Kourosh Ziabari – Huffington Post: I was in Cartagena de Indias, a modern port city in the Bolivar Department north of Colombia two weeks ago to take part in a cultural journalism fellowship program. The city, boasting a charming colonial architecture, exaggerated graffitis on the abandoned walls of its Getsemani district, an ancient walled town and an alluring beach resort, has been the setting of many of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novels. Part of our job in the fellowship was to file reports on the cultural, historical and touristic magnets of the city. I embarked on an unconventional journey for one of my reports, and ultimately realized that I had made the right decision.
I set off a quest to find a mosque in the city of about 1 million residents. It shouldn’t have been so much implausible. Muslims are everywhere. But in a country of 49.8 million people, where you have an infinitesimal minority of barely 14,000 Muslims, you’d need to look for the mosque and its worshippers in the not-so-much cosmopolitan city with a magnifying glass.
After an approximately 40-minute cab ride round the city and finding our way into a dismally ruined, deserted slum off the shores of the Caribbean Sea where poverty and destitution noticeably stood out, we discovered a bricked, austere and relatively fresh building which I was told was the Bilal Al Habashi Mosque. So we had found it.
The sheikh of the mosque, who graciously and patiently responded to my countless questions, revealed to me that there are only 35 Muslims across Cartagena, representing something around 0.0001% of the population! The 55-year-old sheikh, Abercio Mercado, had converted to Islam in early 1980s after embracing the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran as an inspiration. The mosque was built on his personal property, all through individual donations and his own wealth, and for several years, he had been regularly and uninterruptedly providing daily meals to 85 impoverished children in the region who couldn’t afford to get food or even travel out of the slums to find something to eat and survive. He told me that if he ceased the charity program, these children would miss the only meal they can have during the day, and simply submit to death after a while. He said he wished to highlight the altruistic dimension of Islam and teach the people in the neighborhood that it is a faith which cares for the well-being of people and watches over the endangered lives.
Abercio said he had garnered respect among the locals and indigenous people, mostly Afro-Colombians, who had become increasingly interested in sending their children to the mosque so that they can get food, as well as Islamic education. But it was not as easy as that. He made a very shocking statement: “When I was building this mosque, people in the surroundings told me, you ‘Musulmans‘ are dangerous creatures; you drink the blood of animals after killing them during your rituals.”
And what did he say in response? “We’re Muslims; we are not monsters.”
However, their unawareness and relative ignorance about Islam and Muslims sound to me to be reasonable and justified. The people in the La Boquilla district, where the mosque was located, had possibly never encountered a true Muslim, and most likely had never left their quarter to see people with a different color, language, race or religion. Even the Spanish they spoke was slightly different from the standard Spanish which my journalist friend and guide communicated with – it was a vernacular dialect. They’re not to blame. They live in the most underrepresented, underprivileged and far-fetched part of Cartagena, a city that receives thousands of international tourists for its historical and natural beauties and its opulent hotels. I wonder if they even have television sets or have ever used a cell phone. So, Islam should be normally an unprecedented and mysterious phenomenon to them, which they’ve just gradually begun to learn about.
But what about Donald J. Trump? In his outrageous statement, where he calls for banning all the Muslims from coming to the United States — for any purpose, he parades a sort of ignorance that is utterly inexcusable for him. Donald J. Trump is running for the highest political office of the world’s supreme political, economic powerhouse: he is going to become the President of the United States of America. Shouldn’t he be more knowledgeable than the slum-dweller in La Boquilla that hasn’t even heard the word “Islam”?
Reacting to President Obama after he said in his December 6 address to the nation there are great Muslim heroes in America, Donald Trump asked the President if there were really any Muslim sports heroes at all, and if the President was profiling the athletes! Intentionally or insensibly, he is ignoring his numerous meetings with many of these Muslim sportsmen, and the photographs in which he has posed with them. I don’t believe he is so oblivious to have forgotten his photographs with Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Shaquille O’Neal and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
If Donald Trump’s understanding of Islam is that the Muslims are only those who hold a handgun and instigate a shooting spree or explode a bomb in a plaza or restaurant, then I’d deeply feel regretful for the educational system that has given Mr. Trump such chopped-off, falsified information. Moreover, I’d be apologetically concerned about the future of a country that such an unqualified individual is going to shatter.
Like the hardliner evangelical pastor Terry Jones who set copies of the holy book of the Muslims, Quran, on fire, and confessed that he had never read it, I think Mr. Trump has never had the time to take a glance at the English translation of Quran — the canon of Muslims life — and try to see if he can identify a single verse or statement which endorses the unwarranted killing of innocent civilians, children and women.
If the Real Donald Trump is not able to draw a distinction between those extremists who are enchanted by a perverted interpretation of Islam and call themselves the affiliates of an Islamic State — a “state” which I, a Muslim, despise equally as any non-Muslim American does — and conflates the pitiless atrocities of these killers with the sacred beliefs of more than 1.5 billion Muslims who have lived their entire lives on six continents exclusively peacefully, then I think there’s reason to be grimly worried.
The United States has historically exemplified the values of tolerance, plurality and generosity for the people of different national, cultural, racial and religious origins, who find it a safe place to flee mayhem and turmoil at home and build on its security and peace to flourish and grow intellectually, socially, economically, etc.
Expelling people from such a country because they practice a specific religion is tantamount to an obnoxious form of xenophobia and racism. I think the American people have a big responsibility not to allow Mr. Trump to trample these longstanding values overnight by adopting a decision that would literally push the nation back into the gloomy years of the Jim Crow laws. And I have a brief message for Mr. Trump: Dear sir! It’s true that we are Muslims, but it doesn’t mean we are inborn killers. We can be normal human beings. We are simply Muslims; we are not monsters.
This article was originally published on The Huffington Post.