“The Incarnation is the place where hope contends with fear.” Kathleen Norris
In September 2007, our gold Honda Odyssey idled in the gravel parking lot of a small, aluminum-sided mosque in Clemson, South Carolina. After a spring of first moves and first encounters, I had begun coming to the mosque on Monday nights during the summer for a Qur’an study, which featured Abdul, a Ghanaian PhD student at Clemson University; Achour, an Algerian research fellow studying fruit pathologies; and me, the pastor.
On the cusp of our family’s first invitation to a mosque potluck—Southern fried hospitality meets Islamic headscarves—our two-year-old daughter voiced the words that, frankly, still reverberate in post-9/11 America: “Mosque…scary.” These words have, in part, animated local legal and cultural squabbles from Manhattan to Murfreesboro.
In 2011, a Hartford Seminary study declared, “The vast majority of mosque leaders do not feel that American society is hostile to Islam.” But in 2012, the Pew Research Center released a report detailing that over fifty proposed mosques or Islamic Centers in the United States have come up against significant community resistance. The Pew report concluded, “In many cases, the opposition has centered on neighbors’ concerns about traffic, noise, parking and property values—the same objections that often greet churches and other houses of worship as well as commercial construction projects. In some communities, however, opponents of mosques also have cited fears about Islam, sharia law and terrorism.”
As an edifice, truth be told, there is nothing especially fear-inducing about The Islamic Society of Clemson. In fact, the mosque is a rather no-frills kind of structure beholden to a highly functional aesthetic.
The “problem” is, of course, that this religious house of worship sits on Old Stone Church Road in the Deep South—in a state, which, in the aftermath of the Charleston church shooting in June, is still coming to terms with American ideals. Not to mention, Christian virtue.
Down the country road from Clemson, for instance, in the sleepy town of Central, you can buy a Styrofoam cup full of boiled peanuts from a man who played Little League baseball with U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham. Graham, like many politicians, has sometimes walked a fine line between accommodating Islamophobia and accepting religious plurality, between demonizing American Muslims and defending their civil rights.
Back in the minivan, meanwhile, our sweet daughter said it again: “Mosque…scary.” This time, she drew out the mosque scaaarrry for theatrical effect. She even smiled and giggled, almost perversely.
It was as if she was mouthing syllables way ahead of her time, foreshadowing U.S. congressional hearings in 2011 on Islamic radicalization in American mosques. In a parenting flash-forward, I saw our little girl wandering around inside the mosque, eyes wide, lips pursed, uttering, “Mosque…scary” to any Muslim man or woman in unfortunate earshot.
My wife and I looked at each other, aghast. We had taken special religious and cultural care to brief our young children on the whole mosque experience, and this is the thanks we got?
“Sweetheart, no, no, no, it’s not scary. Why are you saying that?”
“Dear,” we said, completely relieved, “it’s a mosque, not a mask.”
But the joke was on us.
Leave it to the Halloween season in the hands of an innocent child. Her mispronunciation had brought a much needed light. There was a two-year-old, babbling unwittingly about the darker things that surely haunt those of us who are—by far—the less innocent children.
No matter our adult view of the world, no matter our unparalleled access to human knowledge, no matter our advanced human development—willful prejudice, suspicious ignorance, and irrational fear have a knack for keeping us exactly where we are: idling in the parking lot. For me, in 2007, stepping inside that mosque and moving beyond the masks and the misunderstandings had a remarkable effect: it started slowly pushing away the so-called scariness.
Once upon a potluck, among Ghanaians, Algerians, Moroccans, Egyptians, Palestinians, Lebanese, Turks, Pakistanis, and Indians—Muslims as diverse as the casserole selections our family didn’t recognize—I was reminded of first-impulse Christianity. If hope is to contend with fear, any love worth its energy or sacrifice demands a personal incarnation.
In Christian-Muslim relations, naturally it goes without saying: not all mosques are created equal. We should be genuine realists about differences and barriers. There is no time for wishful thinking. But for the follower of Jesus, and the community of Jesus, the most significant way to address fear is always presence.
And sometimes it takes a child to unmask you.
Loving our Muslim Neighbors: Soft Power, Strongly Applied is a Monday blog series written by Nathan F. Elmore for Off the Page. Nathan serves Peace Catalyst International as a peacemaker and educator in Christian-Muslim relations. Here, and throughout the series, we are hopeful of moving further toward Christian faithfulness, wisdom, and courage as we interact with the neighbor who is Muslim.