The fifteen-year-old girl told me she was open to learning about different religions and cultures, so I could not resist asking: “Would you ever want to see the inside of a mosque?”
The girl shook her head as she chatted with me and her mother in a donut shop in their southeast Texas town. She had just quit her high school in favor of homeschooling because she and her parents objected to the geography teacher’s instruction about Islam as part of a broader lesson on world religions.
“I don’t care to. I don’t believe even remotely in what they believe,” the girl said of Muslims. Islam, she added, is just too different. Her mother also balked at the idea of seeing a mosque. “That’s their thing,” she said.
But why enclose yourself in your religious or non-religious bubble? The mother and daughter identified themselves as conservative Christians, but I’ve heard similar comments from people of various faiths. Acquaintances of mine in suburban Boston told me they had never met a Muslim, let alone seen a mosque. Now, they have an open invitation to visit.
The afternoon of Sunday, April 2, mosques around Massachusetts will hold their first joint open mosque day. Fliers for the event encourage people to come to meet a Muslim, learn about Islam, and enjoy cultural food. Other mosques around the country, including in Texas, and the world have been holding similar events or plan to in upcoming months. Many mosques also post information about scheduling visits on their websites.
I love the idea and applaud Muslim communities for creating these open houses. It’s a great concept, not just for Muslims, but for Jews, Sikhs and Hindus, all looked upon as the ‘other’ in majority Christian America. By inviting others to our temples, mosques, synagogues and shuls, we can demystify our beliefs and practices. Jews, as my family will this year, often invite non-Jews to join them at Passover. It’s a religious tradition of welcoming the stranger.
Open Mosque Day will largely attract visitors already predisposed to learning about different religions and cultures. It’s unlikely people with strong negative stereotypes of Muslims will venture over a mosque’s threshold. But non-Muslims who visit a mosque can then become an ambassador and educate their friends and acquaintances.
Just going to an Open Mosque Day event sends an important message. It shows support for Muslim Americans at an incredibly upsetting and fearful time. During the 2016 presidential campaign, it wasn’t just then candidate Donald Trump who was promoting fear-mongering with anti-Muslim ideas like a ban to prevent foreign Muslims from entering the United States. Republican Ted Cruz suggested patrolling Muslim neighborhoods to keep an eye out for terrorists.
As president, Trump has signed two executive orders trying to prevent residents of several Muslim-majority countries from entering our country. Attorneys are fighting the orders, but the damage has been done. Many Muslims feel demoralized and scared, scared enough in some cases to flee from America to Canada in freezing temperatures.
What would that teen-aged girl and her mother find at a mosque? They might find more familiarity than foreignness. Yes, Muslims chant their prayers in Arabic, but the words of the prayers, when translated into English, would have similar meanings to prayers for peace and wellbeing in any religion. Muslims also see Abraham as a key figure in their faith and know the stories not just of the Old Testament but of the New Testament. Jesus is no stranger.
As a Jew, I saw parallels and differences when I visited mosques in the Boston area and around the country while reporting for Faith Ed, my book on teaching about religion in public schools. Worship begins with a call to prayer. Judaism has its own call to prayer. Chanting in a lyrical way in Arabic is integral to Muslim prayer. Chanting the Torah in Hebrew is also significant in Judaism. In mosques, men and women pray in separate spaces. In Orthodox Jewish shuls, men and women pray separately from each other, too. No mosque is identical, and the same is true for Jewish houses of worship. All religions have diversity within them. Still, if you visit several mosques, you will see commonalities, including a prayer clock showing times for each of the five daily prayers. Any Jewish temple would have an ark, a cabinet or curtained area to hold the Torah.
In my numerous visits to houses of worship, whether they belong to Jews, Christians, Sikhs, Hindus or Muslims, I have always witnessed a sense of community among worshippers. We don’t become experts in others’ faiths by touring houses of worship. But it’s a start toward better understanding and respect of each other.
About the Author
Linda K. Wertheimer, a former Boston Globe education editor, is the award-winning author of Faith Ed: Teaching About Religion In An Age of Intolerance. During her nearly thirty-year journalism career, she was a reporter at The Dallas Morning News and The Orlando Sentinel as well as for other publications. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Boston Globe Magazine, USA Today, Time, and many other publications. Faith Ed in 2016 won a national book award—second place in the Religion News Association nonfiction religion book contest. She has also won awards for her writing from the Education Writers Association and other organizations. She was a 2014 finalist in the Massachusetts Cultural Council artist fellowship awards. A graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, she lives in the Boston area with her husband and son. Follow her on Twitter at @Lindakwert and visit her website.