Come to Litchfield and ‘Ask a Muslim Anything’

Just before World War I, Nashua’s Indian Head National Bank published “Breezes From the Orient,” a collection of letters, written to the Nashua Daily Telegraph by Ira Francis Harris – the bank’s cashier – while on a 1913 world tour of the Orient.

Published in 1914, the bank distributed complimentary copies to patrons and friends. Some copies have survived, including one I recently bought at a flea market. I collect books, mostly on the Middle East and Islam, so this fragile little treasure is a welcome addition to my library.

Harris’s comments, written with more wit, literacy and curiosity than one generally encounters these days, reflect an exceptionalist, Eurocentric, Orientalist sensibility that persists to this day, whether in public discourse, political debate, education or personal encounters.

The biases reflected by Ira Harris could as easily be voiced today by many of our neighbors and colleagues about African-Americans and Native-Americans, just as they were previously voiced, for example, in the 1840s about Catholics, in the 1940s about Japanese-Americans, as they are voiced about Muslims today.

I am Muslim, and today I am writing to invite you to join me at the Aaron Cutler Memorial Library in Litchfield at 7 p.m. on Tuesday to engage in my “Ask a Muslim Anything” program. Come and join us and I will try to address your curiosity and concerns.

Your questions and concerns set the agenda.

I am Muslim and part of the community of Islam which is one of the world’s three great Abrahamic religions, all of which worship the same One God. Today, America embraces more than 3 million Muslims, among whom are descendants of African-Americans who were brought here as slaves, and among whom are immigrants and their descendants who’ve been living, assimilated, in the United States for generations.

Muslims did not just happen, like “Topsy,” on 9/11.

On 9/11 America was attacked by people they didn’t know speaking the language of a religion they knew nothing about, by terrorists who claimed to be acting in the name of God. In the aftermath of that horror, many Americans became, with some justification, fearful and distrustful of the Other and it took hard work and belief in the fundamental goodness of all humankind for Americans to find commonality of interests and be able to move beyond that tragedy into dialogue and trust.

American Muslims and non-Muslims, Americans religious and secular, together worked to build community; interfaith projects were initiated and common ground was established and secured.

What we’re witnessing today, in the public square in 2018, however, is different from what we saw in 2001. Today, America is, I believe, afflicted by a particularly virulent disorder, a wave of Islamophobia that has nothing to do with religion; it’s about demagogues manipulating public sentiment for personal power, privilege and profit.

And affected by that affliction are communities of minorities, immigrants, peoples of color, Muslims and others who are not considered white and sufficiently Eurocentric.

Today, there are even some Americans who believe that Muslims shouldn’t be allowed in America, that if they are here they should be registered and monitored and, indeed, there are many believe that American Muslims shouldn’t even be allowed to practice their faith.

It’s ugly, it’s unfair and it’s contrary to the aspirations of our Founding Fathers, of our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and of our national security interests.

Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, a signer of our Declaration of Independence, wrote, “True freedom embraces the Mahometan (sic) and Gentoo (Hindu) as well as the Christian religion.”

Theophilus Parsons, one of the authors of the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution, wrote that it was designed to ensure “the most ample of liberty of conscience” for “Deists, Mahometans (sic), Jews and Christians.”

That is the America I know.

I know that most Americans aren’t haters, even those who’re still fearful. I know most Americans aren’t responsible for the ignorance and invective that today resonates in so many public spaces.

That’s why I do this.

Ira Francis Harris wrote The Daily Telegraph from Cairo: “If my epistle from Egypt reduced the circulation of your paper so as to imperil your next dividend, no hard feelings will be entertained should you consign this effusion to the waste-basket, for my wild dissipation in the bazaars of Cairo had somewhat upset my mental equilibrium when it was compiled. But didn’t we have one great time in that kaleidoscope city of the Orient, and didn’t Cairo have one great time with us, as it sold us scarabs and other junk without stint, all claimed to have been taken from ancient tombs, but probably made in Germany some time within the last twelve moons.”

Early Americans weren’t averse to learning about Islam. The Library of Congress owns a 1764 edition of the Qur’an that belonged to Thomas Jefferson, purchased while a student at the College of William and Mary. John Adams, who helped defend the Amistad mutineers, owned a copy of the first Qur’an printed in America (Springfield, Mass., 1806) that’s now in the collection of the Boston Public Library.

Today, I write to say that if this epistle from Exeter amuses or intrigues you, if you have questions about Islam and Muslims, then come to the Aaron Cutler Memorial Library in Litchfield on the 24th from 7:00-9:00pm.

I promise to try and gently challenge your mental equilibrium and try address your concerns and questions about Muslims and Islam.

Please join us. Bring friends and questions. Nothing is off the table – except bad manners!

Robert Azzi lives in Exeter. His work is archived at theotherazzi.wordpress.com.