Do you think ISIS represents Islam?
Narrow roads on steep, spring-green rolling hills led me into her home and to this question.
“How do I get to your home?,” I texted her, asking the evening before my visit.
“We don’t have addresses,” she responded. “I will meet you somewhere, and you can follow me home.”
The drive to my friend’s home wound through the wide manicured streets of a Jewish neighborhood before the streets narrowed, sidewalks disappearing, as we entered a large Arab village. The two-way street shrunk into an even more congested, poorly kept two-way street as we took a sharp swerve toward another little village. A group of young men stood with large yellow signs and flags, chanting “Allahu Akbar,” seeking some sort of change on some sort of issue, I don’t know what. I noticed there were few women out, and all those driving or frequenting the small shops wore head coverings. I was very aware of my otherness.
My friend made a quick turn down a steep hill, a precarious (but typically Palestinian) driveway leading to a large metal gate that opened to a small multi-family compound. Chickens ran around the open courtyard, which dropped suddenly, giving way to a green cliff and a southern view. It was breathtakingly lovely.
My friend stepped out of her car, greeting me warmly. Coming from her work in a very religious area of the city, she wore a traditional, conservative dress. Her head was completely covered, and her dress went from her neck to the ground, her fashionable shoes peeking out at the bottom.
I walked into my friend’s home, our children scampering in behind us. “Excuse me a moment,” she said. When she returned she was dressed in casual house clothes, her hair pulled back in a simple pony tail. “Now I can relax,” she said, smiling widely.
After a large meal, we sat and chatted about the social situation we live in, the two Jerusalems we experience, and Israeli elections. It brought us to her pointed question of me. With a penetrating stare, she asked, “Do you think ISIS represents Islam?”
It was a blunt question. I was taken aback by its abruptness. My friend sat in front of me awaiting an answer. A large Quran rested on a little podium nearby, an important and revered object in the modest living room. I sat across from her and blinked a few times. “No, I don’t think so,” I honestly told her. “Although I’m sure the Islamic State thinks they accurately represent Islam,” I added.
“Well they don’t,” she retorted, holding my gaze. She smiled, realizing she spoke a little harshly. She softened her tone a little, almost beseeching me to understand her. “I once went to Mecca,” she said, “and there is nothing like it in the world.” I glanced at a replica of the ka’aba on a mantle in the living room, a reminder of her visit, her piety.
“What do you do when you see so much suffering around you, carried out by those who do this in the name of Islam?,” I asked. She clasped her hands together, as if in a prayer, “I pray, and I read the Quran. I pray five times a day, and my husband, he goes to the mosque.”
Our children ran into the room to show us something. As we turned our attention to them, other conversations I’ve had with people came to mind, the idea that Islam is the enemy, a backward or barbaric religion, and the looming threat comes to us from our Muslim neighbors near and far. We have so isolated ourselves from Islam and Muslims that we hardly realize the diversity in this culture and religion. Questions ran through my mind as we played with our children. Why is it difficult for us to name even five of the many Muslim reformers who advocate nonviolence, denounce extremism, promote human rights, gender equality, Islamic feminism, and religious pluralism? Is it because we ourselves are still struggling with our own commitment to these issues? Is it because we are unwilling to learn good about others our society considers evil? I’m still contemplating this. In the coming months, I hope to address some of these questions.