Review of “Our Muslim Neighbors”

By Joe LaGuardia

I recently had an engagement with Muslim interfaith advocate, Victor Begg, at a restaurant attached to a local, municipal airport. When it came time for evening prayer, Victor and his family sought a quiet place to pray. I recommended that they walk next door to the small one-room terminal at the airport, where there is plenty of room for prayer rugs. At the time, no one would be in the terminal save one clerk at a reservation desk.

Victor and his family reminded me of the optics. If he and his family gathered in the terminal no matter how vacant, with prayer rugs and shawls, what kind of message would that send to airport staff? I apologized, and soon they found a corner of the lobby large enough to accommodate their needs.

Victor Begg, community activist and author of Our Muslim Neighbors, has been an American citizen for over 50 years. He is from India–far from the Middle East–so his “look” doesn’t raise any red flags; and yet, he is mindful of how suspicious his neighbors are of having a Muslim do business and recreation in the area.

This brief experience at the local airport is precisely why Begg authored Our Muslim Neighbors in the first place: to help readers in the United States and beyond realize that Muslims make up some 1.8 billion people on earth, and that a large majority of them–over 97%–are upright citizens that defy combative, radicalized stereotypes and caricatures portrayed on the news.

Image result for our muslim neighbor victor begg

Our Muslim Neighbors is a memoir of Begg’s sojourn from India to Detroit, Michigan. It follows his travails and triumphs in learning a new language, attending college, and getting his businesses established. It outlines the joys of meeting his beloved wife and raising a family.

His rise to community organization is accessible and easy to read. The narrative flows in a conversational tone that lets us get into the front door of the Begg household, and might be a good primer for anyone interested in becoming a public activist.

Begg has plenty of experience to share with readers. He is a published columnist, community organizer, successful entrepreneur, and (…and I have personal experience with this!) a good friend. We meet him as he defies family in order to seek life in the States, struggles to secure a loan to start a furniture franchise, and brokers relationships on behalf of religious freedom from the Mid-West to South Florida. If there is anything weak about this book, its too detailed and drowns us under the weight of so many accomplishments.

The beauty of the story is not in the religious sense of his writing, but in the folksy way he makes his story anyone’s story. He is not preachy or pushy. It is, simply, one American immigrant’s tale of earning and living the American Dream.

We need a resuscitation of that dream today, a dream lost in the midst of our political and religious milieu of late. I have personally been involved in Baptist and Muslim interfaith work for nearly 15 years now, and it seems that Begg’s goals of seeking understanding and educating others on the American experience is close to mine and so many others. It is a part of a dream as American as apple pie and Corvettes.

The only way to go beyond toxic divisiveness is to dream again, and to take hold of the promises our privileged nation continues to offer those who work hard and love others as themselves.

Mark Hicks, writing for the Detroit News, states, “The book . . . extends his legacy and serves an influential guide in a volatile political climate.”

I may not have the same troubles Begg has, since I am squarely at home in a majority-Christian culture, but I relate to his immigrant-related issues. I am an Italian American in the Christ-haunted South, and I remind people, as has Begg, that it is not one particular religion that breeds violence or despair, but a growing radicalism in all corners of the world in which we separate “us from them”. In Myanmar, Buddhist radicals slaughter Muslims; in the Middle East, Muslims persecute and execute Christians; in Europe, Christians bomb synagogues. In China, communist officials in Xinjiang province are oppressing, torturing, and incarcerating in forced labor camps nearly 1 million Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim people.* In our own nation, secularists limit freedom of speech on college campuses in the name of (ironically) “tolerance.”

Right now, we need Begg’s voice–and we need it badly. But we also need mine, and yours, and ours.

The greatest way to understand someone is to stand in his shoes. Our Muslim Neighbors helps us achieve that goal. Its dual role of being an immigrant memoir and exposition of American Islamic activist plays effectively to those of us who, above all else, believe that the American Dream can still work in an environment of justice, inclusivity, and diversity. Its not enough to say, “I tolerate you.” Who wants to be tolerated? That kind of marriage can’t last. Instead, we must say, “I understand you, and I have walked with you–and now I see differently because of it!”

*The House of Representatives has passed legislation identifying Chinese officials at the heart of Uighur oppression and freezing financial assets and visas is currently awaiting a vote in the U. S. Senate.

Find Compassion in an Age of Suspicion

shopping-helpAs a student of human behavior, I have observed that some of us tend to hunt for the negative in certain situations.  I believe that some in American society are programmed to look for what is wrong or evil, rather than what is right, good or holy.

Someone gives a gift and we ask:  “Why do I deserve this?” Someone pays us a compliment and we wonder:  “This person doesn’t know me, what are they up to and what do they want from me?”  “When is the other shoe going to drop?”  “What is the catch?”

Quite a pessimistic opinion, I admit.  Pessimism, however, seems to be programmed into our society’s DNA.  It makes me wonder:  How does this societal opinion live together with the Christian belief in a God of grace, mercy and resurrection?

If many in the populace feel this way, how does it affect Christian operation in our world?  How might it affect the church and believers in Christ?

One afternoon I was leaving a grocery store.  I approached my car and noticed my “parking lot neighbor” loading a few heavy bags of groceries.  It was hot, so I offered to help him.  No agenda.  No catch.  I wasn’t selling anything.  I just reacted with a “let me give you a hand with that.”

The look on his face betrayed his thoughts:  “What is he getting out of this?  What is his motivation?  Is he going to ask me to help him with something?”  You get the picture.  After the groceries were loaded, I said goodbye and we parted ways.  He drove away with suspicion and confusion dripping off the mud-flaps of his SUV.

I suppose the narrative of our society has taught many of us to distrust kindness, to see through generosity, and to seek a negative agenda behind compassion.  What makes human beings think the worst and seek evidence that proves the worst?

In making the analytical shift of this question into the world of Christianity, I believe this attitude negatively affects our Christian witness and hurts our relationships in and out of our churches.  How can one believe in God’s grace, freely given for the sake of the entire world, and also carry the burden of distrust of anything given for free?

Christians must operate in our world as Christ taught his disciples about this very thing.

In Mark 9: 38 – 40, Jesus’ disciples told him they tried to stop someone from casting out demons.  Jesus quickly let them know that anyone doing work in his name should continue to do so.  If anyone is not against us, they are for us.  That is a positive, inclusive, ecumenical stance.

I have observed similar behavior with church members who are distrustful of the intentions of “outsiders.”

An “outsider” can be defined as anyone not belonging to a certain church or denomination.  An “outsider” can be a new believer or visitor who is new to the area.  An “outsider” can be anyone who makes one wonder about his or her intentions, and then the suspicion of our society creeps into the halls of our churches.

We look so hard–with a skunk eye–for what stinks in a situation.  When we do that, we are guaranteed to find something suspicious.

While in a waiting room, I once heard a young girl tell her mother:  “Ewwww. This magazine smells bad!”  She then proceeded to press her nose down to the page and take a big whiff.  As she lifted up with a sour face, her mother shook her head and replied, “Then don’t smell it!”

What is a more productive and positive use of our time?  Is it feeding our attitude of distrust by searching for the foul smell and then sticking our nose directly in its path?  Or should we believe the words of Jesus and know that “whoever is not against us is for us.”

By Lee Prophitt

It is time for conservatives and progressives to work together

A recent report released by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution (as told by The Christian Century) shows that the religious landscape of the United States is quite diverse and will shift in fundamental ways over the next two generations.

A majority of Americans, for instance, is considered “religiously moderate” (38%) while another 28% is considered “religiously conservative.”  Yet, the number of religious progressives (19%) and the nonreligious (15%) is growing every year.  It is newsworthy that progressives are only nine percentage points away from catching up to conservatives in the American populace.

Basically, although conservatives continue to have massive influence on American politics and evangelical communities, religious moderates and progressives will garner greater numbers in the population in the next century.  Meanwhile, statisticians believe that the non-religious sector will continue to grow exponentially as our culture takes an increasingly secular turn.

Reactions to this report are mixed and its not uncommon to find religious progressives asking whether they “won” the culture wars over the past thirty years against the religious right.  Meanwhile moderates still wonder how to market their brand of Christianity in a polarized atmosphere.

Growing up in a fairly conservative household, I once believed that we were indeed at war with the world and with secularism in general.  Books authored by Pat Robertson and others influenced me to think in militaristic ways about engaging our society.  Sure the battle was against Satan, but society was also inherently evil.

Over time, however, I grew quite impatient with this kind of rhetoric.  As I traveled beyond my own little “world” to places as far as Ghana and Israel, I discovered that society is not so much an enemy to fight, but rather a place in which God’s redemption is very much at work.  I fostered a Christian mission to “save the lost,” but I didn’t have to be hostile in my approach towards the world and towards those with whom I disagreed.

Now, it seems that progressives are getting to boast for once, and using militaristic language is an easy temptation for them as well.  Katherine Bindley, for instance, asks whether the rise of progressive and moderate forms of faith will result in a “political groundswell,” most likely to combat the era of a type of Christianity branded as homophobic, crassly individualistic, and out of step with mainstream America.

Even an article in The Christian Century entitled, “Survey finds strength in religious left,” implies that the religious right is somehow weakened because of generational trending and global approaches to theology and politics.

Although that’s far from militaristic language, such headlines contain a divisive undercurrent similar to that which existed in the faith formation of my youth.

Perhaps we need to ask a different question than those posed by many a journalist.  We shouldn’t wonder who will “win” the culture wars within Christianity, but rather imagine the creative and inclusive ways in which God can bring the Church together to wield a type of nuanced faith that shapes both minds and hearts.

We can side with our conservative friends and work on “right belief” and revival, but we can also find inspiration  and synergy in progressive values related to ecumenical collaboration, social justice initiatives, and interfaith dialogue.

I realize that Rodney King’s adage, “Can’t we all just get along?” sounds cliche.  It is almost naive; but perhaps if we focus less on winners and losers within the church, we can spend more time proving to the world (and the growing population of “nonreligious” individuals) that Jesus is transformative in our personal lives as well as our communities in which we live and in which people continue to suffer.

If we see the world–and each other–as “us vs. them,” then we will continue to see our partisan religion (and politics) become all the more entrenched.  Yet, the Bible pleads with us to not inflame a spirit of division, but to be of the same mind (1 Cor. 1:10).  Its simply a matter of finding ways to work together, focus on the things that are important to God, and let the Holy Spirit do the saving and judging at the end of the day.