Commentary: Religious and Racial Tolerance Begins with Us All | Opinion columns

I never thought minding my own business would provoke such animosity from others.

It was the summer of 1996 and I stopped at a local rest stop in South Carolina on my way to Atlanta to watch the USA basketball team compete in the Olympics. As I began to offer one of my daily Muslim ritual prayers on the grass, two glass bottles were thrown at my legs, and someone shouted: [expletive] get out of here, you fucking terrorist. I had never been so scared and shocked in my life. As a sophomore in high school at an all-boys Christian school, I never felt threatened like I did that day. There I was, traveling 12 hours by car to cheer on an American sports team only to be asked to leave the very place I love.

Fast forward 16 years to the moment I landed at Washington Dulles Airport after a 13 hour flight from Saudi Arabia. Arriving through customs, I felt a sense of serenity after making a spiritual pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina – known as Umrah in Islamic tradition. Retrieving my bags, I rushed to the exit doors, anxious to greet my family who were waiting to receive me. Before I could do that, a Transportation Security Administration agent cornered me and took me to a private room to ask me a few questions. A few questions quickly turned into a 12-hour interrogation, with demands about my faith, why I would go to Saudi Arabia, if I would harm others and if I had bought weapons. At one point I was wrongly accused of supporting terrorist organizations. This, of course, could not have been further from the truth. Although I explained that I was a resident doctor in Maryland whose vocation was to help patients, the only thing the TSA agent saw in me was a tall, dark-haired, bearded Muslim man who could potentially hurt others.

Just this month, before boarding my flight to New Orleans to speak at a medical conference, I again faced discrimination. I was quietly waiting in line after ordering a sandwich, when I started grabbing a cookie. After picking it up, the sandwich shop clerk yelled, “Excuse me, are you going to pay for this?” After a brief pause of utter disbelief, I calmly explained, “Yes, of course, but I have to wait because two people are ahead of me in line.”

I could go on and on and list many other similar incidents, but I suspect you understand the hostile treatment that many Muslims in America face simply for practicing their faith or for their appearance.

I blame no one individual for the racial stigma that American Muslims routinely experience. For decades, Muslims have been portrayed as violent extremists who rage in Jihad by any means necessary to achieve their goals. Sound familiar? Ironically, Islam itself means peace and comes from the Arabic word salaam, similar to the Hebrew word shalom, both meaning peace. Jihad also has very little to do with war or violence. Jihad literally means struggling or exerting oneself to purify oneself before God. If Islam were presented properly to the general public, Muslims would be seen as the antithesis of violence and extremism. What a radical concept.

Racism, like all forms of discrimination, stems from ignorance. In a religiously pluralistic society like that of the United States, the Bill of Rights, and in particular freedom of religion, is only as strong as it is practiced and realized. Threats to religious freedom – as seen in the hostage-taking at a Texas synagogue in January or the countless instances of anti-Muslim graffiti defacing US mosques – seek to undermine the very fabric and foundations from this country. How can Americans boast to their neighbors of ideals of tolerance, freedom, and equality when widespread hatred, bigotry, and ignorance invade our most sacred places of worship?

The American dream should never be a paradox; it should be both a hope and a reality for all Americans to live and experience. Religious tolerance begins with ourselves, our families, our friends and our communities. When was the last time you reached out, smiled, or helped your neighbor who may seem different or appreciate something different about you? When was the last time you tried to learn something about your fellow Buddhist or fellow Jew who observes the Sabbath on Fridays? When we make the effort to understand others, we begin to understand ourselves.

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