SEPTEMBER 9, 2010 1:24PM

The peacefulest Muslims I've known

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Heaven help me if I sound too pious here, but one of my first thoughts after hearing the news of 9/11-- okay, one of my first five thousand -- was: "I hope nobody's done any dirt to the Yusufzais." This was the family that owned the liquor store next to my apartment complex, and from which I frequently supplied myself with Marlboros and Doritos. They had come to America from Lahore, Pakistan. If any vigilantes took it upon themselves to make Phoenix Mussulmenrein --free of Muslims -- they might as well start with the Yusufzais as anyone.

As it turned out, the Yusufzais were fine. When I reached the shop, I learned that Sharif, the son, had closed up early and retreated to the back office, where he’d calmed his nerves with a joint. I cursed myself for my paranoia.

Three days later, a Mesa storekeeper named Balbir Singh Sodhi, a native of the Punjab and a casual acquaintance of the Yusufzais, was gunned down by a man who mistook his Sikh's turban for the mark of a Muslim militant. In those days, just because you were paranoid, didn't mean nobody was out to get you.

From that day to this, no creature’s existence has excited fiercer debate than the so-called moderate, or peaceful Muslim’s. It hasn’t helped that no one can agree exactly where the bar belongs. In 2001, President Bush kept it simple. In condemning those who "commit evil in the name of Allah" -- by which he meant waging war "without making distinctions between military and civilian, including women and children" -- Bush implied that any Muslim who laid off that rough stuff was moderate enough to deserve a pass.

But ever since, commentators have proposed increasingly stringent criteria. Dick Morris would withhold the badge of moderation from any Muslim who spares a kind word for Shari’ah law, either its civil or criminal codes, or any of its interpretative schools. In an historic tweet, Sarah Palin made a litmus test of "refudiating" Park51, or the so-called Ground Zero mosque. To her way of thinking, the only good Muslim is the Muslim who will do nothing offensive to non-Muslims.

I’m no sociologist. Still, like many Americans, I have, since 9/11, felt a pull to study American Muslims. How are they like and unlike the rest of us? Do the differences represent any kind of a threat? Layman that I am, all I can do is pluck these few people from obscurity and make them the subjects of a sort of pop ethnography. Hopefully, it’ll convince a few skeptics that America and Muslims can be good for each other -- at least in moderation.

To begin with basic facts, the Yusufzai family consisted of three people: Khan Yusufzai, paterfamilias, a retired engineer; his wife, Aisha, a homemaker; and their son, Sharif, sole owner and proprietor of a liquor store. After emigrating to America in 1969 as a thirty-one-year-old bachelor, Khan returned to Pakistan and married Aisha. In 1979, in America, Sharif was born.

Among themselves, the family spoke Urdu. Sharif often punctuated his speech with American expressions: "Okay? Okay?"; "You know what I mean?" Khan and Aisha both swore he spoke the language with a American twang, to the endless amusement of their more distant relatives. Khan’s English was perfect -- sometimes intimidatingly formal; Aisha’s was serviceable, but limited. Khan at times would step in to translate when it failed to meet the demands of the conversation.

I never discussed religion with either Aisha or Sharif, as Aisha lacked the vocabulary of metaphysics and Sharif lacked the slightest interest in the subject. Khan seemed to have arrived at a kind of Islamic deism. In the same way that post-Christians deny that Jesus was in any way consubstantial with the Higher Power while conceding Him some key points on ethics, Khan was quick to praise Muhammad for his bravery and good nature. Yet he suggested, by implication and omission, that the Prophet might not deserve the last word on God’s will. He kept Koranic sayings framed on his walls, but rarely visited the Tempe Islamic Cultural Center. He had sent his son to a Catholic high school. His wife declined to cover her hair.  In the years before his health turned fragile, he had been known to take a drink, but always knocked off early. "I was a cheap drunk," he once confessed. "Three was always my limit."

Most of the family’s Muslim friends seemed to be relatives of one kind or another. For reasons I was never able to determine, Khan restricted his acquaintanceship with the Valley’s other Muslims to an occasional nod. "Asalaam aleikum," he’d say dutifully to the South Asians and Middle Easterners who visited the store. His tone included the disclaimer: "Yeah, yeah. Neither of us has a foreskin. Don’t expect any special favors on that score."

So far, I would seem to be describing every American’s model of a modern Muslim family: a family of Muslims who are barely Muslim. But no family lends itself to such neat definition. Khan’s ambivalence toward American culture showed whenever he brooded over his son. He‘d raised the boy American-style, exempting him from any religious instruction, and from Indian subcontinental rules for filial behavior. He‘d sighed in resignation when Sharif had vetoed arrangements for his marriage, and again when he‘d announced he was dropping out of college. "My father," Khan liked to say, "would have made me sweat through the wedding and the curriculum, even if either or both were sure to kill me."

Following 9/11, the family turned to flag waving -- literally. They flew the Stars and Stripes outside their store to remind shoppers whose side they were ultimately on. Their response to the Patriot Act and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq was polite, but skeptical. "Those people are mad," Khan said, referring the Pathans who made up the Taliban, a group from which he himself claimed descent. "Tell me again: how do you propose to ‘reform’ them?"

Only once did he permit anger to break through his air of cautious pessimism, and that was when U.S. military authorities displayed the bullet-torn bodies of Uday and Qusay Hussein. "This is desecration," Khan said, grimacing like a man stepping into a Port-a-John. Referring to the brothers’ stand against hundreds of U.S. paratroops, he told me, "They were monsters, but they were brave."

Sharif’s reactions to both sides were more visceral and less filtered. When the two of us watched the video of Nick Berg’s beheading, he repeated, endlessly, as though chanting a spell, "How can you kill someone while screaming, ‘Allahu Akbar’? People go to hell for that shit." At least once a week, he’d look up from Madden NFL to tell me, "You tell me the government didn’t have something to do with 9/11. They knew the Camp David thing happened on 9/11. They knew people were pissed about it. But did they put the Army on alert? Tell people to stay at home? No. You tell me that’s not an airtight case."

But the family’s equilibrium came from Khan, and Khan’s own equilibrium came, as far as I could tell, from his generally low expectations for people. In his view, humanity was made up of dangerous children. To expect much of them was to court frustration. He was not a misanthrope; he was just too sadly reconciled to reality to bother harboring shatterable illusions.

One afternoon, when the two of us were alone in the store, he told me the story of how his family had decided to leave India for Pakistan. It was the evening of September 6, 1947, barely four weeks after the last British viceroy flew home, leaving a partitioned country behind him. A gang of Hindus, who had been observed casing the homes in his family’s upscale Delhi neighborhood, pounded on the door. Khan, who was nine at the time, remembers wondering, "How will they kill me? Will it hurt?"

Khan’s father answered the door. Fingering an empty holster he’d earned while serving as gamekeeper to a nawab, he managed to bluff the mob, whose courage, like that of all mobs, was temporary and highly conditional. It slunk away after riper targets; before long, an Indian army truck spirited the family to the Pakistani ambassador’s walled compound.

"That night I learned," Khan told me after he’d finished, "that the date of death is fixed." He said he felt no abiding bitterness toward Hindus. "It was nothing personal. They weren’t out to kill Khan Yusufzai and family; they were out to kill Muslims."

"The time of death is fixed" -- Khan would repeat these words to me months later, when my own father died. It is, I eventually learned, a profoundly Islamic statement. Muslims are staunch predestinarians. Whenever disaster strikes, someone will remind the mourners, "Maktub," or "It is written," meaning, "It is written by God, this dreadful, upsetting event, so pipe down already." At times, it comes in handy.  It can make you tolerate anything from attempted religious genocide to a bumbling government.

Hopefully, this won’t sound like some trite whitewashing of Islam. Anyone can see that fatalism leaves room for violent struggle as well as serene detachment. My point is that each of us digests the elements of his own culture unevenly. It is our way of resolving intra-cultural tensions in ways that suit out unique temperaments. When it comes to reflecting cultural values, a broken mirror is all any of us can hope to be. When we reflect the values of two widely differing cultures, we become broken mirrors blasting back the glare of two light sources. Then, all bets are off; the possible patterns of reflection are innumerable.  But judging by the Yusufzais’ example, some can be very fine indeed.

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Well written. I appreciated this. R
Thanks, Sheila! I haven't talked to the Yusufzais (not their real name) in about four years, since Aisha (not her real name, either) died. It was fun bringing them back.
One of the best stories I've read on OS-- I'm so glad you wrote-- I marvel at your gift of writing as well...
If you don't stop that, I'll have to change my name to: "Just Watching as My Head Swells."
Thanks for writing this, Max. It seems to keep getting lost that not all people are the same.
Thanks, Lorraine. And yeah, you've got it. In fact, I felt a little bit guilty holding these people up as representatives of anything. To me, the family was sui generis, and quite lovable.
I might add that some "mirrors" are shattered fragments an some have hairline cracks.
There are good and decent people everywhere. Nice break from reading about jerks.
Thanks, Fred. You know, writing about nice people is harder than writing about jerks. If you like your subjects, you want to do them justice, but at the same time, you worry about sentimentalizing them. With jerks, you can just go off.
An enjoyable read, so refreshing!

Thank you, LadyMiko! I was afraid it was too long and pedantic.
I knew a translator in Iraq who was really a peaceful guy as well. Wouldn't hurt a fly. He liked system of a down though, and lost points for that, but I digress.

This was heartfelt and well written. Contrast rules.
Thanks, Doug! Interestingly, Khan's father was a bit of a hothead. For a time, he'd served as a gamekeeper on the estate of a nawab, one of the noblemen who ruled hereditary fiefs as British puppets. Once, some sahib who'd come to tour the principality butted heads with Mr. Yusufzai and called him a name in Hindi that translates to: "One whose asshole has been split." Mr. Yusufzai kicked his ass, and was promptly thrown in jail for the duration of the Englishman's visit.

After the Englishman left, Mr. Yusufzai was released and got his job back, along with some serious street cred.
This is a very important depiction of your American Muslim friends. Contrary to generalistic impressions of the moderate practitioners of Islam, they have just plain common sense about things. And they seem as frustrated and fearful of radical applications of organized religion as anyone. You are very lucky to have them as friends. Very well done!
Thank you, Linnn! Yes, extremism drove Khan crazy. When he was going to university in Karachi, it was normal for students to dress in Western-style clothes and cut their beards. On his last trip back, he was shocked to find everyone running around in skullcaps and salwar kameezes.

As I hint here, he did think American society was too lax, but he was open-minded on the subject. Two doors down from the liquor store was a gay bar. He once told me, apparently to his own astonishment, that he found the patrons pleasant and well-behaved. "If they weren't gay," he said, "I'd say they were perfect."
Whoa, check this out: This piece has nine ratings and eleven Facebook "likes." Get it? That spells 9-11! Pretty rad, huh?