Dedictated to folks at a loss for words this season of holiday parties fraught with strange, problematic comments & conversations
A couple winters ago, my mom and I were ambushed at the Pembroke Lakes Mall by three Christian evangelists. We met them on our way out of a Macy’s after feeling really good about the deal we got on designer dress shirts for some of the men in our lives.
I don’t particularly mind preachers — and I mean preachers in the broadest sense. Their attempts to persuade and convert — to belief or non-belief, embodied religion or secularity, vegan or vegetarianism, Sufism or Salafism, Sunnism or Shiism, Bernie or Hilary, liberal or radical leftist, Shake Shack or In N Out, waxing or threading, cats or dogs — during an intelligent and (keyword) intelligible discussion is also not something I categorically dislike. Sometimes, conversion attempts can be engaging or even flattering — especially when the person making the attempt is a warm human being. If they are particularly good looking, it’s a bonus. If they think you are not smart or experienced enough to be onto their project so they handle you with kid gloves, it’s charming (the way a man mansplaining is charming).
I know that behind it all — 1) they so badly want me to go to heaven; or 2) they want me to find happiness in my material present and forget about death and a much longer hereafter; or 3) they want me on their team for their sense of self-affirmation regarding choices they’ve made that they are not entirely confident about.
When I meet folks, for example, who just want to let me know Jesus loves me while I’m walking along, I take the time to pause and respond “I know” in an “Isn’t it wonderful?” kind of tone.
They usually find themselves flustered, and I usually quietly walk away with a satisfied smile.
I do, however, mind liars.
I mind obstinate, arrogant liars — especially if they are downright rude and violently aggressive.
The two men — the third person accompanying them was a woman, and she barely spoke while standing with them the entire time — who decided to approach us in that mall and get in our faces were all of those things. They pulled one lie out after another like they memorized some sort of playbook for converting Muslims to their version of Christianity at the mall.
They were convinced we would be convinced immediately upon hearing them out.
It had been a while since I was directly approached by a born-again Christian evangelist, so I thought, Well, here’s an opportunity.
I was curious to hear if anything changed in their rhetoric or if new subjects have been incorporated in their repertoire of speaking points.
They also went for my mom first, thinking she was an easy target, which made it all the more infuriating.
The entire experience was not a loss. I noted it down when I went home and re-read it as my own document about what certain religious communities are being taught in the U.S about Islam and Muslims.
Feel free to use my (or my mom’s) responses if you hear anything similar at your holiday dinner parties.
Here’s how it went —
POINT ONE: MUSLIMS ARE INTRINSICALLY VIOLENT.
Him 1: If you were really Muslim, you’d cut my head off.
Mom: I am a real Muslim — and I should slap you.
POINT TWO: MUSLIM WOMEN ARE OPPRESSED.
Him 2: Did you know that Muslim women have no rights?
Me: I have rights. I’m a Muslim woman.
Him 2: That’s because you are in THIS country. I’m telling you, Muslim women have no rights.
Me: Really? So you have a lot of Muslim women friends, huh?
Him 2: ….
Me: Have you ever even spoken with a Muslim woman?
Him 2: I know A LOT of them.
Me: Alright. Can you name five Muslim women?
Him 2: …
Me: One Muslim woman?
Him 2: Listen, I have met a lot. I just don’t know their names.
Me: Listen. My name is Sahar — and the next time you call people to Jesus, don’t lie. Tell them you know ONE Muslim woman. Her name is Sahar. She said she has rights.
POINT THREE: MUSLIMS DO NOT BELIEVE IN JESUS.
Him 1: Muslims don’t believe in Jesus.
Me: Sure we do. You are talking about Jesus the son of Mary, right? I believe in Jesus the Son of Mary. I’m a Muslim.
Him 1: MUSLIMS DON’T BELIEVE IN JESUS.
Me: Did you not hear me just say I’m a Muslim? Did you know Muslims also believe in the blessed Lady Mary?
Him 1: WE DON’T BELIEVE IN MARY. WE BELIEVE IN JESUS.
Me: What? I’m not sure I follow what you mean…
Him 1: Catholics are the devil. They believe in Mary!
Mom: You are a hater. Would you talk to your mom this way? She’d probably slap you .
POINT FOUR: MUSLIMS ARE BAD PEOPLE.
Him 1: Muslims listen to the devil. They believe in lies. They are evil.
Me: So you’re a black man. Surely you know it’s not right to say all black men are violent? Or all Christians are crazy?
Him 1: But there are some bad Christians. And I don’t think of myself as black. Black people are not my people. My people are the people who believe in the Lord Jesus.
POINT FIVE: THE KORAN IS A TEXT THAT TEACHES BAD BEHAVIOR (I.E., SEXUAL PROMISCUITY), AND IF YOU DONT KNOW THAT EVEN IF YOU HAVE READ THE QURAN MULTIPLE TIMES, YOU ARE NOT READING RIGHT.
Him 2: You know the Koran says that Muhammad had sex with any woman he wanted.
Me: The Koran doesn’t say that.
Him 2: I have read the Koran. Have you?
Me: Yes, I have. I also have memorized 30 chapters.
Him 2: …Well, you haven’t read the Koran right.
POINT SIX: MUHAMMAD IS SEXUALLY DEVIANT.
Him 2: Did you know Muhammad married Asiya when she was a kid?
Me: I’m pretty sure he never married someone named Asiya.
Him 2: It’s in the history books.
Me: Oh really? Which ones?
Him 2: …
Me: Here. Why don’t I make you a book list?
POINT SEVEN: MUSLIMS WHO UNDERSTAND ARABIC CONVERT TO CHRISTIANITY.
That — and the video he readily pulled up from his cell phone of an Arab man speaking about his conversion to Christianity from Islam — was the weirdest. He emphasized that the man was Arab. Speaking in Arabic. As if that would be the strongest evidence of the righteousness of his position for a non-Arab Muslim.
His excitement about a video of an Arab convert also reflected that either he didn’t recognize that there are many, many Christian Arabs – historically – or he didn’t recognize their form of orthodox Christianity.
So I told the less aggressive one it’s only polite if he would let me suggest a few other sources to check out. He accepted.
From time to time, I looked at the woman who stood silently with them. She appeared to be uncomfortable. She also appeared to be listening carefully to me.
I wrote down a few more books for him to read including the histories of Al-Tabari, Hodgson’s Venture of Islam, Rumi’s poetry, and the Autobiography of Malcolm X; I showed him the tumblr “Muslims Condemning Things;” and I told him to look up videos of Habib Ali al-Jifri on Jesus and Mary since he was so interested in Arab men speaking about religion in Arabic.
As I was about to hand over the list I wrote down, the other man took the paper and crumpled it up.
Mom then told them they got their strategy all wrong.
“If you want people to listen to you” – she said – “you should try being nice and not so rude.”
And, “SHE’S GETTING HER DOCTORATE. YOU’RE LUCKY SHE’S TEACHING YOU.”
As we extricated ourselves and began walking back toward the Macy’s, I saw the less aggressive one approach two Latina women who walked by.
I went back.
I told him in front of the women, “You are spreading hate. When you say all Muslims are evil – it’s like saying all black people are evil, or Latinx people are evil. You are Latino. Your friend is black. You know it’s just wrong. My family has served people their whole lives without asking anything in return. My Muslim brothers and sisters prepare meals for the homeless not too far from here alongside Christian pastors every week. They’ve been doing it FOR YEARS — how dare you call any of them evil?”
He stepped back, and with a warm smile, he said his parents had Muslim neighbors for many years who were very good and kind to them.
“Then why are you lying to people?!?!?”
My mom made me walk away and into the perfume section of Macy’s. Someone offered a free sample. I offered my wrist.
I knew engaging would be a train wreck, but my curiosity got the better of me. I didn’t realize how exhausted I would feel.
Again, I don’t particularly mind preachers. But I very much mind liars. And their lies were clear, shameless, explicit, bold. Instead of editing their talking points, they doubled down on them.
Mom said – They are mean. I’m tired.
I noticed I was shaking, and I noticed I felt both angry and sad — but not for myself.
We left the mall with the new dress shirts we got on sale and a deep concern for our community’s well-being — because we met human beings who felt no remorse for lying.