Beware: the Language of Heaven is Hell for the Passenger

no arabic

While living in the Middle East, we would often quote Islamic scholars and proclaim that we were “learning the language that we’ll all speak in Heaven.” We were not joking. With its rich phrases and flow, Arabic is a beautiful language.

After five minutes in a taxi in an Arabic speaking country, the beautiful sound of Oum Kalthoum’s voice will lull you into relaxing and enjoying all that surrounds you. You would never say a mere “Good Morning” in Arabic; rather you would say “Morning of Goodness!” to which another would respond “Morning of Light!”  You don’t say the mean-spirited “She talks too much!” Rather, you would say the descriptive “She swallowed a radio!”  And nothing so plain as “He’s crazy!” Instead, you would say “His brain is like a shoe!”

Twenty six different countries speak Arabic. It is a language that is centuries old, spoken by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It is used in worship by both Christians and Muslims. It is a language with a history of narrative and poetry, a language of song and speech, a language of expression and beauty. While sometimes I shake my head at the impossibilitiy of the ‘ta marbuta’ and the fatḥah(فتحة) /a/, ـِ a kasrah (كسرة) /i/ or ـُ a ḍammah (ضمة) /u/, I absolutely love this language and I will continue trying to learn it until the day I die. 

Evidently, not all think as I do. Earlier this month, a student from University of California, Berkeley was removed from a flight. A passenger heard the student speaking Arabic and reported him. As reported by the New York Times, the student was from Iraq and had been to an event where the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon had spoken. The student called his uncle in Baghdad to tell him about this event. Unfortunately for the student, an arguably sheltered, bigoted, and clueless fellow passenger headed to the front of the airplane to report him. The rest, we might say, is history.

When I first read about this story, I thought I had no words. Anyone who reads CAB knows that I speak out about these things regularly. And there are times when I want to hear other voices, I want others to do the talking, the writing, to ask the hard questions. But there is a dearth of Western, White People willing to speak into the current climate of fear and xenophobia that creeps like a cancer through our country. This climate is perpetuated by ill-mannered politicians who vow to police Muslim neighborhoods; who ‘one-up’ each other on who can be the most bigoted.

When did we decide that Arabic was the language of terrorists? When did the 295 million Arabic speakers in the world become suspect? A passenger made an assumption based on limited knowledge and world view. An airline heeded that assumption. Instead of questioning her further, asking her if she knew Arabic, finding out more, a decision was made by the airline to remove a man because of the language he spoke. Deanna Othman says this in an article on Alternet: “Southwest Airlines has set a precedent with its action on that flight. It has validated the insidious paranoia that has become rampant in our society. It will unjustly lead Muslims and Arabic speakers to rethink their language of choice when boarding a plane.” 

This should trouble, if not terrify, all of us. It’s one thing when a passenger is misinformed and foolish. It is entirely another when a corporate entity asks no questions and falls into the reactionary fear that causes poor decisions. 

Because here is the truth: 

Unbreakable stereotypes, xenophobia, racism, bigotry, and fear of the one who is ‘other’ – all of these are far more dangerous than any language will ever be.

To you I pose these questions: When did fear begin to replace common sense? How can we change this? What can we do indivdually and/or collectively to respond? إن شاء الله [Insa’Allah] we will find a way to move forward together.

“Go and Do Likewise”


Almost every week I see some sort of announcement on social media about an event that speaks to Christians responding to Islam. Generally, these announcements add the phrase “in light of [insert phrase].”  The [insert phrase] has been everything from “recent attacks” to “current political climate” to “refugee crisis.”

But never have I seen an announcement that reads this: A Talk on Christians responding to Islam in Light of the Good Samaritan.


When I was twelve years old, my mom and I were in a bad car accident. It was the monsoon season in Murree and we were driving in the rain. In the best of times, these were winding mountain roads. During the monsoons, they were also wet and slippery. We were headed to my school for an event when a can of brake fluid slid under my mom’s foot. She veered and we went over the cliff. Miraculously, what stopped us from rolling over to a certain death was thick barbed wire. I knew my mom was hurt and that we needed help. There were no cell phones. There were no pay phones. We knew that we were in a precarious situation, where abrupt movements could mean that our heavy Landrover would slide further down the cliff. The area was isolated; it could be minutes or hours before the next car came by. Out of nowhere came a public bus, filled with Pakistanis. I will never forget the kindness of the men who peered in through the window and pulled us out of the car to safety. We were other. We were not Pakistani, we had no citizenship, we did not share the same beliefs, we did not share the same customs. But that didn’t matter. We were in trouble, and they rescued us.

This is the story that I think of when I think of the well-known parable that has lasted through the ages. A parable that inspires Good Samaritan Laws across the world. The parable of the Good Samaritan.


The parable lies in the Gospel of Luke, the 10th chapter. We are told that a teacher of the law came to Jesus. He asks a question about eternal life. Jesus, the one who sees hearts and hears the real questions, the questions of the soul, poses the question back to him. After all, the man is an expert when it comes to the law, schooled in Rabbinical studies. We can be sure that he knew the Ten Commandments and more. So the teacher of the law says something that he has known and memorized for a long time. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” and, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus answers in the affirmative. “You’re correct,” he says.  In other words, “You got this. Go do it and you’ll live.”

But the man presses further. “Who is my neighbor?” Who do I have to really love, and who can I dismiss. Who is my real neighbor?

This is when Jesus begins to tell a story.  It takes place on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, a windy narrow road and a perfect place to be robbed.  A man is beaten up, left naked and almost dead. A priest who serves in the temple in Jerusalem walks by, sees him, and crosses to the other side. Then a Levite, who also serves in the temple, walks by. The same thing happens. The man who is beaten up is one of them, he is not ‘other,’ yet they don’t stop. So along comes a Samaritan. Samaritans were despised and detested. Jews of the day would not associate with them. Jewish travelers would add 40 kilometers onto a trip rather than go through Samaria. They considered Samaritans heretics and enemies. The Samaritans had equal animosity toward the Jews. They could not stand them. But Jesus gives us a counterculture picture of a Samaritan who sees the one who is ‘other’ and has deep pity on him. He can’t leave him there. So he bandages him up, he pours oil and wine on his wounds, and he puts him on his donkey and takes him to shelter. He pays the innkeeper and asks him to take care of the man. “I’ll return,” he says. “I’ll come back and I’ll pay any extra expense.”

It’s at this point that I realize this: We just don’t get it. We don’t get the weight of this story. This was huge.  Loving others isn’t about loving those who are like us or who believe like we do. In God’s sight, loving and caring for others is not defined or confined to ethnicity, religious belief or lack of belief, nationality, lifestyle, or any other category.

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor?” Jesus finishes his story with a question. A question with a simple answer: “The one who had mercy on him.”

The hardest part of the story comes in the final four words: Go and do likewise.

The words are not a suggestion or an idea. The words are a command.

Why is it so hard? Why is our default pattern to think of our neighbor as someone who is like us, someone who we like?

Throughout the Middle East, I watched Christians who were not afraid of their Muslim neighbors. I watched Christians who had lost everything, yet still they prayed for those who had hurt them. I heard powerful words of love and grace. I heard the words:“Though the road may be long and filled with our blood, we will go back bearing olive branches. Love is stronger than hate.” Throughout my life, I was given grace by Muslim neighbors and friends, I was literally rescued from a car accident by men that I never saw again, Muslim men with long beards and prayer beads.

But I watch now and I shake my head. We in the West somehow don’t think the story of the Good Samaritan applies to us. “What about national security” “What about preserving our ‘way of life’” (whatever that means) “What about the sacredness of our soil?”  I have heard these cries in the past few years. These words make me shake my head in dismay and disbelief. These are the cries of Christians.

If we would stop to listen, the words of Jesus come quietly, insistently:

Which of these three do you think was a neighbor?

The one who had mercy on him.

Go – and do likewise.

Guest Posting at Djibouti Jones – Red Hot Rage

I’m honored today to be guest posting over at Djibouti Jones. You know Rachel from the many references I’ve made to her as well as the numerous articles that I pass on from her. Rachel is the most talented writers I know and writes from a place of knowledge and compassion about parts of the world that are significantly misunderstood in the West. So to be featured again on her site is an honor. And I’m writing about something that I am passionate about – connecting with Muslim friends and neighbors.

I’ve included the first bit here and hope you will head over to Djibouti Jones to read the rest of Red Hot Rage.


no trespassing

Many of our close friends are Muslims. Several have been dear friends since college years. These friendships have continued through marriage, children, international and cross-country moves, and now middle age. One couple are especially dear to us. We have stayed in each others homes, had deep, late night talks, and discussed everything from raising children to faith. We are honored to be their friends, to share conversation and meals with them.

They are faithful Muslims, taking their faith seriously in a multicultural, pluralistic country. We are Christians also taking our faith seriously in the same setting. Though the faith differs, the struggles are similar allowing us to relate on many levels .

At one point while visiting we began talking  about their neighbors. Did they know them? Were there neighborhood children that their kids could play with?

They paused and then relayed to us that they had attempted to befriend the family next door. The family had four children and were often seen playing outside. They said that there had been little progress in connecting their kids. Every time their little boy went outside to play with them, he ended up being excluded from play. His mom continued to encourage him, telling him to keep on trying, but this without success.

A few months later our friend ended up seeing the neighbor in the community. He mentioned the desire to have their son play with his children. At this the neighbor stopped him and said. “We are born again Christians – we don’t socialize or let our kids socialize with people who don’t have the same beliefs.” Read the rest here.

Books that Inform

Blogger’s note: In light of world events and the often present  ‘information gap’ in conversations on Islam – here are two books that inform!

Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think” should be a mandatory read for diplomats and administrative personnel who hold positions where communicating with those in the Arab world is a regular occurrence.  It is also a good book to recommend for those interested in learning more about this part of the world and the complexity surrounding what the west thinks ‘they’ think and should be concerned about vs. what ‘they’ say they think and what they are concerned about.  This small book with a red cover is the result of a Gallup poll that took place over a few years time.  Thousands and thousands of interviews were conducted in 35 Muslim-majority countries asking clear and pointed questions of the interviewees.  Important to note: this wasn’t the thoughts of either those with extreme views or those who speak as experts but rather regular people going about their lives.  People like many of the protesters in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain.

The second book that I have found to be a great resource is the book “A New Introduction to Islam” by Dr. Daniel Brown. This 269-page book with a beautiful cover is an excellent introduction and ‘go to’ book for history and a greater understanding of Muslim beliefs and practices. For coffee lovers, be sure to check out “The Coffee Debate” on page 116! Full disclosure here – Dr. Brown is my brother and an excellent writer and thinker! But lest there be any accusation of nepotism in my urging people to read I will include the recommendation from Ambassador Akbar S. Ahmed, currently the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, DC.

“The events of September 11 and afterwards have forced us to ask questions about the nature and history of Islam, Daniel Brown’s clear and authoritative book helps us to understand this world religion now at the center of controversy, discussion, and debate…”

Both of these books are excellent ways to begin to fill the information gap and will make great additions to your coffee table or bedside stand.