I tapped my thumb on my knee as we sat in awkward silence. I had already smiled at her, but she just turned away expressionless. I told her I liked her henna. She thanked me and resumed her research of a dust mite on a distant wall. I knew I had maybe one more opportunity to instigate conversation before she suspects me some kind of predator. I had to make it good.
Pointing rather rudely I said, “Excuse me, can I ask where you got that smoothie?”
She smiled at me with a hint of sympathy for my apparent mental incapacities and raised her plastic cup with the green stripe and Starbucks emblem. She then pointed to the same emblem on the airport storefront across from where we were sitting, a mere fifteen feet away. Completely defeated and humiliated, I returned her smile and rose to join the other suckers standing in line for a $5 smoothie I did not at all want.
As if to extend an olive branch with just three simple words she called after me, “Try the mango.” I turned, searching her face for a hint of hospitality. She smiled and punctuated her salutation with, “Mine also has a bit of strawberry.”
Returning to my vinyl seat beside her with awkward enthusiasm, I affixed my conversational bait. “I love mango,” I said, “but not in the United States. The only good mangoes come from East Africa.” Her eyes widened and her jaw dropped just barely, stretching the elastic on her black polyester head covering.
Looking at my new conversation partner recalled a memory of my six-year-old pulling the neck of his t-shirt tightly around his face and asking, “Mom, why do some women in Africa wear their shirts like this?” At the time, I did not have a good answer for him; looking at this woman in the Minneapolis airport two years after moving back to the United States, I knew exactly why she wore the hijab. It is what drew me to her.
My good Midwest Christian upbringing could never have prepared me to solicit casual conversation with a Muslim woman from Somalia. Just five years ago I would have either ignored her altogether or felt some internal pressure to ensure she said the sinners prayer before my bags arrived on carousel four. Three years of living in East Africa have taught me a very important lesson that now provoked my passion to reach out to this stranger.
She is not a terrorist. She is not.
After September 11, I joined millions of Americans in ignorant assumptions that all Muslims hate us and are huddled in back alleys planning their next jihad. I do not know what I thought about Muslim women exactly, but I remember giving them some merciful escape. They probably had no idea their husbands were out there plotting to kill innocent people, I thought, but the fact that they live in the United States means they have seen churches. They must know there is an alternative worldview. I wondered why women would stay with their husbands if they knew what they were doing was wrong? Certainly the Quran does not condone terrorism. I judged. Does she read her own holy book? Ten years later, I learned the painful truth.
In 2012, I sat with a group of Somali women drinking tea in a typical cinder-block home. We were talking about Abraham, and they were sharing story of Ishmael being sacrificed on the altar. “What about Isaac?” I asked. “Where is he in the story?” They looked at me blankly. “Abraham had two sons,” I repeated. “What does the Quran say about Isaac?” None of them knew how to answer. I was not alarmed—after all, there is an inappropriate number of Christians who could not tell you the role Ishmael played in the Bible either.
What Samira told me next rocked me to the core. “I can ask my father to ask our Imam. He can read the Quran.” In Islam, I came to learn, the only valid reading of the Quran is in Arabic. For my Somali-speaking friend, there was no hope of ever reading the Quran for herself. Even if she could, as a woman (seen as the intellectual equal to a dog or donkey) she would not be trusted to interpret it without the help of her brother, father, or husband—most of whom are also unable to read Arabic themselves and so rely entirely on the interpretation of their Imam (pastor). In an ironic paradox, the Imam likely has never read the Quran either but has memorized the entire book in a language not native to him. I realized that day that if the Quran said anything about the killing of innocent people, few (if any) non-Arabic-speaking Muslims would know it. It was not until years later that I learned the majority of the Muslim world does not even speak Arabic. Millions of Muslims worldwide are unaware that jihad is not only in the Quran, but is also sanctioned by Allah. (Quran, Surah 9 and Surah 4:150–151)
For years after September 11, I had been holding Muslim women accountable for what they likely had no idea existed. I also made erroneous assumptions about the impact of living in the United States on her understanding of Jesus. I recently interviewed a young woman from Kuwait who had left Islam and followed Christ some five years ago. “I lived in the United States for fourteen years,” she said with a hint of anger, “and not one Christian ever told me what goes on inside their church. I never knew Jesus was alive. I never knew He loved me.”
Make no mistake: I still fight anxiety when reaching out to Muslim women. I cannot ignore that there is indeed a visible threat from various followers of Islam, especially toward Christians. I believe that even the risk itself serves as one more reason I choose to move into my anxiety to make conversation with a random stranger at the airport. In the United States, I am free to take whatever risk I choose in order to share the Word of God with her. I could stand in the middle of the airport, should I feel the need, and pass out Bibles to anyone walking by. However, when she reads the Words of Jesus and accepts them in her heart, everything changes in a moment. Many Muslims who accept Jesus as their Savior will never know from day to day if their family or government is waiting to kill them—at the minimum, they will face torture, neglect, and/or abandonment. What will she pay to accept the Seed I offer? It is a far greater a price than what it costs me to plant it.
Author’s note: More Muslims have come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ in the last 20 years, than in the previous 1400 years combined! God is on the move throughout the Muslim world and is bringing them into our neighborhoods, schools, and workplace. Will you reach beyond the veil to share the Word of God with her?
Question to consider: How “will you reach beyond the veil to share the Word of God with her”?