Friday, May 5th 2012 was a red letter day for the Dawoodi Bohra Community of Los Angeles–my religious community. Our new masjid (mosque), under planning and construction for over a decade, had finally been finished. On Friday, we hosted multiple civic, interfaith, and community leaders to visit with a reception, tour, and a lunch. After that program, we opened up the masjid complex for the entire local community and neighbors by way of an open house, and guided tours.
To understand the significance of this event, consider this: I am forty years old and have been a Muslim all of my life. This will be the first masjid I have ever belonged to as a member.
The event was also important in that it was out of the ordinary for the Bohra community. We tend, for better or for worse (and I feel, mostly for worse), to be a tremendously private and introverted community. The upside to this is that we do not concern ourselves about what others do or say about us, manifesting a communal self confidence that belies our small numbers and minority opinions. The downside of this is that we are also unconcerned with spreading the goings-on within our community to the outside world. I am not talking about proselytizing, I am talking about simple neighborly sharing. While we have nothing to hide, it becomes the natural perception that we do. And there is little more frightening in America than a Muslim with something to hide. This event went a long way towards changing that introverted attitude within our community as a whole, and our leadership in particular.
Time will be the only true arbiter of whether opening up our community to outside scrutiny was truly a beneficial decision. After all, increased visibility can be a double edged sword. But if the outpouring of support and positive media coverage we received are any indication, the favorable ramifications promise to be manifold.
From a personal perspective, this was a vitally important day as well. As a physician, I live largely in the public eye; interacting with a large swathe of the local population from all occupations, socioeconomic classes, creeds, cultures, and races. I live locally, and as such my personal lives and professional lives often intertwine (ie: hypertension advice in the bread aisle at Pavilions). As my mosque is also local, it was inevitable that my religious life (a large component of my personal life) would eventually intersect with my professional life. I was long dreading that day, however, and working hard to avoid it. Perhaps I was partly motivated by insecurity over my clothing and customs; but mostly I was pessimistic about the non-Muslim population’s ability to accept Muslims as anything other than crazy nut-job terrorists as their default opinion.
The experience I had in this regard pleasantly surprised me. Multiple people from my professional life, including patients, hospital administrators, colleagues, referring doctors, and sales representatives attended our function. In interacting with them, though dressed in my traditional Muslim outfit, I was able to easily summon the professional confidence that I project in any other situation. Far from the embarrassment I predicted I would feel, I felt comfortable and able to be taken seriously and treated with respect.
Likewise, the implicit distrust and default skepticism which I thought would greet us in the countenance of our visitors never materialized. Their support for our community was clearly genuine, and not just the thin veneer of politeness I expected. Their joy at our successful accomplishment, their welcoming of us as part of the local community, and their willingness to learn about Muslims and Bohras with a truly open mind was evident. Obviously, there is a clear selection bias at work, as those who harbor fear or resentment of us were unlikely to attend our event. But the number of people who did attend, and who were genuinely encouraging clearly indicated that my previous pessimism was at least over-rated (though unfortunately probably not totally unfounded).
Last Friday represented a “coming out party” for our community as a whole; as well as for me as an individual. Both were long overdue. In a sense nothing concrete has changed, however. Those who hate us or fear us still will, this event did not involve them by their own choice. Those predisposed to an open mind may have developed a positive attitude towards us. I am not planning to start going to work wearing my traditional topi and kurta or otherwise advertising my personal beliefs. The only thing that has palpably evolved is perceptions– ours, theirs, and mine. Perhaps that means everything has changed after all.