My heart was pounding in my chest. I slowly felt my body heating up and my mind was racing. “This is it,” I thought. This was a test. What was I going to do? Was I going to be a spectator and stay silent, letting the words of hatred, prejudice, and stereotyping wash over me? Or was I going to say something? Push back?
It was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2012, and I was watching a presenter give a very negative portrayal of Islam and Muslims. Just the day before, I had studied up on Dr. King and was especially struck by his quote, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Was I going to be the silent friend?
I don’t like conflict or arguing, and I certainly don’t like making a scene. I was scared that I would if I did anything. The crowd had hummed in agreement with the words that were filling the air with dark clouds of fear. People seemed almost excited about that. Perhaps it was because their prejudices were confirmed. One man behind me had loudly whispered to his wife, “Didn’t I tell you? Muslims, no matter how kind, all desire our destruction! The problem is that evil religion!!”
Even though I strongly disagreed with the presentation, I had felt compassion for the presenter. She had been through a lot of pain. She, and people she was close to, had been terribly mistreated by people that called themselves ‘Muslims.’ No wonder she was upset.
Yet as much as my heart was hurting for what she had been through, I couldn’t agree with what she was doing with that pain: putting it on other people as fuel for hatred and discrimination towards all Muslims everywhere. There is a big difference between compassion and agreement.
So I did what I had never done before. I asked for the microphone and broke the cloud of hatred with, what I hope, was a little bit of love: “Thank you so much for your presentation. I am so extremely sorry to hear about what you have been through! You know, today is Martin Luther King Day, and he said that hatred cannot drive out hatred, only love can. And if there are any Christians here, Jesus tells us to love our neighbor and to love our enemy. I just hope that people are not walking away here today with more hatred in their hearts, but with more love. I deeply… (my voice started shaking).. deeply love my Muslim friends.”
There were gasps and boo’s in the crowd. The man behind me looked at me as if he could beat me up. I was sweating like crazy now and sat down with what felt like a hugely red face. The person that got the microphone next said, “This girl is obviously very young and doesn’t know what she’s talking about…”
I was boiling. I was both very relieved that I had said something, but I also couldn’t wait to get out of the room. As soon as the last question was answered, I raced for the door, but before I got out, I was stopped by two older men, one African American and one Japanese. They grabbed my sweaty hands and looked me firmly in the eyes and said, “Young woman, you were very brave. We know what it is like to be stereotyped and that lady today was going too far. We wish there had been more people like you when we were younger. Thank you for your love for Muslims.”