The Influence of Islam on my New York Unitarian Life

All Souls Women’s Alliance luncheon

I am so delighted to be speaking at the All Souls Women’s Alliance and joining a distinguished list of speakers, among them a wide range of speakers on international affairs: last month my fellow Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Catherine with the long Nigerian last name, the month before Rev. Carol Huston on the International Women’s Convocation. Last year I made extra sure to be here for Marilyn Mehr speaking about Polish Unitarians. Another memorable luncheon for me was the author of the Gaza Kitchen cookbook a couple years ago now.

So when Betty asked me to be your speaker, I was delighted. In the internationally aware tradition of both the Women’s Alliance and my own tendencies as an activist, I want to speak to you about a few ways that Islam and Arab communities have influenced me as a Unitarian Universalist and as a New Yorker.

An appreciation of Islam, oddly enough, has been part of my Mayflower-descended family since long before I was born. When my mother was a senior in high school in Massachusetts in the mid-Seventies, her family hosted an exchange student for a year: a young Afghan woman named Fakhria.

I grew up with many stories about Fakhria. One of my favorites is the first time the family took her into Boston. She looked left and right everywhere they went, and got increasingly agitated. Finally, Fakhria said, “Where are the beggars?”

She had filled her pockets with nickels and dimes, as she had always done in the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan. Her parents had taught her that as a Muslim, as a Pashtun and as the daughter of a family of privilege, she had an obligation to give to the less fortunate. She wanted to know where the homeless were in Boston so she could contribute.

I think of Fakhria often as I pass the homeless in the New York subway and am confronted with the question,

What am I doing with my privilege to serve others?

For me, that’s a theological question — maybe THE theological question of Unitarian Universalism.

Some time after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Fakhria and her extended family came to Virginia as refugees, and we would see them from time to time. I remember one such visit, when I was in middle school or thereabouts. Fakhria’s mother wore a long, filmy cotton scarf always slipping from the crown of her head, but of all the women in the room, only Fakhria’s sister covered her hair completely with a securely pinned hijab headscarf.

She had just returned from the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, she explained. Standing in the great mosque there, gazing at the Ka’aba temple to which all Muslims pray five times each day, she said, “I was struck by the knowledge that all these people, of all different colors, speaking all different languages, from all over the world, had come together for this single, awesome, peaceful purpose.”

She wore hijab, she said, as a physical reminder every moment of every day that she was part of this immense, global, peaceful family … “the great family of all souls,” as the Unitarian theologian William Ellery Channing would say.

Another early memory of Islam comes from my neighbors in Pennsylvania. Miss Jessie would tell stories about her late husband, who had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Seventies in a community in India with a large Muslim population. The story I remember most was how one Muslim family in particular welcomed him into their home so completely and so sincerely that the women of the household would even remove their hijab when he was visiting.

I did not appreciate as a girl what a profound gesture of inclusion that was.
I could not truly appreciate it, perhaps, until I was a Peace Corps Volunteer myself, the only non-Muslim in my Jordanian village, and the only non-Muslim in the school where I was teaching English.

There was only one other woman at the school, the counselor Maram, who did not wear hijab. “My father told me not to,” she once said to Miss Ismahan the Islam teacher. “He taught all his daughters that the hijab is a sacred symbol of faith and we should never wear it just because all the other girls were doing it. In fact, my father forbid his daughters from wearing hijab,” she said, “unless and until we felt from the bottom of our hearts that we were called by God to do so.”

This was how I have instinctively felt about hijab all my life. Like a yarmulke or a crucifix, the hijab is a sacred religious symbol of devotion to a religion that, despite my deep respect for it, I do not believe in.

Altogether, I lived four years in Jordan, through a revolution in Egypt, and have a Masters in Arab area studies. I could tell hijab stories all day. But I want to bring us closer to home, because I actually came to New York City because of a proudly Muslim Arab American.

No, it’s not a romance, if that’s what you’re thinking.

This is a story of activism, about one of my heroes, a mother from Bay Ridge named Debbie Almontaser. Some of you might remember her from Rev. Ana Levy-Lyons’ installation at the Brooklyn UU church. Last spring, I and a group of fellow All Soulsers had the pleasure of hearing Debbie Almontaser speak at the annual anti-racism conference at Middle Collegiate Church in the East Village.

I remember, in particular, her story about her elementary school classmates in Upstate New York making fun of henna designs painted on her hands at a family wedding the night before. The teacher, not knowing what henna was either, sent her to the bathroom to wash her hands. When Debbie returned with the red-brown tracery of henna still on her hands, the teacher said she was dirty and sent her back to the bathroom again, and a third time, before she realized that the henna was died into Debbie’s skin.

After 9/11, Debbie Almontaser was first an advocate for her own children in their Brooklyn school, and then for other Arab and Muslim children at the school, until eventually she crossed that invisible line into full-fledged activist for the larger Arab and Muslim communities. Eventually she led the project to open the Khalil Gibran School, a New York City public school with a focus on Arabic language and history. You may remember the controversy that forced her to step down as its first principal before the school even opened.

That is what drew me to New York City. I wanted to be a special educator at Debbie Almontaser’s Khalil Gibran School. For a lot of reasons, that didn’t happen, and here I am at All Souls, which has been an unexpected blessing.

But it was my Arab Muslim activist hero Debbie Almontaser who brought me here.

Which brings me to last year and the story of this button.

A couple years ago, at the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office Intergenerational Spring Seminar on indigenous rights, I met a youth advisor and activist named Melissa Marie from the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto. In Canada, many refugees are sponsored by individuals or organizations who are responsible for their “financial and moral” support. Over the course of last year, without realizing it was Melissa Marie’s congregation, I was casually following on social media how First U Toronto worked with a local Muslim organization to raise money, find and furnished an apartment, meet the Syrian family at the airport, help enroll the kids in school and find the father a job. Then the congregation decided to sponsor another family, and another … five families in all.

So, when Prime Minister Trudeau announced that Canada would start bringing refugees by the plane-load, not surprisingly, First U mobilized to join the rally welcoming the first plane full of Syrians at the Toronto airport.

Melissa Marie got on Facebook. “Hey, Arabic speaking friends,” she posted, “can you help us make signs?” She tagged me.

In Powerpoint, I quickly whipped up a few simple image files in Arabic and English. “Peace be with you,” the traditional greeting between Muslims around the world. “Welcome, brothers and sisters,” a common form of address among Arabs. And, “You are safe here.” She could print them out, paste them to posterboard, and decorate them as she liked.

Melissa Marie loved them, so I posted them on Facebook so others could use them, too.

About ten days later, Paris.
In the fear-filled backlash, fear that touched even this congregation of All Souls, Republican nominee Donald Trump announced that we should ban Muslims from entering the United States, and Republican governors began turning against Arab refugees in their states. An Arab man in Astoria, Queens, was beaten by a tourist from Baltimore. A teen on her way home from school in the Bronx was attacked by some neighborhood boys who ripped off her hijab.

But something else was happening, too. The Unitarian Universalist Association picked up my Arabic welcoming signs for the online resource called Worship Web, pushing them on social media and working with a graphic designer to build them into Facebook and Twitter banners. My simple phrases quickly went viral, showing up on the social media of activists, churches, schools and immigrant rights organizations across the country.

Then Jai Berg, a free-range New York Unitarian Universalist and stalwart Monday Night Hospitality dishwasher, reached out to me on Facebook. “I want to wear something in support of Muslims, something people can see on the subway,” she said. “I was thinking about wearing the hijab, like that professor at Wheaton College, but I’m not sure that’s appropriate.”

I had been ruminating on the significance of non-Muslims wearing the hijab that week, too. Dr. Larycia Hawkins, a professor at the conservative Evangelical Wheaton College in Ohio, had just been placed on administrative leave over an incident involving a headscarf. It was not the hijab itself, which Dr. Hawkins was wearing for the month of Advent in solidarity with Syrians and other Muslim refugees. It was her published statement of solidarity, which dared to say what most Muslims fundamentally believe: that Muslims, Christians and Jews are all followers of the same God worshiped by Adam and Abraham.

Like Jai, I had been following Dr. Hawkins’ story, and once again asking myself that fundamental Unitarian Universalist question: What am I doing with my privilege to serve others?

And I was conflicted, because while I respected Dr. Hawkins’ desire to show solidarity, like my friend Jai, I was not sure that wearing hijab was the right gesture.

I thought about Fakhria’s mother and sister from Afghanistan. I thought about the school counselor Maram, who did not wear hijab, and about Miss Ismahan, the Islam teacher who did. I thought about Debbie Almontaser, and another of my New York Muslim heroes, the Black Lives Matter activist Linda Sarsour. Their social justice work is just as much a part of their religious identities as their hijab.

Jai and I agreed that wearing hijab on the subway was not the right way to go. But what was?

We drew some Unitarian Universalist seminarians up at Union Theological Seminary into the conversation. A button would be better than a hijab. One seminarian suggested a verse from Rumi, but I thought it was too subtle. Sophie Ziner, the Membership Committee Chair over at Fourth Universalist Church, pointed us

back to one of the signs I had made: “Peace be with you,” the traditional greeting between Muslims around the world. She inverted the design to white text on a black background, the colors of the historical flag coopted by Al Qaeda and ISIL, except with our inclusive message.

That was when I drew Erin White into the conversation, currently President of the Board at Fourth Universalist and a leading voice in their Racial Justice Taskforce. This was not an issue of black and white, but Muslim has become a racialized identity in America, and I knew that Fourth U had a button maker. We arranged a button-making party. I helped promote it on Facebook, and my friends responded.

My Jewish friend in Astoria wanted a button, and my Unitarian Universalist friend in Johnson City, Tennessee, and my Muslim Arabic professor in Bloomington, Indiana. The All Souls chapter of Unitarian Universalists for Justice in the Middle East wanted 50. A Unitarian Universalist congregation in Kansas City wanted 200, and so did Champagne-Urbana. Once the first set of buttons had been made and I began wearing them, I gave away a dozen at a pro-Muslim rally in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and all my Starbucks baristas in Newark wanted buttons, too.

It’s a small thing, this pin. It’s a simple thing, like those signs that I made for Melissa Marie and First U Toronto. It’s the New Year’s sermon I gave at a friend-of-a-friend’s tiny Unitarian Universalist fellowship in Maine, or standing before you here today. It’s a story I share on Facebook about Debbie Almontaser and Linda Sarsour making positive change in the world. This is my answer to that fundamental Unitarian Universalist question:

What am I doing with my privilege to serve others?

So I want to conclude with Margaret Mead, who said,

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

And I say, never doubt that a small gesture can change the world.

I know that it is true, because a month ago, an Evangelical high school classmate reached out to me, someone I have never had an actual conversation with in real life. On Facebook one day, he said, “Maryah, I think I need you to school me on Islam. I’ve hated for too long, and I need to do better for my children.”

Your issue may not be Islam or Arab refugees. You may not consider yourself a Unitarian Universalist as I do. Nevertheless, should you choose to accept it, my challenge to you is the fundamental question of my faith:

What are you doing with your privilege to make the world a better place?
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