Facing Down Conflict

Photo by Sarah Whiting

As a woman of color who wears the hijab, I am a visual representation of Islam. I carry the responsibility and sometimes the burden of Everything Muslim for many of my neighbors. I am a stereotype for many, even as I’m trying to break those stereotypes. That affects my leadership, how I use my voice, my power, and even how I show up to talk about issues impacting my community.

The Muslim population in Minnesota is growing. It is exciting to be part of the richness of this ethnically and racially diverse community. With that growth comes the need to expand spaces for our spiritual needs. Over the past few years, I’ve been part of four new mosque projects in the Twin Cities. Unfortunately, all of these projects have faced some opposition in the community. In one case, our Muslim community was outright called a terrorist cell. In other cases, more subtle tactics have been used to obstruct the mosque creation, related to concerns about traffic and taxes.

When I walk into a planning commission meeting or stand up for public comment at a City Council meeting, all heads turn. Assumptions are made. I see dismissive demeanors. I sense low expectations about what I might have to contribute.

My impostor syndrome rockets. Self-doubt. Second guessing. Insecurities meddle with my confidence, my intelligence and my purpose. So, I stop. Take a deep breath. Recite the prayer Moses said before approaching the Pharaoh. My Lord, I ask you to expand my breast, make my task easy, undo the knot in my tongue so that my speech will become comprehensible.

I draw on my faith in order to release my courage and power and come to the realization, “They won’t even see me coming.”

I do my homework before I approached my opposition. I listen to their concerns, which is something we often fail to do.

Chimamanda Adichie warns us of the dangers of a single story — that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding. Seek to understand other narratives and perspectives in order to make progress towards a solution. We can’t see everyone in a binary fashion: with us or against us. Empathy is the first step towards reconciliation.

In the City Council meeting, I address concerns about traffic and prayer timings, realizing that because they don’t understand our way of worship, they are confused and afraid.What has made me fight is the question I ask myself, What if I don’t?”

I offer to open up the mosque to all of our neighbors, and assure them that I am looking forward to becoming friends.

I ask city officials to commit to community engagement and to help us build relationships.

Collaborations have been the key to my successes. I remind myself that I don’t have to do it alone. I have allies — I draw on them. It’s okay to disagree about one thing and still find common ground on another.

Conflict is hard. Confrontations are hard. Avoiding them seems so easy. Yet when these things fester, they get worse. I know this is easier said than done. I know it takes time to learn these skills, and it draws on a lot of our strength and spirit to navigate through them.

The proposal for a new mosque in my neighborhood has been approved. Now the real work begins — establishing good neighborly relations, creating social connections and cohesion.

Where do I place my hope? That those who opposed this mosque will become my friends and allies in the future. We are neighbors.