We all fear the unknown. Many of us live in largely homogenous communities, and meeting people with different skin tones, clothes, or accents can make us uncomfortable. In the West, many of us lack Muslim friends. The stories we are most familiar with are of violence unleashed by terrorist groups in the name of Islam. It’s no small wonder then that some have reservations about welcoming Muslims into our neighborhoods.
In contrast, my story is about living peacefully with Muslim neighbors, sharing life and friendship. Even though my story is from a different time and place, I hope it will spur us to pursue a path of friendship rather than cave in to fear or cynicism.
I grew up in Sri Lanka, and most of my early childhood memories are of an extended household that was both Christian and Muslim. My parents lived abroad for a few years soon after they married, and when they returned, it took them several years to get their house back. Because we needed a place to live, our Christian family ended up living in the annex of a Muslim family's home for six wonderful years. These Muslims were no strangers — my father and Uncle Maz (Mazzahim) had been friends from Boy Scout days long before either of them was married.
Friends relaxing together: Gazzali is at the far right, Sabry at the far left, and you can see Aunty Saheeha — the lady on left smiling into camera (only her face is shown) with my face peeking out next to her.
Difference Is Normal
It was a priceless experience to grow up internalizing difference as normal, a part of one's good everyday world rather than seeing difference as strange and awkward. To this day, the first association in my mind with “Muslim” is the Mohideen family: Uncle Maz, Aunty Saheeha, Gazzali Aiya (Sinhala for older brother), and Sabry Aiya. It seemed normal to live so very differently and yet so similarly in the same space. It was normal to see Arabic prayer books every day in the old grandmother's room — I used to leaf through them and sometimes climb up to the top of the bunk bed and watch her say her prayers.
We looked forward to a nice Ramadan feast just as much as they looked forward to a good Christmas spread each year — Mom flaming a Christmas pudding in our part of the house or us eating Watalappam on their side. We shared a common hallway and were often in each other’s spaces. It was normal for our family to have our regular meals during the month of Ramadan while they fasted. It was normal to see the men in the Mohideen family coming in shortly before 6:00 p.m. to break their fast with a big spread that Aunty Saheeha had laid out. It was even normal for me to lurk in the passage eating dates, a staple enjoyed at their evening meal during this month of fasting.
My Muslim friends invested in our multi-ethnic and multi-religious community. One of my magical and vivid memories of Christmas as a child was being part of a nativity play. Sabry Aiya (a Muslim in his teens) organized the children in the neighborhood to perform the nativity play in his home. Sabry was the chief coach and the play was faithful to the biblical narrative. I was one of the magi and I remember singing one of the verses of "We Three Kings of Orient Are."
Visiting the zoo. Sabry is in the center with my mom and I on either side of him.
I also remember peering through the window on tiptoe one day, curiously watching the visiting Islamic teacher instructing Gazzali Aiya and Sabry Aiya in their faith. The teacher saw one of the Muslim boys and a Sinhala boy sharing the same glass of water and privately reprimanded his student. To the Islamic teacher, such sharing was a religiously unclean act. I still remember the anger of the boys who felt insulted on behalf of their friend. Their loyalty was more to their friend who was outside their faith than to blind acceptance of practices in the name of their religion. Their sense of right and wrong made a powerful impression on me as a young child.
Many years later, I studied at a renowned Christian Institute in London one summer. Gazzali and his family lived in the UK by then and even though I hadn't seen him in several years, it made sense that he should keep an eye on me while I was in London. He and his family kept me in their home for a couple of days, and then Gazzali drove me to London to the flat I was to stay in. During this drive we talked about many things — my faith, other Christians, and his own visit to London's famed All Souls Church.
At the end of my time in London, he picked me up and I stayed with his family again before he took me to Heathrow. The following summer Gazzali’s family hosted my brother in their home. These wonderful summers in the UK were enhanced by having friends to rely on who felt like family, even though we were not related by blood or faith.
I know others’ experiences of Islam can be different from the deep level of friendship that our family enjoyed with the Mohideens and the friendships I have had with other Muslim friends in Sri Lanka. Today there are geographic areas controlled by terrorist groups self-identified as Muslim — groups who seek to capture political power by force with the avowed intent of imposing their own interpretation of strict Islamic rule on all within their borders. This powerful, militant brand of Islam is bent on subduing minorities, erasing their identities, and giving them a choice of assimilation or death.
It has been three years since over 250 Christian girls in Nigeria were kidnapped by Boko Haram and two years since Kenyan students in Garissa were killed by Muslim terrorists because of their Christian faith. In Muslim-majority Pakistan, Christians try not to draw attention to themselves and live under the radar, fearing yet another attack in their neighborhoods or houses of worship. A few years ago, friends in Sri Lanka gave shelter to a young Pakistani couple who were fleeing for their lives because of their conversion from Islam to Christianity.
When, in the name of Islam, terrorists commit violence, especially in a cosmopolitan Western hub like the December 2016 attack on the Christmas markets in Berlin, Muslims in the West are justifiably concerned about how they will be perceived by the people among whom they live. In countries like the United States, there is the freedom protected by law for a Muslim (or someone of any faith) to express concern about the prejudice they may be experiencing. Thankfully, there are many non-Muslims, including many Christians, who would publicly support such a person and fight against this prejudice. This is not true for Christians in countries governed by Islamic law.
In January 2016, for the first time, Muslim religious and government leaders from around the world gathered in Morocco and issued the Marrakech Declaration calling on all Muslim states to protect religious minorities within their borders. In an effort to combat religious extremism and terrorism, another summit of moderate Muslim leaders was held in May in Jakarta, Indonesia. After complex international negotiations, in October we celebrated the release of twenty-one girls from their Boko Haram captivity. Such efforts to promote justice from within the global Islamic community are encouraging.
How then can we learn to co-exist peacefully with our Muslim neighbors in the pluralistic societies of the West? In urban centers, churches have been on the front lines welcoming Muslim as well as Christian refugees from the Middle East, offering legal and medical services. Public schools are on the right track when they host lectures on Islam for their students. A better option is to host forums on faith in our public schools that include Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and other religious voices.
At a personal level, we can start small. Even if we feel ill at ease with the unfamiliar garb and language of the Muslim family on our street and are hesitant to make friends, it is not hard to stop for a quick hello while taking a walk. You might even bring over a home-baked snack to share one day or offer a friendly greeting to Muslim parents at school pick-up time. When an opportunity comes where a Muslim acquaintance might help you, take them up on it — whether it be a ride to the bus stop on a rainy day or an extra pair of hands moving furniture into the house.
If you have a Muslim colleague, initiate going to lunch together, taking the time to get to know each other. Over time, your new Muslim friend may be happy to talk about what she believes and hear about what you believe too. It was during a regular conversation with a Muslim friend in high school that I first learned that Muslims consider Christians to be people of the book, that they believe in the first five books of the Bible, and that they believe in Jesus’ virgin birth and respect him as a prophet.
Find out if there is a need that you can help fill. Perhaps there is a Muslim colleague from a foreign country who has cancelled plans to visit her family abroad because of complications flying back in. Invite her to join you and your friends for a meal. Or there might be ways that you could listen and help with systemic difficulties they are experiencing. During the civil war in Sri Lanka, all the Muslims were forced by the rebels to leave the Northern part of the country. Ten years later, these refugees were still in a camp, with very few basic toilets for thousands of people. Our national Christian university community spent a morning with these Muslim refugees listening to their stories and returned several months later to dig additional pits for more toilets.
We can respect the faith traditions of others and yet share our own. In our Christian school, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu students were provided with competent teachers to learn their own faith, so that they could take a competitive public exam in tenth grade which included Religion. Religious minorities had their own religious associations and planned faith-based activities. But whenever we had a special service, Christian students would invite friends of other faiths to attend if they liked and often they did.
People are all in different places on their journey towards discovering Christ. You might be the first Christian a Muslim might get to know or you might be the one who invites her to consider the claims of Christ on her own life, remaining friends irrespective of his decision. Along with others, we might be the Christ-bearers that God has put in their circles. Sabry Aiya died young — one of my last memories of him is his request to borrow a Christian music album. It’s a good reminder to steward our friendships well. God might be inviting you to be one of the many links toward Jesus in the life of a new friend.