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Terry Kelhawk: Islamic Garb in America : Fear and Joy for You, and Juan Williams Too

By Huffington Post
October 28, 2010

Dust so thick it delayed the concert. Air scarce. Body crowded body in the dark. “Haram! For shame!” I scolded unseen groping hands. Calling forth inner calm I focused on my breathing. Voila! I kept alert, but panic and hyperventilation were gone.

That night by American standards I had dressed very conservatively, but my appearance in Marrakech’s outdoor arena was too much of a novelty to go unmarked by the 10,000 or so young men in attendance. I should have realized that only a handful of women would be present.

What or who do you fear and why?

A woman I know still struggles with fear of Asians, because growing up in Mexico in the 1940s, she saw none except as villains in the movies. With candor which surprised me as well as the nation, this month NPR’s Juan Williams admitted his fear at seeing full Islamic garb on air travelers.

We fear when stories or past experience leads us to predict something negative could happen. So fears are largely prejudice.

Most of what we fear never happens. “You’re crazy!” people say because of situations I get into alone: America ‘s inner city in the wee hours, or surrounded by crowds of Muslims discussing controversial topics in various countries at midnight. Once I inwardly trembled as hundreds of enraged Muslims yelled “Allahu akbar!” at me because I challenged their leaders on women’s rights.

A former police officer told me, “I’ve been on the force 25 years and I don’t have the balls to do what you do.” Yet I too get afraid in situations that could go wrong. The message is this: I’m not special — you too can push through fear. It’s OK to be afraid, but there are times you just can’t let it lead your life.

True courage is not the absence of fear, but staring it in the face and walking right into it,” says an adventurer in my recently released book The Topkapi Secret.

Does this mean we cast caution aside? Not at all. We need to be both careful and informed. I’m not denying there is much in strict Islam for Americans to dislike. Anyone who tells you otherwise either hasn’t read original Islamic source material, or is trying to trick you.

On the other hand there are two delightful experiences you can have because of Islamic garb:

One thing I love about Middle Eastern culture is its warmth. In high pressure America, we’ve replaced friendly conversation with internet interaction. Try this: go up to an unknown Muslim and say “Assalam alaikum,” their traditional greeting of peace. You will be surprised nine times out of ten at the positive reception you receive. This is one of the ways I have connected with thousands of Muslims and have made lasting friendships.

To be truthful, for years I was a typical academic, big city snob. How I changed is a long story, but it shows that anyone can open up to let fear out and friendship in.

American universities have ever growing numbers of international students on their rosters. By and large these students are open and hungry to learn about America. What a great opportunity to reach out to the world! Let’s meet them and befriend them, mentor them even. We can show them what America is like and answer their questions. If we don’t, Muslim extremist groups will sell them their own slant of America.

A famous Middle Eastern terrorist attended university in America. He left our country hating us and returned home to lead others against us. Fellow Americans, we missed our opportunity then. Let’s not miss it again.

America has a great influx of Iraqi and other Muslim immigrants. Muslim culture is very social — too much so at times when it contributes to “shame and honor” abuses. But in the best setting the culture is comforting and supportive, and without it Muslim immigrants here can feel isolated.

Adjusting to life in America is difficult. My associates in immigrant assistance share with me the trials Middle Easterners face here. For example, they have little knowledge of basics we take for granted. One family stayed in the airport for three days after arrival, clueless of what to do.

American volunteers are desperately needed to help immigrants with basic things like how to shop or get phone service, to tutor them in English, or at least to donate furniture.

Yes, some Muslims are here to convert us or kill us; but most came to America for the same reasons we or our ancestors came here: for a better life.

A second delightful experience comes when Americans go out together with Muslims: we get noticed. I can see people wonder why a middle-aged white American is hanging out with hijabbed folk. What an unexpected benefit of these outings! It is as if without speaking a word, we tell America, “You see, it can be done. We can get all along together and have fun too!”

Have you ever said to a Muslim, “Welcome to America ?” Try replacing fear with friendship. Ask questions and show true respect. Then you can explain American values, how we got them, and why we want to keep America free. This doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything about faith or culture.

On an American university campus this year I met a hijabbed Shiite student from Iraq . During several hours of conversation I plainly pointed out how their founding father Ali’s words in Nahjul Balagha work against women’s rights, and how the vendetta prayers for the festival of Ashura lead to violence. How do you think she took this? Are you surprised that she said,

“I never thought anything like this would happen to me today. I wish more people would come on campus and talk to us.”

Maybe Juan is right: maybe people in Islamic garb are more likely to be terrorists than blue-haired grannies are. But if fear keeps us from befriending Muslims in America , we loose the chance to show them our great nation, and they loose the joy of meeting you.

For more information: www.TerryKelhawk.com

From The Huffington Post