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.
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.