All that noise in Hamtramck last week over the Islamic call to prayer got me to thinking. …
More than a decade ago when I visited Egypt for a two-week tour, I could hear the Islamic call to prayer being broadcast throughout the day every day. The somewhat high-pitched, plaintive sound reminded me that I was truly in a foreign country. It sounded strange but beautiful in its own way. Not everyone, not even everyone who was on the same tour, would feel the same way, but that’s how it sounded to me. Another thing I remember is that after about a week of hearing the call to prayer, I barely noticed it — I had grown accustomed to it just that quickly. No longer strange, it was normal.
Here in America, sometimes it’s hard to figure out what’s “normal” and what’s not, and for some folks that’s hard to take, kind of like taking a stand on quicksand.
When Columbus and crew first landed on American shores more than five centuries ago, they brought their religious beliefs along with them. Those beliefs didn’t stop them from screwing over the natives who were already here — and who already had their own set of religious beliefs — but the fact remains that the newcomers had a religious belief system in place, and it didn’t change once they landed here.
Later, when the British found their way to America, they too brought their religious beliefs with them. As with Columbus and crew, their religious beliefs played a major role in defining themselves as a people. And when the African slaves were brought to what became the United States, they also had their own religious beliefs that defined who they were, but those beliefs were largely beaten and whipped out of them.
The Irish brought their beliefs. The Germans brought theirs. The Italians brought theirs too. Same with the Japanese and the Chinese. Name any immigrant group and you’ll find that they brought their religions — and their sometimes differing ways of practicing the same religion — along with them. Whenever a group arrives in a strange new land to begin a new life, its common belief system is frequently what holds it together and gives it strength. In America, this is nothing new. It has been going on for as long as America has been known as America.
But despite all these different mixes of cultures and religions and religious practices that have been a part of this country for centuries, some still want to insist that America is a Christian nation, meaning that all other religions are essentially second-tier religions and should take a seat in the back of the bus — or get off the bus altogether. Until America — and Americans — come to terms with the fact that America is not one nation under only a Christian God, it will never be one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Last week the Hamtramck City Council voted unanimously to allow Hamtramck Muslims to use loudspeakers to broadcast the Islamic call to prayer five times a day (from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.), and a lot of non-Muslim residents are all bent out of shape. A number of reasons have been given for this anger — too much noise, too un-American, too contrary to Hamtramck’s Polish tradition and culture — but the primary reason seems to be that Hamtramck’s Muslim community wants to start behaving just as much like Muslims as Christians are permitted to behave like Christians.
The nerve of some people.
What this all gets down to is the old argument about whether America should be a melting pot, where all cultures and races have their unique attributes burned away by the white-hot flames of assimilation and the remains are blended into something bland; or whether it should actually be a salad bowl where the numerous races and cultures that are forced to co-exist in neighborhoods and cities from coast to coast can maintain their unique identities without being considered a threat to one another. I vote for the salad bowl. As I have heard expressed many times before, America’s greatest strength — you might even say its secret weapon — is its diversity. The problem is seeing that despite our own ignorance and intolerance. Sometimes, we would rather destroy one another than take the time to appreciate what we don’t have in common and understand how those differences could benefit all of us.
Rather than deal with the real issues of why some in Hamtramck — and elsewhere — are so upset, we hear nonsensical and superficial explanations such as how irritating it will be to hear the broadcasts throughout the day, or how it will somehow force non-Muslims to hear a faith that is not their own — kind of like what American Muslims are exposed to every time they hear the Pledge of Allegiance, or when they take a look at a dollar bill that says “In God We Trust.”
One thing that amuses me is that the Muslim call to prayer isn’t even broadcast in English, which means that those who claim to be offended only know they will be offended because someone told them what it meant. If someone had improperly translated the call to prayer as “hot biscuits for sale,” then maybe there wouldn’t be a problem.
OK, that’s stretching it. The point is that sometimes a little tolerance is not such a bad thing, especially when your only other option might be to spontaneously combust from the heat of righteous indignation. Sometimes a little understanding can go a long way.
And sometimes we need to take a good look at ourselves in the mirror. For example, one of the most potent hot-button issues that has been boiling over in this country for quite some time is the issue of separation of church and state. The hard-core religious crowd has always argued in favor of prayer in schools and the allowance of greater religious influence on both public and private life. And yet I’d be willing to bet that many in this crowd are the same ones who are upset that the Muslims in Hamtramck will now be able to more openly practice their faith. Why? Because it’s not the correct faith. It’s not the American faith.
It’s not like us.Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org