Corey Saylor is legislative director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), with more than a decade of nonprofit political communications, legislative advocacy, and media relations experience. This commentary originally distributed February 14, 2008.
Twenty years ago today I gave a girl a Valentine’s Day card. Her name was misspelled. We were high school seniors.
I was a mere month out of drug rehab, where I was placed due to a daily concoction of marijuana, alcohol, LSD, PCP and other chemicals.
During the previous four years, I had developed a bad habit of breaking into cars and generally taking other people’s things. A former girlfriend had carved my initials into her wrist with a razor blade and then cut the veins. She lived. On more than one occasion I had woken covered in my own blood, urine and vomit with no clue where I was or what had led me there.
The girl, who I had known since the tenth grade but not really interacted with, had her own history. She was from Afghanistan. She was in Kabul, the capitol city, when the Soviets invaded. She went to school one day to find a whole new set of teachers, who idolized communism. She threw rocks at occupiers and had assault weapons pointed her way. Her core memory of her family’s escape from the war is looking at her longtime nanny running after their car begging for a chance to say goodbye. For security, her parents had told no one of their plan.
She responded to my card with a book on Islam, her faith. I tossed it aside with a comment about religion being for weak people.
When I later read the book I found it appealing. Islam’s approach to life, essentially do your daily prayers then go live your life and try to make the world brighter was pragmatic and simple.
I embraced Islam two years later.
I went alone to her parents to ask their permission to marry her. During the dinner- an intimidating setting of her mother, father and me-I was served lasagna (not expected Muslim world dish) with superheated cheese in the center. I managed not to spit it out as it inflicted second degree burns on the inside of my mouth.
My culinary heroics worked and I received their blessing.
We had a religious marriage ceremony while we were still in our teens. Shortly after the ceremony, her father had me in their backyard digging a ditch with a pickax in the cold. He was illustrating the consequences of anything less than my best when it came to his daughter.
My wife’s first encounter with my world involved meeting a friend of mine whose father had just been angrily ramming this friends head into the family ceiling. The stream of cursing was impressive. The idea of a father inflicting that kind of abuse on a child was totally alien to my wife. It was common among my friends.
One of my first encounters with her world was at a dinner party in her parent’s home. Men and women were in separate rooms. I saw the men eating while my mother-in-law and a couple other women cooked. I drew my own conclusions and vocally refused to eat until the women did. I was taken aside and made to understand that the women had already eaten.
Giving her that card has opened me up to a number of such assumption changing encounters.
I have been told go back to your country, on the assumption that any Muslim must be a foreigner. I have been complemented on my excellent English, following the same assumption. My life has been threatened, on the assumption that as a Muslim I must have had advance notice of the 9/11 attacks. I have been identified for extra security screening because of who I was traveling with, on the assumption that someone who looks foreign is more likely to be a threat than white Americans such as Timothy McVeigh (Oklahoma City bombing), Terry Nichols (Oklahoma City bombing) or Eric Rudolf (Olympic Park and abortion clinic bomber).
Embracing Islam probably saved my life; I had a rather wide range of unreasonably self-destructive behaviors that faded under the faiths message of respect for life. Certainly it made me a better citizen, if you do not count speeding, I am law-abiding. I no longer steal. I no longer abuse people. I do work I believe serves the public good.
That is not the image of the Muslim convert you get on television these days.
Today, I will give my wife the exact card I gave her twenty years ago, misspelled name and all. This time, I am Muslim and not asking her to be my Valentine. I am expressing my appreciation that in response to that very card she helped me to a faith that gave me back my life.