Sameer stopped by my workspace the other day. He is a Muslim from a Middle Eastern country who has lived in America for many years. If you asked him, he would say I was the nicest person in the world. He wanted to talk about a CNN program he had just seen, where people were objecting to the building of a proposed mosque near Ground Zero in New York.
"It's just a community center," Sameer told me, "To get kids off the streets. It will have clubs and a theater with a room for people who want to pray. And people are objecting to it!"
As I listened, Sameer continued. "The Prophet treated everyone with respect," he said. "He even said that Paradise is at the feet of mothers."
I could have asked him how many Paradises Islam has, since Muhammad also said that Paradise was under the shadow of his sword, but I didn't go there. Instead I countered, "Well, the Quran also commands men to beat disobedient wives. I'm not sure that is showing them much respect."
Sameer was quick to respond, "That's not what that verse means," he said. "I heard a Shaykh say it means that if a wife is doing something wrong, the husband can give her a gentle, loving tap on the shoulder to say, "Honey, don't do that - do it this way."
"But Sameer," I replied, "You know Arabic. The verb used by the Quran is daraba. That is the verb used when American fighter aircraft demolish an Al Qaeda stronghold in Pakistan. That's the verb used to describe Israeli gunships destroying the home of a Hamas suicide bomber in Gaza. It means anything but 'giving a gentle tap on the shoulder.'"
An injured look came across Sameer's face. "Wallahi, by God," he said, "I don't know about that. But the Shaykh said it just means to give her a loving tap, nothing more."
After Sameer left, I turned to a friend who had overheard the conversation. "Do you know what I find frustrating about conversations like that?" I asked. "It's the realization that he doesn't really want to hear what I have to say. He's not interested in what I think about Muhammad or Islam."
"I know," she replied. "It reminds me of conversations I had with Palestinian friends when I spent some time in the Middle East. You soon learn not to even try to talk about particular subjects, because the conversations only go one way."