I was in Cartagena de Indias, a modern port city in the Bolivar Department north of Colombia two weeks ago to take part in a cultural journalism fellowship program. The city, boasting a charming colonial architecture, exaggerated graffiti on the abandoned walls of its Getsemani district, an ancient walled town and an alluring beach resort, has been the setting of many of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novels. Part of our job in the fellowship was to file reports on the cultural, historical and tourist magnets of the city. I embarked on an unconventional journey for one of my reports, and ultimately realized that I had made the right decision.
I set off on a quest to find a mosque in the city of about 1 million residents. It shouldn’t have been an impossible quest. After all, Muslims are everywhere. But in a country of 49.8 million people, with a minority of barely 14,000 Muslims, you need to look for the mosque with a magnifying glass.
After an approximately 45-minute cab ride round the city we found our way into a dismally ruined, dilapidated slum off the shores of the Caribbean Sea where poverty and destitution were noticeably apparent.
We discovered a bricked, austere and relatively fresh building which I was told was the Bilal Al Habashi Mosque. So we had found it.
The sheikh of the mosque who graciously and patiently responded to my countless questions, revealed to me that there are only 35 Muslims across Cartagena, representing about 0.0001% of the population! The sheikh, Abercio Mercado, had converted to Islam in the early 1980’s after embracing the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran as an inspiration. The mosque was built on his personal property, with individual donations and his own wealth. For several years he had been regularly providing daily meals to 85 impoverished children in the region who couldn’t afford food or even travel out of the slums to find something to eat. He told me that if he ended the charity program, these children would miss the only meal they have during the day, and would die. He said he wished to highlight the altruistic dimension of Islam and teach the people in the neighborhood that it is a faith which cares for the well-being of people and watches over the endangered lives.
Abercio said he had garnered respect among the locals and indigenous people, mostly Afro-Colombians, who had become increasingly interested in sending their children to the mosque so that they can get food, as well as some Islamic teaching. But it was not as easy as that. He made a very shocking statement: “When I was building this mosque, people in the surroundings told me, you ‘Musulmans’ are dangerous creatures; you drink the blood of animals after killing them during your rituals.”
And what did he say in response? “We’re Muslims; we are not monsters.”
However, their relative ignorance about Islam and Muslims sounded reasonable and justified. The people in the La Boquilla district, where the mosque was located, had possibly never encountered a true Muslim, and most likely had never left their quarter to see people of a different race, language or religion. Even the Spanish which they spoke was slightly different from the standard Spanish which my journalist friend and guide spoke – it was a vernacular dialect. They’re not to blame. They live in the most underrepresented, underprivileged and far-fetched part of Cartagena, a city that receives thousands of international tourists for its historical and natural beauties and its opulent hotels. I wonder if they even have television sets or have ever used a cell phone. So, Islam was a mysterious phenomenon to them, which they’ve just gradually began to learn about.
But what about Donald J. Trump? In his outrageous statement, where he calls for banning all Muslims from coming to the United States – for any purpose, he parades a sort of ignorance that is utterly inexcusable. Donald J. Trump is running for the highest political office of the world’s supreme political, economic powerhouse: he might become the President of the United States of America. Shouldn’t he be more knowledgeable or at least as knowledgeable as the slum-dwellers in La Boquilla who have even heard the word “Islam”?
Reacting to President Obama after he said in his December 6 address to the nation that there are great Muslim heroes in America, Donald Trump asked the President if there were really any Muslim sports heroes at all, and if the President was profiling the athletes! Intentionally, he is ignoring his numerous meetings with many Muslim sportsmen and the photographs in which he has posed with them. I don’t believe he is so oblivious to have forgotten his photographs with Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Shaquille O’Neal and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
If Donald Trump’s understanding of Islam is that all Muslims hold handguns and instigate shooting sprees or explode bombs in a plaza or restaurant, than I deeply regret the educational system that has given Mr. Trump such falsified information. Moreover, I’d be apologetically concerned about the future of a country that might elect such an unqualified individual.
Like the hardliner evangelical pastor Terry Jones who set copies of the holy book of the Muslims, Quran, on fire, and confessed that he had never read it, I think Mr. Trump has never had the time to take a glance at the English translation of Quran – the canon of Muslims life – and try to see if he can identify a single verse or statement which endorses the unwarranted killing of innocent civilians, children and women.
If the Real Donald Trump is not able to draw a distinction between those extremists who are enchanted by a perverted interpretation of Islam and call themselves the affiliates of an Islamic State – a “state” which I, as a Muslim, despise equally as any non-Muslim American does – and conflates the pitiless atrocities of these killers with the sacred beliefs of more than 1.5 billion Muslims who have lived their entire lives on five continents peacefully, then I think there’s reason to be grimly worried.
The United States has historically exemplified the values of tolerance, plurality and generosity for people of different national, cultural, racial and religious origins, who have found a safe haven free from mayhem and turmoil and built on security and peace where its citizens can flourish and grow intellectually, socially, economically, etc. Expelling people because they practice a specific religion is tantamount to xenophobia and racism. I think the American people have a big responsibility not to allow Mr. Trump to trample these longstanding values which would push the nation back to the gloomy years of the Jim Crow laws. I have a brief message for Mr. Trump: Dear sir! It’s true that we are Muslims. We are not killers. We are normal human beings who want to live, work and raise our families in peace and security. We are simply Muslims; we are not monsters.