think so because…' I paused for a moment to search for the right words, and continued, '… because it all began with French fries.' Once I saw their puzzled faces and the half smiles playing on their lips, I knew I had caught their attention to tell them my story. When I saw, for the first time, people calmly dipping individual fries into cups of ketchup with bare fingers, I had just arrived in America to go to the graduate school. I couldn't believe that they used no forks, no toothpicks—just eating greasy fries with their bare hands. How crude, I thought. But then another foreign student from Morocco shared with me that in her country, people ate with their hands, too, and that eating with one's hands enhances the flavor of the food. I saw her, also for the first time in my life, enjoy chicken biryani with her fingers. It was my first glimpse of just how wide the world was. It was the fragrance of my own budding tolerance.
After I saw how eager they were to hear about it, I continued my story. I told them I had come to the United States ten years before, on a college scholarship from Turkey. I'll be honest. Before coming to America, I had never spoken to a person who was not Muslim, much less shared a meal with them. But here, in America, where I met fellow graduate students from India, China, Africa and Europe, I experienced first-hand that we could all live and eat in our own unique ways, learning side by side, and live in peace. My tolerance grew.
Then I walked in to the Islamic Center of the city I lived in. I saw different Muslims, from around the world, in different clothing, of different races, speaking different languages, bowing down in reverent prayer side by side. All those differences seemed like jewels and beads on an elegant dress, enriching and beautifying the fabric in harmony. It was a vision, and witnessing it, I felt such a profound peace. I thought, though they, my fellow Muslim brothers and sisters, dress or talk and eat differently, we all bow down in front of God the same way. We are all the same in the important stuff, and only different in the minor issues. What significance does it have if one eats with their hands, with a fork, or with a couple of chopsticks?
In later years, I was blown away when I witnessed how Christians worshipped at my friend B's church. They sing, listen to the sermon, read passages from the Bible, which is considered a holy book in Islam and to be respected, and they get connected with the God. And when I noticed how the stories, values, and traditions we claim as ours were also shared by them, my first image of Americans collapsed completely. Before I came to this country, the only Americans I knew were from the movies and soap operas. Naturally, I thought all American women were blond, tall, and beautiful, and all the American men were tall, rich, and handsome. They didn't have any financial problems, health problems, or any real-life problems; they had only relationship problems and cared about no one but themselves. This was the image in my head about Americans. How wrong I was! I was surprised and fascinated when I observed my friend B's church worship, when I came together with other families from my son's school for play dates, or when our neighbors invited us to their Thanksgiving dinner, and also when they came to ours for a Ramadan iftar. It came to me in a flash: Americans have similar family values, religious values, holiday traditions, and love and compassion for their neighbors, just as we do. They are not actors in a soap opera!
What is more, they welcome thousands of foreign students, scholars, refugees, and immigrants from many different countries around the globe each year. Every year Americans are exposed to many cultures, languages, and faith traditions, and hardly anyone is jumping down anybody's throat for being different. Of course, there are occasional negative comments toward what is different, but even then, most people come together to neutralize that negativity with support and compassion. Different is viewed as richness, as variety, and as interesting. My own tolerance and appreciation of other cultures blossomed because of these experiences.
The United States can have a great ability to bring about peace, as I shared with the ladies that night, because American culture is already open, tolerant of religious freedom, and welcoming to people around the globe. These are the perfect ingredients for peace. America has the power to wage peace in other countries, not with war or fear, but with goodness, faith, acceptance, and aid, to build hospitals and schools, and create jobs and programs that acknowledge human rights and generate good will.
America has long been a mixed salad. Its unique blend of people from around the world, stirred together with mingling flavors, develops a taste for tolerance, for freedom, for the savory experience of diverse cultures living together. May our prayer in this post-9/11 world be this: that we move beyond the ineffectual and destructive politics of warfare and fear, and hold fast to the goodness and power of this nation's moral tolerance, constitutional freedoms, and potential for peace. God has created us with this potential. More powerful than any military force, I hope my experiences of tolerance and good will in the United States offered a recipe for hope for my friends that night.