September 20, 2016: Squirrel & Muslims

When I preached, I was never the type to holler out “ayMAYun?” during sermons as if I wanted or expected a congregation to shout it back to me in approval. (That’s “amen” for you non-natives; it’s just how preachers often pronounce it around here, don’t ask me why. Some of ‘em quote “the Boible” at “waship” services too.) Still, considering how often I’ve heard that trick used, such responses must be gratifying, although they depend largely on a congregation’s mood. And yet for all the satisfaction “ayMAYuns” may provide, the question lingers: which is better, honesty or popularity? Should one always tell the truth of one’s conscience, even if it provokes a houseful of scowls, or say something non-controversial and witty—or half-witty—for the quickie “ayMAYun?”

If you read The Common Tater, you already know how I settled that question for myself. But if I wrote a religious column and wanted to take the easy road to a quickie “ayMAYun,” all I’d need to do is condemn Muslims. Around here they’re completely safe to criticize. No matter that we’ve had Muslim residents in this neck of the woods since the 1980s and before, most of them hard workers and good citizens: the 9/11 terrorists were Muslim, Saddam Hussein was Muslim, Osama bin Ladin was Muslim, and so Muslims as a group are perceived in today’s American South to be as dangerous as the Russians were back when I was growing up. Any challenge to the common perception is met with hostility, if not accusations of heresy or worse. But after you’ve seen one Baptist deacon draw a pistol on another in a church parking lot over a disagreement that didn’t merit even a moment’s consideration from either, let alone threats, it gets a little tough to hurl stones at another religion; and since the pistol-pulling incident happened at approximately the same time I began working with Muslims in the healthcare industry, 1982, I thought I’d offer an anecdote about the single time in thirty-four years I ever heard a Muslim acquaintance set his religion apart in any opposition to the majority opinion of our area.

It happened at the second hospital I worked in, with a young Muslim physician “taking call” for an old GP who was going off to hunt squirrel. The two met in the ICU where I was drawing blood, and as I worked nearby the GP thanked his substitute for the favor, promising to bring him a mess of squirrel upon his return. The younger doctor looked embarrassed and, obviously choosing his words carefully, began to explain why Islam’s dietary laws forbade his family’s eating squirrel: their Imam (another doctor there) had to verify that the animals had died without pain, etc., to which the old GP replied with an understanding smile, “Oh, I get it! You’re KOSHER!” That produced a laugh from the Muslim, who answered, “Yeah, something like that!”

And that’s all there was to it. No acrimony whatsoever. And a great many of us on the first floor enjoyed the observance of Ramadan that year too, though we weren’t Muslims. That young doctor’s wife was a night-shift ER nurse, and during Ramadan she brought in enough good food for after-sundown dining to gorge us all.

But what about bin Ladin and ISIS, you may ask? Well, what about that sneakin’ deacon with the pistol, and how much damage might he have done if some good Christians with common sense hadn’t restrained him? But he wasn’t a TRUE Christian, you may protest. TRUE Christians don’t act like that. Really? The old fool had made a good enough testimony to get ordained as a deacon, hadn’t he? He claimed that night that the sheriff had told him it was okay to pack the gun, and if true, that may have kept him out of jail. My point is, you can find good people and stupid, violent people in any religion; their actions, not their creed, make the only difference that counts. I can understand why anybody unfamiliar with Muslims might be afraid of them, and I’d respond, well, go see one or two of the local doctors then, and rest easy. What really disgusts me is to see people who’ve worked with Muslims as long as, or longer than, I have, mouth the same paranoid rhetoric you hear from people who don’t know any better.

But who knows? Right now at least one major American political party seems to think that the Russians have become just the nicest guys ever, so maybe there’s hope that some day anti-Muslim prejudices might fade too.

AyMAYun?

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