I buried my father a few days ago in a Muslim cemetery outside of Phoenix, Arizona. He passed away unexpectedly in his sleep in the last few days of Ramadan. My mother, sisters and I were devastated. My father was a gentle man who never raised his voice much less his hand against anyone, and lived his life according to one essential truth – Islam is about loving your neighbor.
And so when I read about the townsfolk of Sidney, New York trying to force their Muslim neighbors to dig up their local cemetery, I knew I had to say something.
A local Sufi group in Sidney received permission from the town to bury Muslim dead on their private property in 2005. This tiny cemetery has stood for years without incident. But with the recent onslaught of Islamophobia gripping the country, local politicians have decided to ride the wave of bigotry. Town supervisor Bob McCarthy has led a movement to get the Muslims to dig up their “unauthorized” cemetery. When asked what law prohibited the Muslims from having a burial site on their own land, his response was: “I don’t know what the exact law is.”
In fact, there is no law in New York prohibiting grave sites on private property. So the town leaders have gotten their attorneys to parse through law books to find something they could use to unearth the Muslim graves. The closest they have come is an obscure regulation that prohibits cemeteries on mortgaged land. The Muslim group is now trying to either subdivide their property to exclude the graves, or pay off their remaining mortgage (under $200,000) to prevent their loved ones from being torn from their final resting places.
Among those calling for the removal of the Muslim cemetery are “Tea Party” supporters who have suggested that the Muslim group is a “for profit” venture and should be denied First Amendment religious protection. Property rights don’t seem to matter much to these alleged champions of liberty when Muslims are involved.
The hatred evident in this small-town drama is so clear and shocking that it truly gives me pause as to where the people of this great country are going. I have been saddened by the rising anti-Muslim mania in the past few months because this isn’t the America I grew up in, nor the one the Founders fought and died for.
It is not the country my father immigrated to in 1976 – exactly two hundred years after the American Revolution. An America that he loved because it provided him economic opportunities and freedoms that he couldn’t find in his native country of Pakistan. An America that didn’t care what his religion or ethnicity was and gave him the chance to follow his dreams. An America that allowed his son to rise from poverty to become a successful Hollywood filmmaker and novelist.
As my fellow Americans turn more and more away from their principles and embrace the passions of a xenophobic mob, I question whether that country is gone forever. Whether “government of the people, by the people, for the people” has failed Lincoln’s hopes and has indeed perished from the Earth.
This cemetery incident is just the latest in the “summer of hate” that reached its zenith with the shrill cries against the Park 51 Muslim community center in Manhattan. A center built by liberal Muslims to promote an Islam of peace and brotherhood became re-imagined in the delusional eyes of bigots as a “victory mosque” built by Muslim extremists in honor of Al-Qaeda.
What is fascinating and telling about both incidents is that those who have been targeted by the fear mongers are Sufi Muslims, mystics who celebrate God as the spirit of Love. The Sufis are the polar opposites of Al-Qaeda and its band of murderers, promoting a progressive Islam that embraces other religions warmly and seeks human reconciliation rather than conflict. Muslim fundamentalists have been attacking Sufis for centuries, as their brand of progressive Islam outshines the ugly corruption of religion that the fundamentalists want to promote. And now the Muslim fundamentalists’ war against Sufism has been joined by fanatics of other religions and communities.
Anyone who has read the beautiful Sufi poetry of Rumi (ironically, the best selling poet in America today) will find an Islam of humility, of compassion, of love for women and reverence for the divine feminine, of not just tolerance, but joyful embrace of other religions. It is an Islam of music, of smiling faces, of laughter and companionship, not a dour Islam of anger and cruelty. This is the true heart of Islam that allowed the religion to succeed and become a global civilization, despite the best efforts of fundamentalists to poison the faith with violence and stupidity.
This Islam of love, not the Islam of hate, is what is being rejected by people like the town leaders of Sidney and the opponents of Park 51. It is this very Islam that is the greatest threat, because it is like clear water. It reflects back the truth of those who look upon it. And the bigots only see their own ugliness mirrored back to them. In demanding that Muslims dig up their graves, the leaders of Sidney have only unearthed the graves of their own hearts and revealed all the rot and decay within their own souls.
For Muslims, respect for the graves of every community is central to our faith. Prophet Muhammad once was seated with his followers when he saw a Jewish funeral procession pass by. The Prophet immediately stood up out of respect. His followers were startled – the dead man was a Jew, and there were political tensions between the Muslim and Jewish communities of Arabia at the time. But the Prophet simply turned to them and said: “Was he not a human being?” Indeed, today the ancient Jewish cemetery of Medinaremains intact and preserved, despite the harsh fundamentalism of the current Saudi government and its discriminatory practices toward non-Muslims.
But respect for graves is not just a Muslim value. It is a universal human belief that how we treat the dead reveals the character of our community. When an ancient Muslim graveyard was demolished in Jerusalem to build the ironically named “Museum of Tolerance,” Jews and Christians joined with their Muslim neighbors to protest this lack of respect for the dead.
As I have learned in recent days, death is an unveiling. Truths are revealed at the end that were hidden at the beginning. And how we choose to close the door on the past defines what awaits us in the future.
When my father passed away, I was asked to perform a central Muslim burial ritual. I bathed his body with my hands before we lowered him into the earth. It was one of the most intimate and powerful experiences of my life. As I cleaned his corpse with loving attention, I remembered all the times that he would bathe me with such love when I was a child. It was a final act of love, of farewell, that I will carry with me to my own grave.
America now has a choice as to which path will define its character. If we retain our sense of honor and common decency, we will continue to be the men and women that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin would have embraced.
But if we choose hatred for both the living and the dead, then I can only say this. In digging up the graves of our neighbors, we dig one for our own civilization.