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In Conversation With My Neighbors:
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In Conversation with My Neighbors:

My response to the San Bernardino shootings

 

By Aysha Mehdi, Upper School Islamic Studies Teacher  •  New Horizon School

 

“..If anyone kills a person – without just cause – it’s as if they have killed the entire humanity…” (Quran 5:32)

I understood this verse now, in a whole new light, because I felt dead. I felt like I had been shot, as well. The night of Wednesday, December 2nd, was the most restless night. Even the next morning didn’t bring any relief. Everything was gray–even my prayers were only mechanical and mundane. There was a feeling of uneasiness in my heart, in my mind. I went to work the next day and everyone was talking about the shootings. I felt embarrassed and wanted to shy away. I already knew what everyone was thinking and was going to say. I just wanted to lock myself up in a room and cry for hours. But then, I stopped myself, I heard a voice inside my head “…and remember when you choose not to talk to someone, to shun them away, you are really shunning away yourself. If you never get to know them, you will never get to know part of you.” A dear friend of mine had said this in explaining a verse from the Quran that I had so often heard,


O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. (Quran 49:13)


So, with much caution, I started talking to my co-workers about the shootings, most of them non-Muslim. My mind began to clear the more I spoke. It felt good to separate myself from the terrorists. That was important for me. After all, I wear the scarf and my husband’s first name is Syed.


As I was getting ready to go home, I thought about my neighbors. I loved them and would hate to think that just because I was a Muslim, they would feel threatened. Sure, it sounds ridiculous and I know my neighbors are independent thinkers. But, still I am sure they had a little question mark in their heads about us. I had to go see them and reassure them. I had to start making this world a safer place, by starting with my neighbors. So, I prayed istikhara (a prayer to help with decision making) and went to the local grocery story to pick up some holiday chocolates.


Now came the hard part: I didn’t want to go by myself. I wanted my husband to come. I knew he would be tired after an hour and a half commute. So, keeping my fingers crossed, I casually mentioned that I was going to go talk to the neighbors about the shootings. His reply, with a confident look was, “Let’s go!” We had both been very restless, saddened, heart-broken, and confused, like the rest of the Americans. I was glad that instead of one, now we were two of us going out to do the peace talk with our neighbors.


We didn’t know what we were going to say. It was 7:30pm on a Thursday night, a day after the shooting, and we were both tired after a long day at work. But we had to speak up! Our faith had been hijacked again! 


So, without wasting anymore time, we grabbed our big bag of chocolates, typed up a little intro to Islam, got a flyer of the most misquoted ayats of the Quran and set off to talk to neighbors. Unfortunately, due to a busy lifestyle, we had never had a real conversation with our neighbors about anything, let alone something as heavy as the recent shootings. So, we were really anxious and nervous.


The night was cold and dark and only a few houses were lit. We were ready to be yelled at, ignored, or just asked to leave, but we reminded each other that we had to do this for our peace and for the sake of God. After all, the Prophet had said that our neighbors need to feel safe around us and God reminds us, in the Quran, to “invite (all) to the Way of your God (Cherisher and Sustainer) with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and … with … ways that are best and most gracious.” (Quran 16:125).


So, the path was clear–we had to walk. We walked a few houses down and randomly selected a house. My husband walked up to the front porch and knocked lightly. I stood behind him with the bag of chocolates, unsure of the outcome. We were afraid that we might be drawing unnecessary attention, and for a moment I just wanted to call off the entire thing, go back, and go to bed. That was much easier than this. But, we didn’t. He knocked again. We waited. This time we exchanged looks of concern. Then, he lightly knocked again for the third time. And finally, the door opened slightly and a head popped out. “Hi,” he said in a soft voice, “we’re your neighbors from down the street, do you have a minute?”


We had not planned our talk; we just wanted to show our faces, express our sorrow, and help our neighbors feel safe. We also wanted to let them know that if they had any questions, doubts, or inquiries about Islam and Muslims, our doors were open to them. We were not apologizing. The attack or the attackers had nothing to do with us. But, we had to talk, it was the least immediate action we could take towards reconnecting and building bridges that were threatened by the shootings. After all, isn’t that what neighbors are for, to share your joys, sorrows, and concerns?


What was supposed to be a quick two-minute conversation ended up being a good 1520 minute heart-to-heart conversation. We had 11 bags for the 11 houses we were planning to visit that night, but we barely managed to visit three houses. We talked about everything from our families to current events, religion, politics, etc. All of our neighbors were welcoming. Some laughed with us, some advised us to be cautious, some invited us in, and others listened patiently as we shared our concerns. Overall, they were very appreciative of our efforts to reach out to them. We told them we had to do our part in the community and neighborhood to reach out and be there for them–to open our doors, and our hearts, to our neighbors.
After almost an hour of discussions, I entered our home and immediately felt as if a burden had been lifted. I felt relieved and at ease. I had reclaimed and defined my own identity and had separated myself from the perpetrators. The entire time I kept telling my husband, “We have to go talk to our neighbors to help them feel safe.” When I entered my home, I realized that we had to do it for ourselves and for us to feel safe.
We made at least three friends that night and learned a lot about our wonderful neighbors, by the will of my God: the God of mercy and compassion. Our only regret was not doing this sooner. And our job was not complete. We went out again on Friday night, and then again on Saturday, and again after that. We made so many friends that we didn’t even know existed.


A man once asked the Prophet: “How can I know when I do well and when I do ill?” The Prophet replied: “When you hear your neighbors say you have done well, you have done well; and when you hear them say you have done ill, you have done ill.” - Al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 1288.


In college, I had read about the infamous ancient Greek aphorism “Know thyself.” In the Quran, God says that He has created us so we can get to know each other and therefore ourselves. So it was, the shootings had confused me. I had lost myself! Little did I know that I would find myself at the doorsteps of my neighbors. I had reclaimed myself by building a relationship with them.

 Aysha F. Mehdi is an upper school Islamic Studies teacher at the New Horizon School in Pasadena, California. She earned her Bachelors from the University of Davis in Comparative Literature and Middle Eastern/ South Asian Studies, and holds teaching credentials in multiple subjects.

 

(Type: Article)

(User Group: Administration, Parents, Teachers)

(Grade: Lower, Middle, Upper)

(Subject: In Conversation With My Neighbors)


 

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