A Travel Story: Confronting My Islamophobia By Testing My Own Faith
How a regular RyanAir flight became a personal test of my progressive views, deep-seated faith, and an unfortunate discovery of my own Islamophobia.
I confess. I am not an every Sunday Christian. Well, actually, the infant to 25-year-old me was. But these days, I’m a lot less religious about it. Kind of like my relationship with R&B; I feel like I’ve had a lifetime of enough of it. I know what it is. I won’t ever forget. And I don’t want to. But, in the teeny tiny minuscule years after my 25th birthday, I’ve developed a different relationship with my faith. I felt as though I needed to step away from pulpits and Palm Sundays for a while, to be sure that I knew what it was that I really spent so much time doing. Going to church. I guess, I wanted to know if I really believed in faith as a guiding factor in my life. And I’ve learned that I do.
It just so happens, that I was born a Christian. Now, some people might be thinking that I’ve got a few words out of order, for we are all born sinners until we accept Jesus Christ into our hearts and are born again. But let’s be honest: Being born Christian in America is as likely as a child in Tel Aviv being born Jewish. Jewish people are literally born into their faith,though, ironically can be born out of it too. Still, you get my point. America is Christian. Sure, there's a cereal aisle variety of flavors to choose from: baptist, protestant, methodist, four square, unitarian, pentecostal, catholic, greek orthodox, COGIC, just to name a few; but we are very much a nation dominated by Christianity, such that most people are likely to be born into to it… and if not, you’re aways being recruited to a “church” of some sort from the time you get to Junior High until you’re so old that when you fall asleep with the TV on, someone is still proselytizing that you need to awake from the dead. Yes, even at an age, when the questions are more like: awake or dead?
But I’m droning on. You get my point.
And although I don’t go to church on Sundays, I still have faith. And I call upon the name of Jesus, often. Just not where anyone can hear me, normally. Not for shame, but because that’s where I believe faith belongs: close to your person. And yet, with me being Christian-Lite and quite progressive, in that I accept all faiths as legitimate, I found out that I held within me, the smallest repository of Islamophobia. Contrary to what you’d naturally think, my Islamaphobia wasn't informed by my Christian beliefs, but rather, the caricature of a certain type of person who is always hostile towards me because I’m American and thus, dangerous to my livelihood. This caricature is also Muslim. I’d seen this person as far back as elementary school, during the era of the Gulf War. It’s been a pretty long time. Yet despite being told that Muslims are a threat to Christians, I found myself challenged to test the limits of my Christianity in the most unexpected, yet eye-opening encounter.
I was in London for several months during the summer of 2015. On a break from some live shows, I decided to ‘getaway’ to Greece for a bit. I booked an insanely cheap ticket on RyanAir for a direct flight to Athens. If you know anything about RyanAir, it, like Easy Jet, is a bare-bones budget airline (but better than Spirit). Yet, the combination of inexpensive tickets and multitude of flights routes leave their seats pretty full on a regular basis. As was the case this day. Amidst some other drama that nearly caused me to miss my flight, I was assigned an aisle seat. In this row, the middle passenger was rocking some pretty gnarly BO. It was when he kept lifting his arm to adjust the air nozzle overhead that I started to look around for a vacant seat to escape to. In the row right behind me were two empty seats and a lone passenger at the window.
As soon as we were in flight, I switched seats and very quickly realized that a worse experience was to define this flight. The guy in the window was Muslim. A fact, he immediately made known. He looked Italian to me and had we had never talked otherwise, I wouldn’t have thought differently. But his first words, were:
“Go back to your seat."
Obviously, this man has never been to 54th and Crenshaw in Los Angeles, CA. And it was clear that he certainly hadn’t met a girl from there. He’d have been alright if he had not felt the need to repeat his command enough for me to realize that he was actually talking to me. Of course, I said
I was soon told that the rips in my black skinny jeans were tempting him because I am a woman. And that the sleeves of my leather jacket weren’t long enough because it’s rude to have my wrists exposed. I’ve covered up when I’ve gone into mosques; I’ve avoided eye contact and conversation with Hasidic men on a flight to Israel; I’ve washed my hands before entering Japanese Shinto temples and not fed pork to most of the Black men that I know. But c’mon dude, this is freaking RyanAir.
At first, I panicked because I thought, “Shoot, maybe this is a Muslims-only row." Sensitively designated to respect the tenets of their faith. Heck, I’m not European, this could be a new thing. Or, maybe he bought all of the seats because of his faith, to avoid something like this happening. But when I asked him,
“Did you buy these seats?"
He said, “No.”
So...I was like, "Oh hell nah, this dude is tripping!" Things escalated from there. I was more resolved than ever to stay planted in that seat. He eventually told me that I was stupid along with a few other things, which I happily returned in-kind.
By this point, I’d put on my headphones and closed my eyes. But then, I heard something. I looked over, and this guy was praying in the window. That’s when the Islamophobia kicked in. Every time you ever see this happening outside of a mosque, someone is about to be the victim of a terrorist attack. I was confused because I didn’t know that he could even pray next to me…because I’m a woman. But then, I was terrified because for a brief moment, having thought, this guy is going to blow up the plane and no one else knows we’re about to die but me. That’s about the time when my faith kicked in.
I certainly couldn’t think I was about to die and remain calm until it happened. And while I knew my Islamophobia was irrational, I was also considering the ramifications of falsely accusing this man of being a threat to everyone on the plane because I hadn’t stopped this ridiculous line of thinking. Everything I know and thought I stood for was tested at that very moment. Do I let fear rob me of my morals and beliefs? Or, do I put them out in front me to see to see what returns? Of those beliefs, is that I do believe that all faiths are legitimate. So if this man happens to be praying for peace and restraint, I believe that those prayers will be answered. Because I believe in prayer. And I believe it works. And if my worst fears are confirmed, I’ve lost nothing for living as I believe. I’ve had a good life. One that I once prayed for. And that’s how I know that his prayers will work. Because mine have too.
So I resume with my headphones and say a little prayer of my own.
“Thank you for my life. God, I believe in you."
By the time the food cart arrives at our unfortunate row, I'm still with my eyes closed but feel something happening above me. An in-flight crew member was passing my row companion his carry-on from the overhead compartment. I open my eyes just long enough for him to catch mine and ask me if I would like something. As in, he wanted to buy me something. To be fair, I only really opened my eyes to make sure that he wasn’t buying hot tea to weaponize against me like a pot of hot grits but then quickly realized that I was being greeted by a different man. In actuality, it was the same man, but with a completely different disposition. Although I declined his offer, only slightly convinced that he couldn’t have poisoned my hypothetical food choice from the snack cart somehow, we began to talk. We began to reconcile. And we did.
I told him, that had he asked me differently, I would have granted his wish to move out of respect for him. But when he disrespected me, I was hardened. Sadly, this is a familiar story when it comes to religions. Each faith takes turns taking jabs at the other but somehow is still always on the defensive. That’s at the crux of the interfaith tension playing out across the planet, not that caricature from the movies we view as the bad guy. For sure, this dude didn’t help his cause. And in that, I found myself confronted with some pretty damning thoughts I’d never imagined that I could conjure up. But what I ultimately concluded was that faith is the most real when it is tested. And when we refuse to be uncomfortable, the faith that we subscribe to, no matter what it is, can become a threat to itself. Not too long after, I finally made up my mind about my church-going questions as well. I settled on this simple truth: what I learned all those Sundays is legitimate too.