I was sitting at the immigration office this week with a client, fuming because the officer was taking what seemed like hours to fill out one form, stamp it and send us on our way. First World problems are my specialty, including worrying about not being able to find a good latte, missing the SEPTA bus and running out of my favorite brand of shampoo.
I say "First World problems," because I was sitting with a woman who had undergone one of the most barbaric practices known to man: female circumcision. She was waiting to find out when her next immigration hearing would be scheduled, and she was surrounded by other people who were victims of their own hellish histories, refugees from war, famine, religious persecution and the brutal consequences of political dissent. Unlike me, they all waited patiently with the dignity that comes from being a supplicant for mercy.
So, while I waited, I engaged "Salimata" in conversation. We spoke about her daughter, a 6-year-old dynamo who is fluent in English, French and her mother's native Mandingo. It was primarily for that child that Salimata filed for asylum in the first place. She did not want "Aicha" to suffer the same barbarism she had been subjected to as a 5-year-old. She remembered being taken by her grandmother to a room, along with seven or eight other girls, being held by neighbors, having her legs pushed open and watching as her mother's mother used a dull knife to cut into her genitals. There was blood, there was crying and then a quick attempt at bandaging the cruel and unnecessary wound. It happened 40 years ago, but the memory was seared into her adult conscience like a dark tattoo on the soul.
Salimata could not bear the thought that this could happen to her daughter, and if she was forced to return to the Ivory Coast, it would. According to the 2015 State Department Reports for Human Rights Practices, "Female Genital Mutilation was a serious problem in some parts of the country. The predominant form of FGM was type II-removal of clitoris and labia . . . more than 50% of FGM is done before the age of five."
To calm my client, I tried to turn her attention away from past and future horror and asked about Aicha. She smiled and told me all about how bright she is, how much she loves Disney princesses, how she is particularly enchanted by Elsa (which amused this daughter of the desert who hadn't seen a snowball until age 35 when she came to the U.S.) and how happy she was in school. To my amazement, that school was a Catholic one.
And in an almost surreal moment, I listened as a devout Muslim woman in a hijab and full-length dress explained to me, a Catholic woman in leggings and an oversized sweater, how wonderful my own faith was, how good the nuns were and how she appreciated the way Aicha was learning respect and obedience.
"They take good care of her," she said.
That led to a discussion of how children today lack respect for their elders. Salimata said many of the children in her village were taught by nuns, and it was very common in French-speaking Africa for the first and most important educational experiences to be imparted in Catholic school rooms with crucifixes on the wall.
When I complimented her on the generosity of her comments, particularly at a time of such cruel comments about Islam in this country, she shook her head and said the core of the faiths are similar in their mutual respect for life. She even shocked me by saying, "We believe abortion is the taking of a human life, too."
On the way home, I thought about the anomalous beauty of hearing a Muslim woman in a hijab tell me how much she appreciated my faith and the profound value she finds within its precepts and people. A woman who is fighting to protect her daughter from certain torture felt that my faith, above all others, offered the best hope to that child.
And so I posted a comment on Facebook. And waited. It didn't take long.
The first few comments were kind, fist pumps of appreciation and solidarity for an anxious mother. There were also some mini-history lessons. My very smart friend Lisa observed that "In the old days, before Wahabi money had polluted the Muslim world, Catholic nuns educated all of the daughters of the wealthy. Benazir Bhutto herself went to a Catholic school."
But then, like the fetid humidity after a summer rain, comments started rolling in about Islam not being "a true religion," about "apostasy," about "violence," about "deviation from the pure faith of Christians" and about "terror."
Indeed, the cutting of a little girl's clitoris to keep her "virtuous" is terrorism. But it is not uniquely practiced by Muslims in Africa. And this particular Muslim had just spent an hour explaining how much respect she had for Christianity, to the point she was paying money she did not have to put her child in a Catholic school. Some people were unable simply to appreciate the serendipitous grace of that fact.
I'm not immune to the anger that rises from the gut, engulfs the heart and enrages the brain when I hear about a jihadist attack. I am not stupid enough to believe religion is irrelevant to those incidents of blood and revenge. I despise the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the knee-jerk protectionism displayed by Muslims who refuse to march in the streets and condemn the killing. And don't tell me they do it. If they do, it's a whisper, not a roar. They need to climb to the top of the mountain and scream out against the evil creatures hiding under their banner. Even Bill Maher agrees Muslims are far too silent when crimes are committed in the name of Islam.
But for every terrorist, there is a woman like Salimata — mothers who love their daughters as much as any Christian or Jew and have the grace and clarity of vision to know that when it comes to a child's welfare, tribal loyalties are toxic. Aicha's mother wears a hijab but respects and even adores other women who wear the veils of another creed.
Deliberately failing to appreciate that is a sin, in any faith.
Christine Flowers is a lawyer