Oye: Culture shock at home

“Dar Amrika, Mussulman-ha hast?” the driver of our car to Dushanbe, Tajikistan asked me a few weeks ago. “Are there Muslims in America?”

“Yes,” I told him confidently. “Some of my friends are Muslim. Some of my friends are Jewish … my own family background is Christian, but it’s no problem; we are all friends.”

An oversimplification, maybe. I’d been out of the U.S. since the end of May, purposely setting my e-mail on auto-response and falling way out of touch with the news cycle. There’s no Internet in the mountainous areas of Tajikistan, and only patchy electricity, although computer cafés in the cities are full of small boys playing video games and listening to American or Russian pop at full volume.

I came home two days before the start of class to discover that I’d been wrong. While I’d been talking up America’s tolerance to taxi drivers on the other side of the world, a Bangladeshi taxi driver in New York was stabbed in the face for being Muslim.

I read about the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy — furor over a project which, as many have pointed out, is actually a community center, and not at Ground Zero. And, as if there wasn’t already enough smoke hanging over the day of 9/11, a Florida pastor announced his plan to burn the Quran.

This surprised me. I’ve gotten more cynical about what I expect from America’s homegrown extremists, but I didn’t expect the national discourse to become so very ugly, so very un-American. What, or who, are scare tactics supposed to make us afraid of? What is the point, even, of being afraid?

While I wandered around Tajikistan doing research for my senior thesis, I hardly stayed a night in a hotel. Friends, friends-of-friends and perfect strangers put me up in their homes and fed me, “as it was the Muslim thing to do” — using the term the way some people in the States say an act of charity is “Christian” behavior.

At one house, my friend Anna Kellar ’12 and I gave away postcards of the Maine coast, autumn in New England and the Boston skyline. Our hostess chose to keep one of a waterfall on rocks — “because it looks the most like Tajikistan,” she said, smiling. “I didn’t know America looked like this, too!”

Before we leap to conclusions about Islam and Muslim countries, Americans need a little more perspective.

In Tajikistan’s southern city of Kulob, my friend and I explored a half-abandoned Soviet-era amusement park with a tarnished statue of Lenin by the front gate. I sat in a kiddie car at the amusement park, my hands on the small hand grips, measuring up the human scale of things. Without forgetting the cruelties perpetrated by the Soviets, I was overcome with relief that we hadn’t gotten into a nuclear war with them.

The Berlin Wall fell the year I was born, and I can talk about the Cold War now without being pilloried as a Commie. But can I talk about Islam and the “War on Terror” so freely? In 20 years, will we look back at this rhetoric of clashing cultures and wonder what it was all about?

It’s worth restating that not all Americans responded to the Sept. 11 attacks with hatred. Two women from my hometown in Massachusetts lost their husbands on the hijacked planes. Instead of calling for revenge, they founded “Beyond the 11th,” an organization to help Afghan widows. Last Wednesday, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof called them “Healers of 9/11.” In this political climate, the grace of symbolic actions like theirs becomes even more important.

I stand by what I told my friends and hosts in Tajikistan — that in America, we base our society on values of tolerance, liberty and equality. We have to keep fighting for these values at home as well as abroad.

Mari Oye is a senior in Timothy Dwight College.


  • dhimmicrat

    People should ask when they are in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Saudia Arabia, Libya, Iran – how welcome are Jews here? Christians? Bahai’s? Why have all of these countries become almost 100% Muslim.

    Talk about ethnic cleansing!

    Why not ask about free press and speech, gender rights, sexual orientation rights in those countries and Turkey, Indonesia, Pakistan?

    When has anyone, let alone the President, complain or acted against the burning of the Bible? the US Flag? Christians should be complimented for their tolerance of these numerous acts.

    Why not ask about why do Muslims wants to build a mosque on the site of America’s worst mass killing by an enemy (all of whom were Muslims and did it in the name of Allah)?

    The USA remains the most tolerant political entity in the history of man (Israel, Scandinavia, and Canada come close). Of course, Canada and Scandinavia can be very tolerant – no one is threatening to push Canada or Sweden into the sea – like Muslims threaten to do to the Big Satan (USA) and little Satan (Israel).

    There is a great moral imperative for the US and Israel to survive – if they should disappear or adopt sharia law, what would like be like for you? for the world?

    And by the way, the story of the taxi cab driver being slashed…It was done by a political activist for the Muslim world.

    Oye, oye, oye

  • Arafat

    Mari rhetorically asks what the war on terrorism is all about?

    Try asking the people who once “lived” in Sudan. If the Muslims had not cut their tongues out, or cut their heads off, or simply starved them to death they might be able to answer your question.

  • FailBoat

    A 2008 FBI report indicates that Jews are ten times more likely to be victims of hate crimes in the US than Muslims.

  • theantiyale

    Just because we have crackpots in America making pronouncements from pulpits about “the Koran” being “an evil book” (inanimate objects cannot be “evil”) doesn’t mean America is filled with stupid intolerant people. It is partially peopled by such, but not FILLED with them.

    Listen to another divine from the past:

    After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Rev. Jerry Falwell said on The 700 Club, “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.'” Fellow evangelist Pat Robertson concurred with his sentiment.[45] Falwell further stated that the attacks were “probably deserved,” a statement which was described as “treason” by columnist Christopher Hitchens.[46] After heavy criticism, Falwell apologized
    from *Wikipedia*
    [link text][1]

    [1]: http://theantiyale.blogspot.com “The Anti-Yale”

  • yalie_rin1010

    Regarding the first post:



    Regarding both the first and second:

    Perhaps you don’t realize that the entire idea of this piece is that we as Americans hold ourselves to higher standards of tolerance–and yes, liberty–than the governments of Sudan and Egypt. The pastor should be free to burn whatever he wants as long as it isn’t someone else’s hair, but he should also recognize his responsibility as an American citizen to promote respect between the myriad facets of American society.

    In other words, his incredible shortsightedness and bigotry represents the worst of what we must tolerate in a nation of free speech. He deserves every right, but no encouragement.

  • Arafat

    “Perhaps you don’t realize that the entire idea of this piece is that we as Americans hold ourselves to higher standards of tolerance–and yes, liberty–than the governments of Sudan and Egypt..”

    You could add every single Muslim country to Sudan and Egypt, and then you might ask yourself why this is so?

    What is it about Islam that results in repression, theocracies, backwardness, fear and an endless litany of cruelty?

  • FailBoat


    You should have asked your cab driver about what happens to non-Muslim proselytizers in Tajikistan.

    I realize these are apples and oranges – and that we hold ourselves to higher standards. But we should :

    1) question *why* we accept the different standards. Do we really think Tajiks incapable of understanding and respecting religious liberties?

    2) not be embarrassed to represent the United States. The answer to your driver’s question is that – yes, there are plenty of Muslims in the United States and despite one man discussing the burning a copy of their holy book, they enjoy the same freedoms and rights as all Americans.