Yesterday afternoon the mail delivered my copy of Rania Zeithar’s book: America Through My Eyes: Experiences of An Egyptian American Muslim Woman. Rania is a member of my local writers group and she honored me by asking me to write a preface. I included my preface below and highly recommend ordering the book from Amazon.
Foreward: The Pleasure of Civil Discourse
By Rev. David E. Dean
Our world needs more civil discourse. In this volume, instead of caustic language, broad generalizations, abusive and derogatory accusations, and authoritarian adversarial broadsides, Rania provides reasoned, personal, and enlightened observations of life in America during the volatile years since 9/11.
Like most Americans I felt the shock, bewilderment, and the onset of terror when the Muslim extremists attacked the Twin Towers. Much of my perception of Muslims and Islam was formulated in the ensuing news coverage and heightened awareness of the role of Islam in our world. Unlike many in my country I believed I already possessed a foundational knowledge of Islam. Had I not studied world religions in college and seminary? I unquestioningly believed I grasped the complexities of Islamic terrorism and my country’s appropriate response.
Then I met Rania Zeithar, a Muslim American woman from Egypt. She joined the writers group I attend because she wanted feedback on her blogs, since English is her second language. In getting the groups feedback, Rania shattered my preconceived ideas regarding Muslim women in particular. I wondered what the impact would be on my view of Muslims in general. Soon I realized how insightfully she observed American culture and found many of her insights encouraging and refreshing.
Take the hijab, for example. Before Rania shared her blog on the hijab, I felt an uneasy sympathy with a common impression found on social media. The hijab represented repression of women and somehow didn’t fit American culture. I say I had an uneasy sympathy. That hesitation came from my understanding of my own Christian faith.
Did not my scriptures in 1 Corinthians 11:6 instruct women to keep their heads covered? Yet, the same people who condemn the hijab are the ones who dismiss the Biblical injunction as culturally irrelevant. They do this without considering the possibility of other people finding a head covering culturally relevant.
I also know that within the broad Protestant Christian faith tradition, there are groups – including some Mennonites and the Amish – among whom the women cover their heads with special bonnets. Although not exactly like the hijab, they serve a similar function. Yet I have never heard anyone state the Amish bonnet should be banned in courtrooms. And in the Christian faith traditions, which have religious orders, frequently nuns wear head coverings. In many cases the religious habit covers more than the hijab but not quite as much as the common portrayal of the burka, which only has an opening for they eyes. Yet, despite the similarities, I have not heard calls to ban nun from wearing habits.
Rania’s blog about the hijab produced a profound reorientation of my views on Islamic culture. I felt so deeply about this I responded in my blog, which Rania has graciously included that in this volume.
Without getting to know Rania as a person, I would have missed out on the pleasure of genuine civil discourse. As if accompanying her on her adventure in America, I felt sadness at discrimination, joy at self-discovery, and love of family and faith. Had I not been willing to listen (which is an admonition of my own faith in James 1:19) I would have missed this opportunity as well as a fresh glimpse into my own culture.
Like many Americans I discounted the opinions of people from other cultural backgrounds. I believed they hated America and Americans. Perhaps I had seen too many news clips of crowds holding placards stating “Down with America.” Yet, through the civil discourse Rania offered I came to understand that some of “them” actually appreciate American culture and see our cultural glass as half full.
I suspect a partial reason why Americans downplay the opinions of other countries is because we inwardly believe we are deficient. We filter our view of ourselves through the lens of what we believe we should be and we find ourselves lacking. For example consider the raging debates about our current health care situation. The discourse around this topic is anything but civil. In our passion to improve we disparage what we have as well as those who disagree with us. Or consider the handicapped in our country. Can’t we do more for them than simply reserve parking places? Shouldn’t we do more for those will mental illnesses? The debate rages on. Discourse often less than civil. Or consider diversity. We view our country as fragmented into isolated groups. Discussion around the diversity within our country frequently focuses on who has what, who has deprived whom of what, and how to rectify the injustice. The lack of civil discourse has degenerated into violence far too frequently.
Most of us want to improve these situations, yet we remain divided. When we promote our positons as the only ones we stifle civil discourse. By viewing our cultural cup as half empty we strive harder to get others to agree with us. How engaging to hear Rania present in these pages a different perspective. She sees America’s cultural cup as half full. Without hearing her I would have missed considering American life and culture from a fresh perspective. To see my world with new eyes is a precious gift of civil discourse.
When I spoke of my pleasure over Rania’s civil discourse, some of my acquaintances expressed concern. “Don’t you realize,” (I paraphrase) “that it’s all a part of an Islamic plot to destroy our way of life? Isis claims to represent Islam. They engage in extreme acts of terrorism. Therefore all Muslims are willing to do anything to destroy Western culture.” This way of thinking clearly represents the lack of civil discourse. The logic is also deeply flawed. If I changed the name of the group, here’s the logic: “The Klu Klux Klan claims to be Christian. They engage in extreme acts of racial discrimination. Therefore all Christians practice radical racial discrimination.”
As a Christian I find this logic offensive because the faith I practice and the Bible I read does not promote the extreme behavior of the KKK. That is exactly why groups like Isis and the KKK are called extremist groups. They do not represent the mainstream. Isn’t it about time to stop labeling one another and instead listen to each other?
The heart of civil discourse is listening to what people say for and about themselves. Uncivil discourse tells other people what they believe. Let’s redirect American discourse back to heart of civility: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
Civil discourse does not mean agreement. Rania and I disagree on some major points, among which are: who the Lord Jesus Christ is and who the Prophet Mohammed is. This does not mean that I cannot listen to, respect, and interact with Rania with civility and so receive the gift of her insights and perspectives.
So, if you are ready for a journey into civil discourse; if you are ready to hear Rania speak for herself; if you are ready to have your preconceptions challenged; if you are open to broadening you understanding and knowledge: then continue reading.
Civil discourse – Let the adventure begin.