Last week, I had a conversation with a man who elucidated for me a fairly typical exchange that takes place while teaching at university in Istanbul. He speaks perfect Turkish, and has no physical characteristics or exterior adornments (such as necklaces, etc.) that betray his heritage.
Therefore, most Turks assume that he is “Turkish,” in every sense of the word. As defined by the Republic of Turkey under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in the 1920’s, the prototypical “Turkish” person is of a common descent (which is in of itself a problematic category historically) and is Muslim (Sunni, of course, but not TOO religious, for that would be problematic as well).
However, he is not ashamed of his heritage, and it thereby often surfaces when in conversation with colleagues or students. And, the two words that almost always follow the revelation that he is not truly Turkish in those limited senses are:
He explained that an entire book could be written about the meaning of these two small words. To him, they communicate, “You are a good man, or you are a skilled man, how could it be?” How could it be, that this man is actually a member of the group of which is synonymous with the word “traitor” in Turkish?
An Armenian. It confounds the mind, and confronts deep-seated prejudice.
This is an example of something that I have seen repeatedly in both America and Istanbul. It is the prejudice or fear of another because of a lack of understanding. We are often fed a narrative and do not question it, for we have nothing to compare it to. We, in short, are ignorant.
In America, some are putting forth this narrative: if one is a Muslim, they are naturally inclined to wish hurt upon you, to oppress women, and are all-around undesirable people to be around. Many don’t even give it that much thought. Muslims are different, the “other,” and therefore ought to be feared. Enough said.
My experience could not be more different. The Muslims that I have had the privilege of befriending are some of the kindest, most thoughtful, and most generous people I know. The power of relationship to subvert the narrative we are often fed is real—and I have experienced it personally: be it in Anum Ahmed and Kulsoom Haq at Wofford, or Jimmy the grocery store owner and the local garbage man (I cannot recall his name, but he has been a daily source of welcome) in my neighborhood called Tarlabaşı. Perhaps this is why I am doing a project focused on interfaith relationships.
I am now going to take a swim into possibly muddy waters and address my fellow Christians out there: those who follow Jesus, and hold Him as their treasure. One thing that Christian tradition holds is the doctrine of Original Sin, that is, that people and the world have a fundamental brokenness as a result of disobedience to God. Jesus paved a way for redemption through this mess, and that is why he is the pillar of our faith.
When one looks at the world today, it is sometimes not difficult to see powerful examples of this brokenness. Some of this brokenness results in people having to leave their homes. They become refugees, and are forced to flee to find a new home because of war, famine, and the like. Recently, many have drowned in the Mediterranean, and thousands run the streets where I currently reside.
Which is where I come to my point: when it comes to things like refugees resettling in Spartanburg, we, as Christians, ought to be the FIRST to welcome these people with open hearts and hands.
I have met refugees from Syria while in Istanbul. I promise you, they are people just like you and me. These are people in need, who have been forced out of their homes because of war and political pressure. Most of us cannot even fathom such a thing—home has always been just that for us: home.
Jesus was a pretty radical guy. In fact, he got himself killed for some of the things he said and did. I think we often forget just how offensive (and crazy) these words are, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven…for if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Matthew 5:44-45a, 46). For more fun, let’s take a quick peek at Paul, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” (Romans 12:14).
Whoa. Actually stop and think about it for a second—Jesus and Paul saying the EVEN IF every refugee and, dare I say, Muslim, is actively trying to hurt you, we as followers of Jesus are to love them, bless them, and refuse to curse them. We ought to pray that they may see Jesus as we do, and embody Christ with our words, our actions, our sacrificial service, and our open arms.
News flash! Fortunately for us in America and Spartanburg, that scenario I just painted of Islam and refugees is patently untrue.
I am not naïve. I am not saying the there are not Muslim extremists that wish (and enact) hurt upon others. I am not saying that nations are to roll over to these people. I am not saying that we are to allow them to hurt and oppress others, both abroad and in our own homes. Also, I am not saying that there will be no difficulties when seeking to welcome these “strangers” to our land.
I am saying, however, that the vast majority of the almost 2 billion Muslims in the world are the kind of people that would make phenomenal neighbors. Furthermore, I admit that it is much easier to engage when someone isn’t trying to kill you, and that is the overwhelming truth considering both the people of Islam and the refugees about to grace our community.
Please do your research. Please reach out to me if you have any questions concerning this. Take a leap and actually try to get to know a Muslim. I think you may be pleasantly surprised, and may even gain a new friend.
This subject is near and dear to my heart. I think that we as Christians must be more responsible concerning Islam and refugees, and die to ourselves (that means our fears and our prejudices) daily in order to embody Christ by loving and welcoming them well.
I will close with these words from Jesus, and the power I think they hold for Christians and non-Christians alike, “For I was hungry and I gave you food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:36, 40b).
Once again, things are great over here and I am sending all my best from Istanbul! Always feel free to reach out with any questions, comments, or snide remarks (as Dr. Byron McCane would say): firstname.lastname@example.org