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.

Understanding world religions encourages dialogue, peace

interfaith tree

By Joe LaGuardia

Last week I wrote about violence against Christians and Muslims in Nigeria.  It wasn’t the only time I wrote about conflict on the global stage, nor will it be my last.

I feel that, as an author on the religion page, it is one of my jobs to educate you, dear reader, in what is going on beyond our community to remind all of us of the work of God and the cause of peace that remains before us, even if it is not at our doorstep.

I am not ignorant to the fact that conflict has always been an issue for us humans; and I fear that it will be around far longer than I will walk this earth.  Yet, I also believe that we assess conflict in our world differently than we have in years past, sometimes to our detriment.

Yesteryear, people learned about conflicts by reading newspapers and watching a couple of broadcasts.  When the Vietnam war was underway, people got news from a media that largely agreed on the facts that made for headline news.

These days, our news comes to us in snippets through a variety of sources ranging from traditional media to the internet.  This does make us a more-informed people, but it can also be confusing.

Our large planet grows ever smaller with 24-hour news cycles and real-time reporting.

In order to make sense of this fragmented source data, however, cable news networks now provide “commentary” on the news.  But it is commentary that is biased, often to the extreme poles of our unique ideologies.

This makes for exciting news, but not for news that promotes peace and reconciliation in local and international communities.  Often, this kind of news-reporting does the opposite: It creates “sides” in debates and adds fuel to (in)tense conflicts that can sometimes get blown out of proportion.

One “victim” of this type of sensational media is our understanding of the world’s largest religions.  I bet if you were to poll a bunch of people, you would get various opinions about, say, Christianity — opinions formed not by the truths that exist in the belief system itself but based on caricatures of Christians from the news.

In fact, some of these surveys already exist.  Surveys of people ages 18-34, for instance, consistently show that a majority of people in this age group have a negative perception of Christianity.  This negativity stems not from the reality of what Christians believe, but on what those who are surveyed perceive to be true about Christians based on what they’ve heard in the news or the movies.

Same can be said of Islam.  Although a majority of people have a favorable view towards American Muslims, only 44% of evangelicals have a positive view of Muslims, according to a report in the Christian Post.  A majority of people who are religious also fear living near a Muslim mosque.

One of the ways to combat the misunderstanding of any religion is to be educated on what religions are really about.  Although every religion has a radical minority longing to convert others by means of violence, intimidation, or coercion, a majority of the world’s religions are positive, peaceful contributors to society.

Yet, if our only information of the world’s religions come by way of a sensational media or neighbors who believe in stereotypes rather than the reality of what religions are all about, then our misinformation can foster greater conflict rather than dialogue and healthy community formation.

A well-rounded education is essential, and understanding provides a path to greater conversations grounded in reality.

And with a world torn asunder by conflict, religious or otherwise, it becomes ever more important to learn about the religions of people who are our neighbors, allied nations, and–perhaps someday–our very friends.  May the Prince of Peace guide our path.

Dr. Joe LaGuardia serves as Interfaith Congregational Liaison for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia.  

He is also pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, which is hosting a 10-week seminar “Tour of World Religions” free and open to the public beginning Wednesday, January 7th, at 6:45 PM.