I had never heard of “Islam” before.
That was the least of my concerns: at that moment, I was more worried about getting to my new school in my new state on time even as I wasted precious morning minutes watching the CNN footage. The smoke billowing from the buildings looked like special effects in a movie. The skyline was, surely, stock. And these “terrorists,” “Islamic fundamentalists,” “extremists” — at ten years old, these were new vocabulary words. I swallowed them up.
The next day, my mother took me to church. And to temple. The important thing was connecting with our community, she maintained, but I found it difficult to be moved by sermons. It’s hard to be unhappy when you are perfectly healthy and satisfied with your youth.
In seventh grade world history we memorized the Five Pillars of Islam, which were a lot like some of the Jewish rules I had studied at Hebrew school. We discussed the ascension of Mohammed academically, detachedly, and learned to identify different architectural features of a typical mosque: the mihrab, the minaret. At night, the TV ranted about men with machine guns hiding out in caves. In class, we admired pictures of the Great Mosque in Cordoba, finding beauty in the symmetry and abstraction of Arabic calligraphy, in the iconic red-striped horseshoe arches. Something wasn’t adding up. I could not reconcile the devotion of five-times-daily prayer with the anarchy of guerrilla war. But everyone around me had no problem equating Islam with anger. Allahu akbhar was, through the rough lens of the media, slurred into a battle cry, and believing in a God named Allah was, in no uncertain terms, unpatriotic. That seemed unfair.
When my family moved and I started attending a Catholic school, our class recited the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, and then followed it up with the Our Father. I lip-synced; I had never been taught the words to either. “One nation under God … and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” I practiced under my breath at recess. Were people really following that maxim?
We prayed in class each afternoon for the safety and success of our “men and women in uniform.” And what about the men and women not wearing uniforms? I fidgeted in my seat, uncomfortably bowing my head. Devotion evaded me. We were told we were under attack; we insulated ourselves against a hastily sketched caricature of an enemy, baptizing daily in the reinforced righteousness of Americanism and Catholicism and a healthy dose of faith and fear.
Nearly ten years later, I found myself traipsing across Istanbul, guidebook in hand. At the third mosque, I enacted the usual tourist ritual: slip out of my shoes, step onto the cool stone, loop a pashmina around my hair. I sat cross-legged on the ornate carpet, an endless series of interconnected prayer rugs. The call to prayer reverberated across the vaulted domes above. And then the slow surge of men padding across the carpet, kneeling in ordered rows: rowdy young boys and their stern-looking fathers, tattooed teenagers and businessmen still with shiny briefcases. They hummed a low prayer, falling in and out of sync, bowing and standing in a studied rhythm. A wave of worship. I bowed my head, too. Terror, fundamentalism, extremism: these lived somewhere dark and unknown. Not here, where dedicated faith structured each day, where sunlight streamed in through stained glass and gilded every face in warm gold. In the echoing stillness of that mosque, I too could pray.