Last summer (2016), I was invited to participate in a peace event that was held in Washington DC. The event was sponsored by American-Islam, “a national organization representing and working to empower moderate American Muslims by providing them with religious, educational, social, financial, and advocacy services, and outreaching to the U.S. population, media, and government with the true peaceful message of Islam.” (ISLAM, Inc.) I have been studying Islam as a non-Muslim anthropologist by participating in various Muslim activities over the last four years, as a guest speaker at past conferences sponsored by America-Islam, by attending public classes at the Islamic Society of Central Florida, and by becoming friends with many American Muslims in the Orlando area. They have allowed me to blog information about them that helps to dispel mis-information that has tainted the reputation of their religion. You can read more of my blogs about Islam by clicking on “Islam” in the Categories Menu. They are proud Americans and they enjoy being able to live in a country where they are free to represent their religion with dignity, and, as they say to me over and over, “in the right way.” To them, the word “Islam” literally means “peace.” It bothers them daily that they are associated with the negativity that has plagued Islam in the media for years.
To begin with, let me say that the idea of traveling for 12 hours to Washington DC, on a bus filled with Muslims, sounded like something I was meant to do. Turns out, it was the most exciting thing I did all year! But I did have a great fear in my stomach that started the moment I decided to go, and didn’t end until I stepped back into my house after we returned home. The fear was what other people would think of us as we traveled from city to city, getting on and off the bus, at a time when America is still struggling with Islamophobia. My biggest fear was what others might do to us, but we all went knowing this and everyone seemed happy to face it. My own personal mission was to take pictures and then tell a story that showed them in ways that most Americans don’t ever get to see them…as humans. If you would like to read more about why I decided to go, please read my pre-trip blog entitled “Why I am going to Washington DC to support Islam.”
Our trip began in Orlando, Florida on a big touring bus, headed to Washington DC. The bus was filled with Muslim youth, young adults, adult volunteers, elderly volunteer couples, a student from a local college who came also to volunteer, and me. We drove the whole way to DC without stopping, other than for bathroom breaks. I brought my own cooler full of avocados, raw cheese, raw nuts, organic coffee, etc. It seems silly that I would mention a cooler full of food that I brought with me, but it turns out that my raw food enabled me to be very pro-active during the weekend, I had lots of energy that kept me going and I never crashed. The weekend turned out to be very exhausting, so I was happy that I brought my own food! Some of the youth were asking me about “how I ate” on the trip home, and they treated me with a lot of respect and friendship on the entire journey. I have become known as the “lady who teaches ‘Medicine of the Prophet’ classes. They are intelligent young people, happy, polite, wanting the world to accept them.
On our way to Washington DC, we had to stop several times for gas. At this particular stop, the entire bus-load of Muslims decided to exit the bus for a stretch and late afternoon prayer. (At other prayer times, if we were driving and to conserve time, prayers were performed on the bus with someone leading them on the microphone.) This particular stop was in North Carolina, at a truck stop along the highway. They gave me permission to take photos on the trip, even when they prayed. As I took this photo, a truck driver slowly drove by as he exited the parking lot of the truck stop. If I could have taken a picture of his face as he drove by, it would have been priceless…he looked terrified! And that is why this photo is so important, because this moment at this truck stop elucidated (to me) the irrational fear that has been programmed into the minds of the American public. It seemed that no matter what gas station we went into for bathroom breaks on the long drive (especially in the south-eastern region), the group attracted many uncomfortable looks from many people. It was very interesting to me to watch people react to a bus full of Muslims during these truck stop breaks. We have a lot of work to do to get over the fear.
We started our trip very early (6:00am) in the morning on a Thursday, and arrived in Washington DC late Thursday evening. It was a long drive, but we survived. Friday morning, everyone woke up and went across the street for breakfast at a little café. Then, we stepped outside to have a “pep” talk and go over the plan for the day – setting up the stage and getting the event area ready for the next day! The people that you see in the above two photos were the people on the bus that I rode on. As you can see, there are all ages, families, couples, singles, lots of young adults for labor, some ladies covered their entire face, other didn’t even cover their head. It is important to notice that in America, Muslim women are more liberal about wearing the hijab, so there are all different types and styles. They appreciate the freedom to wear it or not in America.
Shortly after these photos were taken, we were picked up by the bus and taken downtown DC, and dropped-off in front of the Capital, where the stage and event area awaited us!
(Picture taken from the bus, we are close!!)
The stage, almost completely set up and ready to go! All the sponsors, friends, supporters are listed on the banners! When we got to the stage Friday morning to begin working, I was handed a list of all the speakers that were scheduled to be there from all over the nation…Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and even Sikh! It took me all afternoon and into the evening to contact them and confirm they were in town. The volunteer crew divided up into teams and everyone went to work getting the site ready. It was a very long and hot day, but everyone was happy to be there on a peace mission.
Mid-day break and pep-talk, followed by prayer in the park facing the Capital. It was interesting that while in Washington DC, people didn’t really mind that Muslims were praying in the park. They were very curious, some got their cameras out and took pictures, and I walked around and explained to people what was going on. It seemed that people in DC were very pleased to see the event taking place, and some even came back later that evening to watch.
During the very last few minutes of the first set-up day (Friday), a small group of young men (obviously Christian) approached a small group of our volunteers (obviously Muslim) who were standing in front of the stage. They approached with clear intention to engage in religious conversation. I was standing about 100 feet from them when I saw the encounter, so I quickly walked over to take photos and listen to the conversation. I wasn’t going to miss this!
One of men who approached us was carrying a large cross that read “Jesus Saves,” hence the reason I say they were obviously Christian. Another one of them was carrying a Bible, reading scripture outloud. Most of our group was already back on the bus, exhausted, tired and hungry. The group that was standing in front of the stage was a last-minute clean-up crew, who were headed to the bus within minutes. We had literally just spent an entire day outside, in blazing summer heat and sunshine, we only had one short lunch break in the middle of the day, and there was lots of lifting, organizing, stage-setting, carrying bottled water to locations throughout the event area (so that no one dehydrated), and sweating…we sweated all day long. Yet, despite being so exhausted, the Muslim group handled the encounter very well and embraced the religious dialogue as an opportunity for a friendly religious spar. To be honest, I don’t think that the Christian group was going to let the situation end without some sort of religious debate…so, they all stood there and debated about Jesus for about five minutes. However, it was going nowhere fast, so the Director of Education and our event organizer, Bassem, stepped in and quickly put the fires out with a few sentences of wisdom that no one could argue with. He also shook-up one of the Christian youths when he pointed out that he saw that he was wearing a hidden-video recorder around his neck, and that he was aware that they were recording the encounter. This is not the first event that I have participated in with the Islamic Society of Central Florida when strangers have tried to use video cameras without permission, for the purpose of taking video that is later severely edited and turned into negative propaganda against Islam. When the man realized that he had been caught taping the encounter, he shut it off and apologized. Despite the tension, everyone smiled, shook hands and walked away to the bus, and we headed back to the hotel to get some much-needed rest and showers.
The next day was going to be even longer…
The Muslim March For America begins!!
Saturday, July 23, 2016
Since the event didn’t start until around 4:00 in the afternoon, and since the stage was ready to go, our volunteer group was allowed to go sight-seeing for a few hours. We visited many of the monuments, as many as we could. This city has so much to see! We were all dressed in our bright blue t-shirts, so it was easy to see that we were a group.
Muslim Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, getting ready for the pre-show activities! And then there is the class comedian…always one in the group! Trying to hide in line amongst the Boy Scouts! Honestly, if it had not been for his comedian talent, the trip would have been so dull! On the bus trip home, he grabbed the bus sound system microphone and blew us all away by singing a Frank Sinatra song with stunning ability! He kept us rolling with laughter and entertainment on the entire bus trip.
They did the Pledge of Allegiance and sang patriotic songs for the crowd as a warm-up to the speakers who followed.
Right before show-time, I asked one of the guys to take a photo of me in front of the stage. I just had to do it. During the event, I was at the gate to the back-stage, with my list of confirmed speakers. No one was to come in or out unless I had identified them as the person I had spoke to the day before. There were security guards and police as well, standing at the gate to help me. There were no issues all night long, everyone had a great time. However, it was a very long and demanding few hours as speakers came and went when it was their turn. But the event was successful and went smoothly!
People start arriving Saturday afternoon. The event went for over six hours, so people came and went throughout the evening. To have the Capital right behind the stage and the speakers was brilliant. The “Three Wise Guys” were part of the speaking line-up. They are a Rabbi, a Pastor and an Imam who do a radio show here in Orlando. We love them, they make it easy to realize that we can all get along. But there were many more speakers throughout the event, each one of them bringing their own unique message of peace from their own unique religion. By the end of the day, we were all over-flowing with good feelings.
This friendly Muslim woman was standing on the sidewalk as I was approaching our bus that was parked behind the stage, this was shortly after the event was over and I was needing something from the bus. I had seen her walking around in the audience while the speakers were on stage, but I could never get to her because I was stuck back-stage during the whole event. She allowed me to take her photo, her name is Nadiya. Her patriotism and smile were contagious throughout the day.
We were all so tired that night after two very long days of hard work, but we had so much fun and we were all so inspired by the positive feelings that surrounded the entire day!
On Sunday morning, we spent the beginning part of the day cleaning the entire grass area that was in front of the stage. We left nothing to be picked up by park employees! While cleaning up the field, I spotted this ribbon…rainbow striped for Gay Pride. I had no idea who had dropped and was about to throw it away when I was startled by a male voice that said “hey, don’t throw that away, it is mine!” I turned around and there was the comedian Muslim youth from our bus (in the Boy Scout picture above). He grabbed it from my hand and pinned it onto his shirt. He said that he has lost it the day before and could never find it. He had been wearing it all weekend, as a symbol of remembrance to those who died in the Pulse nightclub shooting. Despite what you might have been told about Muslims and their behaviors towards the LGBTQ community, he felt compelled to show love for his fellow humans.
Our trip home was just as enjoyable as the trip going to DC, although our energy level was quite a bit lower on the way home. We arrived back in Orlando around 4:00 am Monday morning. Mission completed, peace vibes sent out to the world. All you have to do is enjoy the pictures and the captions, and keep spreading the peace!
To enjoy a video slideshow of more photos from our March For America, please click on this link and enjoy! I am actually in some of the photos, especially the very first group photo of Muslim women standing in a line inside the hotel lobby (I am the girl with the white shirt on the right), and the very last photo of the entire group, at the end of the video (I am in the yellow t-shirt sitting in the middle of the group photo). Hopefully you can find me!