For the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world, there is nothing on the calendar as festive and celebratory as Eid. But this year’s Eid is bittersweet, given the long shadow of the Boston Marathon bombing and the ongoing violence in the Middle East.
The Muslim population in Massachusetts is very diverse and its heterogeneity dispels some commonly held misconceptions about Muslims. Every year for the past three years, I have said my Eid prayers at a different mosque and find a completely different palette in each. Yusuf Mosque, nestled close to Commonwealth Avenue in Brighton is almost like a cottage, and home to many college students from around the area who come there to pray. Donuts and coffee are served after the prayers. In Roxbury, there is the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center where most of the Muslims of African origin go to say their prayers. Last year, Deval Patrick delivered a heart-felt message that resonated particularly as it was still so close after the bombings. A bit further away is the Islamic center in Sharon, where many of Massachusetts’ Muslims from South Asia go and pray. In true South Asian tradition, women show up in colorful, glittering clothes, with the prayers followed by warm chai and biscuits.
Beneath the surface though, a dark tinge emerges. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center showed that Muslims are the least liked religious group in America, with 60 percent of respondents saying they disliked them. Surprisingly, this finding was never analyzed in a meaningful way. One could argue though that this was the least surprising finding of the survey given the way Muslims are portrayed in the media and due to the utter absence of any positive stories drawing attention to them. Encouragingly, the survey showed that younger people and those who had come into contact with Muslims tended to have more positive feelings towards Muslims.
Massachusetts, however, remains one of the best states to be Muslim in America. In fact, Muslims from various sects call Massachusetts home and are able to practice their religion more freely here than even in their home country. Cambridge is one of the few towns in the entire country where public schools have had a holiday on Eid. For several years now, Northeastern, Harvard and MIT, amongst other area colleges, hold regular iftar dinners throughout the month, which are open to all comers. Exquisite feasts are laid down and are set up by the respective Muslim student associations there. Massachusetts also remains home to some prominent voices of moderation such as Suhail Webb, who has long campaigned to improve relations between Muslim and Jewish Americans.
The suspected actions of the Tsarnaev brothers have done more to set back Massachusetts’ Muslims than any other recent event. Yet, just like the rest of the community, Muslims too have got back on their feet and are moving forward. The greatest challenge Muslims face is framing a conversation of Islam in America that is not dominated by extremists on either side. Community engagement is perhaps the most important deterrent to preventing a tragedy such as the Marathon bombing in the future. Initiative needs to be present both among Muslims and others to improve how we communicate with each other and ensure there is never any misunderstanding.
This Eid is made darker by the widespread violence engulfing large parts of the Muslim world. The ignition of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the calamitous destruction of innocent lives in Gaza has a powerful effect on Muslims, many of whom have dimmed their Eid celebrations. The conflict always has a predictably binarizing effect, pitting those who support the Palestinian cause against those that support Israel. With its diverse population, Massachusetts can be a place where supporters of both Israel and Palestine can come together and help forge a path towards reconciliation, elusive as it may be. The desire for harmony amongst both sides of the conflict has never been higher and Massachusetts can certainly be a catalyst for peace.
Massachusetts has long been a beacon of progress for the rest of the country on many fronts. Perhaps the next front can be highlighting the positive role Muslim Americans are playing in their communities and helping to alleviate frayed religious relationships. Extending the Eid holiday across the state may be one step. To increase cooperation between the community and law enforcement, one step might be to make terrorism-related court proceedings more transparent and just. A recent Human Rights Watch report detailed the spine-chilling accounts of Muslim Americans trapped under the thumb of overaggressive law enforcement. The report was summarized by David Cole in the New Yorker as demonstrating “out of control informants, overzealous prosecution, unfair trials and extraordinarily harsh prison sentences.” Curtailing such practices would do more to prevent the rise of fundamentalism than any amount of pat downs in airports.
Haider Javed Warraich is a resident in internal medicine at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.