It’s hard to know what to say in the face of such senseless barbarism as the world witnessed yesterday, when ISIS released that video showing the murder of Jordanian pilot Mu’ath al-Kasasbeh.
As someone who spent 4 years in Jordan, and counts many Jordanians amongst my friends, I found this news particularly heart wrenching. My newsfeed has been filled with sad posts for the past 24 hours, with friends changing their profile pictures to reflect their support for Jordan, while others busily unfriend people for making hate-filled rants against Muslims.
I am far from the events in the Middle East, but I am feeling the pain of my Jordanian friends all the way up here in Moscow. I never met that pilot, who was just 11 short years older than my eldest child, but I know people who knew him.
Just last week, ISIS murdered a Japanese journalist, who was actually a friend of a friend of a friend. Such is our life in the Foreign Service: when tragedy strikes, it is seldom about something that is happening “over there.” We have a personal stake in it, either because we served there, because we have friends there now, or because we are personally involved in trying to fix the problem at hand.
Someone once tried to make the argument that I, along with other diplomats and their families, am somehow “out of touch” with America, I guess because we can’t watch American television or attend American sporting events in person. I think the argument was that we don't interact with everyday Americans and thus cannot be relied upon to make the right decisions for the United States, or to even explain the U.S. to the foreigners we encounter at post.
It was a strange and offensive argument to make. I would argue that my service overseas makes me more of an American, not less. Yes, I am giving up some everyday American things by choosing to live outside of the borders, but the very act of giving them up makes me appreciate them more. It’s sure easier to appreciate the importance of free speech when you live in a country where people are jailed for speaking their minds. It’s easier to defend the idea of democracy when you see first-hand how people can suffer without it. And it’s also – yes, this is true, too! – it’s also easier to see the things that are wrong with the U.S. when you see how people in other countries manage the everyday tasks of working and praying and loving.
I didn’t know much about Islam before moving to the Middle East, and truthfully, even after 4 years there, I am certain that I’ve only scratched the surface of what it means to be Muslim.
But it bothers me to read the anti-Muslim comments that seem to be prevalent back there in the States. I say “seem to be,” because as my friend pointed out, I’m not in the States now, so I can’t say for certain what the average person is thinking and saying about Islam. I can tell you what the media are saying, and I find it profoundly disappointing.
These people who did these horrible things to the Jordanian pilot and the Japanese journalist and so many others, these people don’t represent Islam any more than a “Christian” protester who chooses to picket an abortion clinic or a funeral can be said to represent my religion.
These brutes, with their vicious and twisted misunderstanding of God, represent no real religion, no real faith. They know nothing of God.
I’m not a priest or a preacher or an imam. I won’t ever quote scripture at you to make an argument stick. But I know God. I’ve held a baby, buried a loved one, looked up at the stars on a dark empty night. I’ve cleaned up after a sick child, and held a friend’s hand while she mourned for her lost baby. That’s where God can be found, don’t you think?
Our boab in Jordan, Reda. He was the caretaker who lived in our apartment building, and he was Muslim. He prayed and fasted, as required of his religion, when he wasn’t busy mowing the lawn or washing the cars. Once, late at night, one of my children was hurt and I had to take her to the Emergency Room. He heard her screams, and when I came out of the front door, he was already there, waiting, ready to carry her to the hospital with me. That’s God, right there, don’t you think? He was poor, very poor, but whenever he came back from the bakery, he took a piece of pita bread out of his bag and sat down to share it with my kids. That’s God too, isn’t it? You know what else? He never forgot to wish me Merry Christmas, or Happy Easter. He remembered all of our religious holidays, and honored the days with us.
My boxing instructor in Jordan was Muslim, too. Raed made a living teaching clumsy folk like me to hit and kick and fight. He fasted during the month of Ramadan – no food or water from sun-up til sun-down, for an entire month. But he continued to show up for our classes, sparring with me til we were both covered in a sheen of sweat. I’d take breaks to gulp down water. He’d wait patiently for me to finish. Once I tried to apologize for drinking in front of him, but he was having none of that. “This is my religion, not yours,” he told me. “I need to do this because it makes me stronger. You need to drink your water.” We talked a bit about his fast, neither trying to convince the other of the rightness or wrongness of fasting. He said – and you could see it in his face – that he felt a certain joy in fasting, in taking part in such an important religious rite. I never did understand it. But the joy I saw in his face during Ramadan, as I spent an hour trying unsuccessfully to land a punch on his face? That joy was God, I’m sure of it.
Hiba, sweet Hiba. I never once saw her hair, because she kept it covered, as her religion dictated. But every time I saw her, she smiled and asked about my kids by name. And when she talked of her family – her strict father, her sister, who had started a chocolate-making business, she glowed with such pride. I always felt happier after talking with Hiba, and that’s God too, I think.
My friend Qais is Muslim, too, and do you know he came to Kyra’s First Communion celebration? She wanted him there, and so he came and celebrated with us. Have you ever been to a religious ceremony for someone not of your religion? Because you might find God there, too.
I can’t fight ISIS. I’m just one person. But I can refuse to acknowledge their claim on Islam. I can refuse to accept their view of God. I can refuse to admit them into my community of spiritual people. They cannot speak of God to me. They can discuss their views with God himself, directly, if ever they get to meet him. I pray they do.
In the mean time, all I can really do is focus on my God. Not by proselytizing, not by preaching, and certainly not by telling you What Jesus Would Do. Because my God is just that – all mine, and nothing to do with you.
I think the best way, the only way, I can oppose the cruelty of ISIS and others of their ilk is to honor the people who land in my path each day. To try to find the beautiful in them rather than searching out the flaws. To look for the little ways I can make their world better with each interaction of mine, each and every day. This is not an easy thing to do. It’s easy to settle into a me-centered world and grab the things that come your way instead of sharing what you have with the world, the way Reda carefully split his bread into pieces to be shared with my children.
That’s where God is, I think. God is in the sharing. And I’m not sure I would have learned this lesson so well had I stayed in the U.S. rather than travelling overseas.
To my Jordanian friends, Muslim and Christian alike, I am so sorry for your loss. That pilot Mu’ath looked so young, so handsome. When I saw that picture of him smiling up from his cockpit, I saw your smile there too, open and friendly and welcoming. Thank you for teaching me that the world is a small place, cruel sometimes, to be sure, but mostly filled with people like you, my Jordanian friends, who smile and love and help each other up, Muslim and Christian alike.