Religious and racial tolerance starts with all of us

by Omer Awan

I never knew minding my own business would cause such animosity from others.

It was the summer of 1996, and I stopped at a local rest area in South Carolina, while en route to Atlanta to watch the American basketball team compete in the Olympics. As I started to offer one of my daily Muslim ritual prayers on the grass, two glass bottles were thrown at my legs, with someone yelling, “Get the [expletive] out of here, you damn terrorist.” I had never been more scared and shocked in my life. As a sophomore in high school attending an all boys Christian school, I never felt threatened the way I did that day. Here I was, traveling 12 hours by car to cheer on an American sports team only to be asked to leave the very place I love.

Fast forward 16 years to when I was landing at Washington Dulles Airport after a 13-hour flight from Saudi Arabia. Arriving at customs, I felt a sense or serenity after performing a spiritual pilgrimage in Mecca and Medina — known as the Umrah in the Islamic tradition. Collecting my bags, I rushed to the exit doors, anxious to greet my family who was waiting to receive me. Before I could make it, a Transportation Security Administration officer cornered me and took me to a private room to ask me a few questions. A few questions quickly became a 12-hour interrogation, with inquiries regarding my faith, why I would go to Saudi Arabia, if I would harm others and if I had purchased any weapons. At one point, I was wrongfully accused of supporting terrorist organizations. This, of course, could not have been further from the truth. Despite my explaining that I was a resident physician in Maryland whose vocation was to help patients, the only thing the TSA officer saw in me was a tall, brown, bearded Muslim who could potentially harm others.

Just this month, before boarding my flight to New Orleans to speak at a medical conference, I was again the recipient of discrimination. I was waiting quietly in line after ordering a sandwich, when I proceeded to pick up a cookie. After picking it up, the clerk at the sandwich shop yelled, “Excuse me, are YOU going to pay for that?” After a brief pause from utter disbelief, I calmly explained, “Yes, of course, but I have to wait because two people are ahead of me in line.”

I could go on and on and list many other similar incidents, but I suspect you understand the hostile treatment many Muslims in America face simply for practicing their faith or for the way they look.

I blame no single individual for the racial stigma Muslim Americans face regularly. For decades, Muslims have been portrayed as violent extremists who rage Jihad by any means necessary to achieve their goals. Does this sound familiar? Ironically, Islam itself means peace and comes from the Arabic word salaam, similar to the Hebrew word shalom, both meaning peace. Jihad also has very little to do with war or violence. Jihad literally means to struggle or exert oneself in order to purify oneself in front of God. If Islam were portrayed correctly to the general public, Muslims would be viewed as the antithesis of violence and extremism. What a radical concept.

Racism, like all forms of discrimination, stems from ignorance. In a religiously pluralistic society like that in the United States, the Bill of Rights, and in particular Freedom of Religion, is only as strong as it is practiced and realized. Threats on religious freedom — such as seen in the Texas synagogue hostage event in January or the countless examples of anti-Muslim graffiti defacing American mosques — seek to undermine the very fabric and foundation of this country. How can Americans boast to their neighbors ideals of tolerance, liberty and equality when widespread hatred, bigotry and ignorance pervade our most sanctified places of worship?

The American dream should never be a paradox; it should be both a hope and reality for all Americans to live and experience. Religious tolerance starts with ourselves, our families, our friends and our communities. When was the last time you reached out, smiled or helped your neighbor who may look different or value something different from you? When was the last time you tried to learn something about your Buddhist colleague or your Jewish co-worker who observes the Sabbath on Fridays? When we make the effort to understand others, we begin to understand ourselves.

Omer Awan (Twitter: @AwanRad; YouTube: youtube.com/c/OmerAwanRadEducation/videos) is a practicing physician in Baltimore.