Fighting the bigotry virus

December 16th, 2015

Last Friday I watched a young, dark-skinned man with Arabic features and long, swept-back hair drop to his knees and bow as Muslims do when praying. I was sitting at Gate 10 of the Huntsville International Airport in Alabama.

It wasn’t my first time seeing a Muslim pray. I’ve attended services at mosques twice in my life, both since the 9/11 attacks. Each time I felt completely safe. But this time was different.

San Bernardino made it different, even more than other recent terrorist attacks in Europe and Africa. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent time in that city.  I’ve ridden through its streets. That familiarity brought the Dec. 2 attack close to home, geographically and spiritually.

Watching the young man practice his faith openly, courageously — perhaps even defiantly — as I waited to board my flight revealed fears and biases I didn’t know existed. After quietly confronting them, my discomfort subsided and I boarded the plane without a worry.

I’m not suggesting that any of us be naïve about the reality of religious extremism. Not only is it real, it crosses faith lines. Robert Lewis Dear, the accused killer of three people at a Planned Parenthood center in Colorado Springs, Co., was a Christian according to his ex-wife. She told the New York Times that he’d read the Bible cover-to-cover.

Faith or no faith, some people will use extreme measures to further their agenda. Thankfully, they don’t represent most of us. In fact, many are looking for ways to bridge differences and find common ground, even as we may respectfully disagree with some of the opinions of those around us.

One day before my flight, I was in Temple B’nai Shalom in Huntsville when I saw another act of faith. After making a presentation to a group of business and civic leaders, Rabbi Elizabeth Bahar and Aladin Beshir, director of outreach for the Huntsville Islamic Center, embraced each other.

It wasn’t an orchestrated hug. It wasn’t designed to elicit applause from the dispersing crowd. I doubt few others even saw it.

These two religious leaders undoubtedly have shared hugs or handshakes before. Both are strong advocates of interfaith dialogue and have been at some of the same events as participants or observers. But against the backdrop of San Bernardino and after the incendiary anti-Muslim rhetoric of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, their embrace struck me as a strong symbol.

Bigotry is a virus that’s easily transmitted. I got two much-needed doses of the faith vaccine last week, thanks to my interfaith friends and the anonymous praying Muslim. My healing continues.

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