“But He’s a Muslim”

Next month I’m being awarded a prize, the Community Service Award, from the Turkish Cultural Center in Manchester, at their annual Friendship Dinner.  I’m honored.  I’m pleased.  I’m flabbergasted.  My first thought was they had the wrong man, but since they’d sent the invitation to my post office box in Pittsburg, that seemed unlikely.  According to their website, this award is given to me as the former executive director of Liberty House, a transitional home for formerly homeless veterans, so I tried to figure out what I could have done to deserve such an honor.

It’s unclear to me what connection, if any, the Turkish Cultural Center has with the Turkish government, a government led by a strong man.  Here again I must confess to an ignorance of whether “strong man” in this case should be read as “a leader who must take firm control of a country to lead it through a crisis” (e.g., Franklin Roosevelt) or “a despotic tyrant” (e.g., Joe Stalin.) Last summer, I spent a couple weeks in England, both in London and in the north.  Countless were the conversations I had with Brits convinced the US was under a modified martial law inflicted by a xenophobic madman.  When I explained that life for the vast majority of Americans had not changed one jot or tittle under President Trump, they got the look of an elementary-school guidance counselor talking with a third grader about the bruises on her arms—“There, there, you can tell me about it.”  But I digress.

Whether government-sanctioned or not, the Turkish Cultural Center’s Friendship Dinner is a sweet gesture of brotherhood.  I know it’s bold to say this, but I think friendship is a good thing.  I think awards are fine things (as long as recipients keep their comments to three minutes or less).  Still, I needed to justify, in my own mind, why I should receive an award.

In addition to being led by a strong man of indeterminate category, Turkey is a historically Muslim country.  (I know, I know those of you who still refer to Istanbul as Constantinople and harbor hopes of a reconstructed Roman Empire will disagree.  For my lifetime and my great-grandparents’ lifetimes, Turkey has been Muslim.  That’s “historical” enough for this context.)  I’m not a Muslim, and have made no study of Islamic scriptures, but I do have a story, and that story helps me justify this award.  Let me explain.

Liberty House has a breakfast each Veterans Day, a fundraising event where former Liberty House residents are honored for their accomplishments and each speaks for five minutes or so about what life is like now, not on what led them to be homeless and not on their time at Liberty House.  It is, quite simply, a celebration of progress folks have experienced since they left.  As director, I helped choose the speakers and introduced each of them.  Last year, Veterans Day fell less than a week after election day.  Although I was as surprised as much of the electorate that President Trump had been elected, a fundraising breakfast is no place for controversy, so I was very careful to keep my comments completely apolitical.  I thought.

Before introducing the first speaker, I mentioned that part of the Liberty House ethos is a sense of giving back, that while a homeless veteran might today be in need of assistance, that same veteran, returned to stability, had an obligation to support future vets in need.  So far, so good.  I then mentioned that in my time there, one particular veteran had gone above and beyond in giving back.

I first met Hisham (not his real name, because he wants no credit for his mitvah) when he was locked up awaiting charges related to, as I remember, gun-running and cocaine.  Hisham had grown up in northern Sudan, and had joined the United States Army as a translator, serving in Iraq.  After his honorable discharge, Hisham came to the US, got involved, like many vets, with drugs, alcohol and violence and finally ended up sitting behind bars with me interviewing him for a spot at Liberty House.

Hisham is a mountain of a man with a ready grin.  He came to Liberty House, lived with us for a while, got a job and moved on.  He was not the best resident ever, but he was far from the worst.  He was no better a Muslim than he had to be, just like the other residents were not particularly focused on their Christianity or Judaism.  He was just another good guy who took advantage of the opportunity we offered.  I like him.  We are friends.

As it happened, two or three days before the Veterans Day breakfast, Hisham came to Liberty House and donated $1,000, saying he’d been lucky and wanted to follow the practice of giving back.  He was under no obligation to do anything, and I will say no Christian, Atheist, Jew or Agnostic Liberty House resident had ever done anything so generous before.

Anyway, I told this brief anecdote, then went on to introduce the morning’s speakers.  After the breakfast, though, I was stopped by a red-faced man in a dark suit.  He looked like a man who needed either to get something off his chest or get an EKG.

“How dare you insult the President like that!” he said.

I had no idea what he was talking about, and said so.

“You had no right,” he responded, “to talk about a Muslim that way.  You know how the President feels about Muslims.”

“I wasn’t talking about a Muslim,” I said, feeling reality drift away.  “I was talking about a formerly homeless American veteran who did the right thing.”

“But he’s a Muslim!” the man said, then stormed off.

On Thursday, November 16, I’ll be given a Community Service Award by the Turkish Cultural Center.  No matter what may be said when they introduce me, I’ll know I’m receiving the award because of Hisham.  Hisham is not just Sudanese, not just a formerly homeless veteran, not just Muslim, not just a recovering junkie and not just a criminal.  Hisham is my friend, a man who does the right thing because it is the right thing.  I’ll accept that award on behalf of all the Hishams out there, whether Buddhist, Animist, Christian, Muslim or any other religion.  They are the kind of men I value and try to be.

(Tickets for the Friendship Dinner are available through the Turkish Cultural Center’s Facebook Page.  If you do go, please sidle up to me and introduce yourself.  Even if it’s only to say, “But he’s a Muslim!”)

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