The Arab World is slowly being transformed into the Muslim World as the numbers of Christians continues to dwindle.
And although I am Christian by religion, I consider myself Muslim by culture. Certainly, most Americans who meet me believe because I am Arab, I am Muslim, too.
Following a speech on the justice of the Palestinian cause, an elderly American woman with gray hair and a mild personality, walked up to me and whispered in my ear, “How could you abandon your Christian faith to become an Arab?”
I am amazed by the depths of the ignorance of the West towards the peoples of the Middle East and to Arab culture. No wonder so many Americans hate us, as hate originates in ignorance.
But every Christmas, the greatest consternation I experience comes not from the “stupid American” with the stupid stereotypes, but the educated Muslim who experiences bigotry so often, you wonder how they can become bigots themselves.
I have been reading the writings of many Muslims who must believe they are being “tolerant” and “well intentioned” when they write that Muslims should approach the Christian season in America as “an opportunity to convert Christians to Islam.”
These Muslim writers do not see the challenge as one of insulting the Christians who live in the Muslim World. Rather, they view the challenge in the subtleties of the new age of reason and understanding.
Imagine if I, as a Christian, proposed that Christians in the Middle East should do all they can to exploit Islamic holidays, like Ramadan, and use them to convince Muslims to convert to Christianity.
The truth is, in many “Arab” countries, that would be a capital offense. Minimally, the offender would be jailed or expelled from the country. Christians are not permitted to “proselytize.”
When I was in Bethlehem last October at the beginning of Ramadan, I was pointedly told that I should not eat my food on the outdoor patio in deference to Muslims who were fasting until sunset.
And I constantly am reminded that Christians should not consume any alcohol in public, whether it is during or after Ramadan. That’s Haram, the Arabic word for “sinful” or “shameful.”
I am also often invited to perform my stand-up comedy satire and give public speeches defending the rights of Palestinians at dinner banquets. But oftentimes, when the organizers of Muslim events discover that I am Christian, they always note that maybe I can’t reflect the same message to the audience as a Muslim comedian.
Even though Muslims and Christians are fighting and dying together in Palestine? And both suffer the oppression of brutal dictatorships and monarchies in the Middle East?
But Muslims in American feel it is their duty to convert Christians to Islam.
One writer wrote, that at Christmas, Muslims can show Christians “the beauty of Islam,” and explain that the embrace of Jesus, who is recognized by Islam as a prophet, is a natural progression that leads them to the Islamic awakening.
If Muslims want to show Christians, especially those in America, about the beauty of Islam, how about denouncing the vicious carnage by such groups as al-Qaeda a little more often and a little more persuasively than they have in the past?
How about if Muslims, instead of seeing Christmas as an opportunity to advance themselves, look at it with a sense of respect for a fellow human being whose faith shares one common belief in one God?
What if Muslims, rather than separating themselves on the belief that Islam is a better religion, embraced not only Christians but Jews and treated them as equals, rather than as “tolerated” peoples in a system of ancient “millets,” religious distinctions for Armenians, Jews, Catholics and Orthodox Christians under the Ottoman sultunates.
For many years, Christians and Jews living in the “Arab” World were required to pay a Jizya, or tax, for the privilege of being recognized as “special.” Christians and Jews were required to dress “modestly” in conformance with Islamic tradition, rather than with their own custom.
Most of the Jizyas have long gone. But the attitudes have remained.
And this Christmas, while I pray for the suffering of all Muslims and Christians who are dying in Bethlehem and throughout the oppressive Israeli occupation, I also hope that many of the ugly attitudes that dominated the Muslim World might change so that the world can see the true beauty of Islam, rather than its vanity.