To Stop Fearing Muslims, First Meet A Few

Book Cover - Our Muslim Neighbors: Achieving the American Dream, an Immigrant's Memoir by Victor Begg

One day last week a dozen or more of us gathered in a courtroom to be supportive of a mutual Muslim friend who had run into some legal trouble. Most of us were there for several hours until the matter was resolved.

It was a good example -- not infrequent in the Kansas City area, just not frequent enough -- of people from different faith traditions being good neighbors and good friends. Our group was made up of people I knew to be Christian, Jewish and Muslim.

This is what interfaith understanding and friendship is supposed to look like. And that is the important message in a helpful new book, Our Muslim Neighbors: Achieving the American Dream, an Immigrant's Memoir, by Victor Begg.

Begg grew up in Hyderabad, India, came to the U.S. as a college student in 1970 and spent most of his successful career as a business owner in the Detroit area.

So the book is focused mostly on his experiences in Detroit, though he and his wife Shahina now live in Florida, where the interfaith story he tells continues toward the end of the book.

There is a lot here about how Begg and others worked hard in Detroit to create connections and friendships across religious divides, and the fact that it's Detroit may not be particularly relevant to lots of readers, but where all this happened really isn't the point. (I know some of the Detroit area people about whom Begg writes, so I found the book especially engaging.)

The point, rather, is that as America becomes increasingly pluralistic religiously, the guidance that Begg provides about how to create solid interfaith relationships is useful anywhere in the country.

His goal, he writes, is "to provide a window into the family, community and spiritual values of ordinary Muslim families." And there's lots of that here, though one could argue that after Begg made a lot money in the furniture business (starting with nothing) his wasn't exactly an "ordinary" Muslim family. He was, however, a deeply confident community leader whose assertiveness sometimes caused him to run a bit too far ahead of the people he was trying to lead. And that, too, is a good cautionary tale.

Begg came from a well-to-do Muslim family in India, but because that family did not support his decision to come to the U.S. for college, it did not support him financially. He had to make it on his own, and did. And he gained personal experience as a young adult with interfaith understanding when he married a Hindu woman, who eventually converted to Islam. But in those early days, Begg acknowledges, he wasn't a very observant Muslim. Deepening a commitment to his faith tradition took some years.

One of his accommodations to finding his way in American culture was to quit using his real first name, Ghalib, and to adopt, instead, its literal meaning "Victor." He also added a "g" to his original surname. In this and other ways, Begg describes the cultural negotiations in which many immigrants must engage when trying to live as Americans.

In many ways, Begg tells a common immigrant story of a dreamer who, after some stumbles, found his way to not just economic success in the U.S. but also to success as a community leader. As he moves through these experiences, he changes. A small example is that he decided that the Republican Party stood for the values of family and small government that matched his own, so he became active in Michigan politics and used his connections to help the Detroit area. But the anti-Islamic rhetoric and policies of such Republican politicians as Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump has made him sick and much more open to joining the majority of Americans Muslim adults today in supporting Democratic candidates, at least occasionally.

He writes of his regret that "fear-mongering fringe dwellers gained a foothold in the Republican Party." No kidding.

It's interesting to see his reaction to world events, such as the 1979 Iranian revolution and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. American Muslims had to find new ways to feel safe and to contribute to society in light of the anti-Islam reactions such developments produced among many non-Muslim Americans.

This is a highly personal story, but Begg's experience and thinking can encourage all Americans to get to know their Muslim neighbors -- to say nothing of neighbors of all other (and no) religious traditions. When people are religiously illiterate, it can lead to fear, which can lead to hate, which can lead to violence. We've been there before. This book is a helpful road map in a better direction.

Bill Tammeus is the former Faith section columnist for The Kansas City Star. He came to The Star in 1970 as a reporter, spent nearly 27 years on the paper’s editorial page. In addition to his daily blog, Bill writes columns for The Presbyterian Outlook and the online edition of the National Catholic Reporter. He also writes a monthly column for Flatland, KCPT-TV's digital magazine.

( Source: Bill's 'Faith Matters' Blog )

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