Open House, Open Mind

LA Masjid

Our new masjid… Just part of the Mohammedi Center Complex

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.

Advertisements
Leave a comment

5 Comments

  1. A al-Anwar

     /  May 7, 2012

    Aamer Bhai,

    Thanks for this post. I think we all share many misgivings about the ‘other’ that only communication and outreach can dismiss. That said, in regards to the community’s private and introverted nature, I think that is more a product of circumstances and events that unfolded over the last three to four hundred years, specifically persecution in 17th century in South Asia and in Yemen before that, than some sort of deliberate policy that is actively pursued.

    At the leadership level, there has always been interaction with leaders of other religious denominations and political figures; His Holiness is testimony to that. I think what you allude towards and what was lacking was more community to community interaction. I think the open house in LA was huge step in the right direction and gives support to the notion that an American is American regardless of the clothes he wears or the God he worships (or doesn’t). Thanks again for your insightful post.

    Reply
    • Ali asghar bhai,

      Your point about the historical trauma of previous generations is interesting, and I’d love to learn more about that from you at some point.

      Regarding your point on leadership, perhaps my point was not well communicated. Obviously, His Holiness and the upper echelons of our leadership structure are excellent examples of the benefits of engaging with civic and interfaith communities. What I would assert is that on the local level, our leaders have traditionally been less enthusiastic about devoting limited financial, human, and effort resources to making outside engagements a priority, perhaps because they were less cognizant of the returns on these investments. It is a testament to the leaders of our jamaat that they recognized the importance of such outreach, and not only supported us but made it a high priority.

      Reply
      • A al-Anwar

         /  May 8, 2012

        Yes, I do see what you’re saying. I feel another way of interpreting this lacking is the lack of prerequisites to such interaction. As you mention, you are only NOW worshiping in your own masjid, and you’re a second-generation Bohra. As we come to age and the prerequisites of establishing a firm community are achieved, we are now branching out to our neighbors and opening our doors, literally. Its not to say that this was not important before, but as you mention, with limited resources it is difficult to achieve multiple ends. Now, with a beautiful masjid, an accommodating complex and most importantly, human resources that are dedicated and determined, we can engage in more active inter and intra-community activities. Thank you all for your hard work.

  2. Emory

     /  May 8, 2012

    Sorry I missed your opening, Dr. J. I should very much have liked to see you and your new facilities. I am moved that you feel so positive about the way you were received. It’s nice to know that there Moslems are not automatically mistrusted by all Americans. On the other hand, I must caution you: look out. A country that is home to millions who think that our president is a secret and evil Moslem whose only mission is to destroy America with his perverted, socialist, gay-loving ways is not a place I can trust to protect ALL people’s interests when the proverbial chips are down.

    Congratulations to you and yours. I’ll be seeing you soon.

    Emory

    Reply
  3. Dear Dr J,
    many thanks for beautiful notes on o
    ur masjid. Oh how i wish i could change the face of a muslim from hell loving terrorists to a God fearing all loving and caring muslim. One bad apple spoils the bushel. His holiness met with mr.modi of gujrat. Received him well. Next time around ,hopefully there will be none such times, mr.modi and his attack dogs will have mercy on all muslims. Always, always be faithful to your country of birth, take care of your neoighbors regardless of their color ,culture and religion. Live a simple but an honest life. And above all be a good doctor.

    Loving you always
    Your secret admirer.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: