Fear in the Mosque: How Immersing in Fear Begets Courage and Compassion

I had not seen my Islamic mentor or local Muslim community since August of last year.

My Islamic mentor and me.

The excitement, the anticipation, the memories…everything rushed over me like a wave as we pulled into the Omar Ibn Sayyid Masjid parking lot for jumah (Friday congregational prayers). I fitted my kufi over my head and slowly re-immersed myself in the waters of Islam. Everything was calm and familiar, Islam just as I’d left it, until my wife spoke.

You call or text me the minute jumah is over. I don’t want you out here alone.”

I laughed.

What are you talking about? These folks know me. I’ll be fine.”

She looked out of the car window at the parking lot.

Masjids aren’t exactly the safest places right now.”

The smile melted from my face. She kissed me and left with my mother and daughters.

My wife of course, was reminding me of the string of recent attacks on houses of worship, particularly the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and property damage at several masjids across the nation. I had never thought of the local masjid as a target for any degree of malevolence. These people loved and served their communities with everything from food drives to interfaith dialog. As I turned and walked toward the masjid, as I gradually sank beneath the Islamic waters, I felt a new current swirl around me.

Fear.

You see, before Project Conversion, I was an enemy of all religion, but especially Islam. In fact, I joined the United States Marine Corps. after the September 11th attacks with the goal of hunting down and slaughtering every Muslim I could find.Thankfully, I never made it out of basic training, but that hatred lingered until the Muslim brothers and sisters from the immersion experience in 2011, as I shared the trials and blessings of Ramadan, melted my heart and adopted me as their own.

My daughters and me performing salaat in 2011

And so as I sat with my Muslim family and listened to the imam’s khutba (sermon or lecture), as I stood and prostrated toe-to-toe, shoulder-to-shoulder during prayer, I felt a chill run up and down my spine, like the fingernails of terror raking against a chalkboard.

Only then did I realize what had transpired. In that space, as one fully integrated into my surroundings (as any Immersian should be), I also experienced the background radiation, the undercurrents of the people around me. We all felt it. Everyone in a masjid across the nation felt it as well.

Could this masjid come under attack?

Hatred. Intolerance, Ignorance. Xenophobia. That was what murdered those Sikhs in Wisconsin. That was what committed vandalism and violent crimes against peaceful worshipers and others across the nation. And once upon a time, I was plagued by such disease.

Not only was I in a space full of Muslims, I was also the only Caucasian among them. The Sikh temple shooter was a neo-Nazi, a group known for violent racism. What if one attacked that masjid while I was there? What would he think of me? Not only was I the enemy because I was among Muslims, but because in his eyes, I would have “betrayed” my race.

Knelt side-by-side with my Muslim family, I was now completely submerged in the fear and anxiety of a very real threat. What I soon realized however, was that the fire in my chest, as if drowning, was a catharsis. Just as the angel Jabril (Gabriel) squeezed the breath from Muhammad’s lungs, so was I choking on the last breaths of my former self. In that place, I faced that fearsome juggernaut of pain and anger head on. By remaining, by refusing to come up for air, I sank deeper and took my worry and anxiety with me, drowning my fear. I faced myself, I faced fear and terror, and knew that whatever came through that door, I was ready.

Shared experience with others is a hallmark of the Immersian path. Only in walking through the fire, forged and tempered by its intensity and purifying heat, do we emerge courageous and with compassion for those around us. We are a gift to one another. We are like steel, but we are only sharpened against hatred and ignorance by the friction of compassion and experience with one another.

On Friday, I immersed myself in fear and emerged with greater courage and compassion. Today, discover the limits of your comfort zone and courageously transcend them.

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