I have known Hoda Elsharkawi for some time, introduced to her via my cousin Karen who herself converted to Islam just 3 months before the horrors of 9/11/01. Hoda, her husband, and their children live near Boston. As someone who is Muslim, American, and a Bostonian, I believe Hoda offers a unique voice many Christians in America ought to consider.
Wilson Station: Perhaps we could begin with you introducing yourself and your family to our readers?
Hoda Elsharkawi: I am an Egyptian American Muslim. I was born in Saudi Arabia as my parents were working there. My father is a retired hospital director and my mom a retired high school superintendent. I have a degree in Journalism from Egypt and am pursuing further education here in counseling and Islamic studies. I work as a part time teacher in an elementary school. I am married and have 3 children and we all live in Mansfield Mass. I came to the United States over 17 years ago. My husband and I are active members in the Muslim American Society, a moderate mainstream Islamic organization.
WS: When you first heard about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, what were your thoughts?
HE: I got a call from my sister from Egypt asking me if I was all right. I left the phone and ran to the TV to see what happened and my tears started flowing just as they did and still do when I see images of panic and horror from 9/11. I was shocked, angry, feeling betrayed and feeling stubborn; as Bostonians we will not be frightened by such acts.
WS: When did you find out the brothers had apparently, though very infrequently, attended your mosque? Did you ever meet one of them, or meet any other members of their extended family? I understand the older brother was at one service asked to leave due to his starting an argument over Martin Luther King being positively mentioned by the Imam!
HE: Our mosque is open to all unless they have extreme views. If they do, and express such views, we report them to the FBI. This has happened, but very few times. In the case of Tamerlan [the older of the two bombers] as I heard from trusted sources, regarding Rev. King he was taken aside and spoken to in an effort to help him understand there is nothing wrong in learning from the examples of people who are not Muslims. He returned to the mosque again and never showed anyone anything suspicious. I feel so bad personally that we failed as a mosque to detect a problem and help him through it to prevent what he did. We are waiting to know the source of his radicalization so as a Muslim organization we can prevent others from being affected. There are so many questions unanswered.
Some people I know knew him to be normal and nice, the local halal meat store manager, some kids who went to the same school with him, NO ONE saw this coming.
WS: Hoda, you are an American, a Bostonian, and a Muslim. There are those who would say it is impossible to be a responsible American citizen and a faithful follower of Islam. How do you respond to that sort of accusation?
HE: I would ask them why? Islam shares most of the American values, respecting life, tolerance, freedom of religion and all the 10 commandments. But also I have met many Non Muslim Christians who would not agree on some of what the American culture had become; it doesn’t make them less American. I met parents who are horrified of what teen girls wear these days and some who have a problem with some of the wars that America has chosen to fight but they love their country and would die to protect it and I would die to protect our sweet USA.
WS: As a native-born American but also as a Christian, I agree with you; American culture too often emphasizes sensuality and materialism without spiritual values, sometimes heart-breakingly so. Have you ever been the victim of anti-Islamic bigotry?
HE: Yes, but the good people show me is more than the bad. I am grateful for that and I urge all of those who carry God’s spirit in them to stand against any kind of oppression or bigotry done to them or to others. Only then do I believe we will deserve God’s love.
WS: Are you aware of any other Boston area Muslims being targeted by haters who used the bombings as an excuse for their expressions of Islamophobia?
HE: There have been some incidents but this is still in the beginning stages. School started today and I hope I will not hear what I heard happen to Muslim kids after 9/11. It is unfortunate but we have to be strong and just do our best to overcome this hardship as many minorities have done before us.
Our organization has falsely been linked to terrorist groups by the media which is a complete lie because law enforcement would not let us stand in that case. It hurts us deeply, this war against all Muslims.
The indication from many in the media that every practicing Muslim is a danger to the world is offensive. We are doctors, army men and women, taxi drivers, engineers, teachers, who work and want to live peacefully following our faith which is the biggest source of peace in our lives.
WS: One of the most enduring internet narratives about Islam is that it is a religion of violence. Yet this week, listening to the uncle of the two men accused of these bombings, I was powerfully affected by his comments about forgiveness — that the younger man who survived should ask forgiveness of those he has so terribly wronged by murdering their loved ones. You and I (during my since-abandoned sojourn on face book) have discussed some major differences between Islam and Christianity, particularly surrounding the identity each religion assigns to Jesus Christ. But here I’d like to focus on similarities between our faiths. What does your understanding of Islam say regarding violence, and for that matter, regarding peace?
HE: Muslims in general would not think of Christianity as a violent religion even when massacres happened in the past by Christians during the crusades falsely under the name of Jesus. Why? Because we are familiar with the Bible, we respect and honor it and know the Christian religion. But I can’t say the same when Christians see Muslims behave in a shameful way. Why? Because they don’t know the Muslim religion. It is not enough to listen to some news outlet’s distorted facts about Islam to pass a judgment, not if your goal is to really know the truth.
I have been visited by many evangelical Christians in my class at the mosque; you know what they said to me? We want to know Islam from Muslims. I had so much respect for them. They have not changed their faith but they did change their views. One of them who used to come all the way from Rhode Island to Cambridge for class said to me: The Qur’an is much more liberal when it comes to women, and I can see how the Bible can inspire violence if misunderstood even more than the Qur’an.
The verses in the Qur’an that indicate Muslims should fight disbelievers was in the context of Muslims being attacked. That is, in self defense against violence we are permitted to fight. God says in the same chapter: “And if they incline to peace, then incline to it [also] and rely upon Allah. Indeed, it is He who is the Hearing, the Knowing.” If one’s enemy becomes peaceful, we should respond in peace.
Words can be twisted. There is a verse in the Quran that says, “So woe to those who pray”, but it follows: “But who are heedless of their prayer; Those who make show [of their deeds], And withhold [simple] assistance.” What happens if you only read the first one? You would think Islam is telling people not to pray, but as you continue reading you can see that it is quite the opposite. People who say we are violent misread the Qur’an in similar ways.
WS: The term “Jihad” has been used by radicals claiming the Islamic faith to justify bombings and other acts of violence, often against unsuspecting civilians. Explain what “jihad” means to you.
HE: The word Jihad stems from the Arabic root word J-H-D, which means “strive.” Other words derived from this root include “effort,” “labor,” and “fatigue.” Essentially Jihad is an effort to practice religion in the face of oppression and persecution. The effort may come in fighting the evil in your own heart, or in standing up to a dictator. Military effort is included as an option, but as a last resort and not “to spread Islam by the sword” as the stereotype would have one believe.
Islam never tolerates unprovoked aggression from its own side; Muslims are commanded in the Qur’an not to begin hostilities, embark on any act of aggression, violate the rights of others, or harm the innocent. Even hurting or destroying animals or trees is forbidden. War is waged only to defend the religious community against oppression and persecution, because the Qur’an says that “persecution is worse than slaughter” and “let there be no hostility except to those who practice oppression” (Qur’an 2:190-193). Therefore, if non-Muslims are peaceful or indifferent to Islam, there is no justified reason to declare war on them.
Can I say all Muslims abide by the teachings of the Quran in this regard? Not more than those of any other religions abide by their books.
WS: Islam, like Christianity, is a very large “tent” with many many millions of people within it. Christianity has Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox as three large branches with many other offshoots — some of those offshoots not viewed by most Christians as even being Christian. I’m asking a lot of you here, but could you explain at least in outline form various branches of Islam, including your own?
The two main sects of Islam are Sunni and Shia. Both sects have the same holy book which has only one version and has never changed. But they differ in understanding of what to accept in terms of how the prophet explained the Quran. They don’t accept some of the narrations that the Sunnis accept. They also disagree politically with Sunnis in terms of who should be the ruler of Muslims, while the Sunni position is all are equal and it should be left for the people to decide, the Shia believe in a rightly guided Imam from the family of the prophet, kind of a pope figure which is strongly denounced by Sunnis who believe after the death of the prophets not one is spoken to by God in such a way.
Within the Sunni realm there are some who have liberal understanding of Islam and there are more conservative ones, the most conservative is the Salafi way which is applied in Saudi and some parts of the Muslim world. The Taliban and so, are not even considered to be an accurate understanding of Islam at all, but rather misguided brainwashed extremists. Similar to what some Christians feel about the Westboro Baptist Church.
There are Muslims who can be more spiritual like the Sufi and some who are more political but all are under Sunni Islam. This is a really big subject; perhaps those who are interested can visit Wikipedia for more info!
WS: As a mother raising children to be both devout Muslims and responsible American citizens, what unique difficulties and challenges do you find yourself facing?
HE: I think all parents face difficulties raising kids wherever you are. We have a very good relationship with our kids. They see us do good stuff and they love this country and are sad when there are unfortunate things happening. But they feel comfortable in their Muslim American skin, I think because they are born here. We speak with them a lot and we hope they will do great things for this country that will make us all proud. You raise and you pray but at the end they are in the hands of God.
Our parenting style is to be positive and promote love and understanding mixed with activism.
WS: If there was one thing you wish your non-Muslim friends knew about Islam, what would it be?
HE: I would want them to know that we worship the same God and we are brothers and sisters, we can disagree but we can build great things together and solve many problems. The world needs us to be united not fighting. I hope they will take the time to learn about Islam from a sincere desire to understand a very misunderstood religion.
WS: Hoda is an intriguing name… might I ask what it means?
That question makes me smile. Hoda means guidance. Most Arabic names have beautiful meanings. I named my son Ali, which means someone with a high status, my first daughter Eman which means faith and my second daughter Leena which means Gentle.
I hope they will be true to their names and I to mine.
WS: Thank you, Hoda, for sharing about your religion and life with us. I can only hope that those of us using the name “Christian” live up to it. In the case of our treatment of Muslims in America and elsewhere, too often we have not done so. Blessings on your family and your mosque’s congregation.
For Jon’s own reflections on the Boston Bombings, see Boston and The Most Dangerous Story.