I want to reach out to my Muslim neighbor. How do I get started?

Some advice from Ilhan Cagri of the Muslim Public Affairs Council

So maybe your neighbor is Muslim, or you’ve run into the parents of your child’s classmate and they’re Muslim. You’d like to get together with them but aren’t sure how to do it.

American Muslims are an extremely diverse community. From African American Muslims, many of whose ancestors were brought to the United States as slaves; to converts; to more recently arrived immigrants from the Middle East, North Africa, and many other places; there is no homogenous Muslim culture or American Muslim culture. Thus, while acknowledging that the following tips may not hold constant across all communities, they can be helpful for starting relationships with a number of American Muslim families.

It’s important to know that some Muslim families may feel just as anxious about getting to know their non-Muslim neighbors. They may want to invite you but are sure how to go about doing it. At the same time, they may be nervous about going to a non-Muslim home where they may be served pork and will have to refuse, causing discomfort.

Let’s look at what Muslims generally expect when they go to a Muslim household:

1. As they enter, they’ll look to see if they should remove their shoes. If they do not need to remove their shoes, the host will say something like, “Oh, don’t worry, you don’t need to take off your shoes.”

2. They know that they will not be served alcohol. No one will drink alcohol around them. The food will not contain alcohol (wine, brandy, rum); this includes desserts. [Even though the alcohol evaporates in cooking, many Muslims do not eat food that contains alcohol as an ingredient.]

3. The food will not contain any pork products. No ham, salami, or prosciutto. There will be no lard in any of the desserts.

4. Many Muslims eat meat that is deemed “halal”. This means it has been slaughtered in a religiously prescribed way and is sold in Muslim butcher shops or is marked in the supermarket as “halal” (such as all lamb from New Zealand). Some Muslims will eat meat that is kosher, because Jewish religious laws regarding meat are very similar to Islamic guidelines. All fish is acceptable.

5. Muslims also generally dress more formally around company. They would also expect people to dress a little more conservatively. For example, although both men and women may wear shorts or sleeveless shirts at home around family, they would not dress this way in front of non-family members. Women would be more covered especially around men, and, depending on their specific beliefs may wear long sleeves, slacks or a long skirt, and a headscarf. People who attend the same mosque can hold different beliefs about how much a woman should be covered, and they are generally tolerant of a woman’s personal choice in her religious attire.

In summary, if the female Muslim neighbor wears a headscarf, you can likely assume that family does not drink alcohol, never eats pork products, probably eats only “halal” meat (though it’s perfectly okay to ask, “Do you eat only halal meat?”), likely does not have a dog (you cannot pray in clothes that has dog hair on it, although this may be different for some American Muslims, who do indeed own dogs) and the women of the family will not remove their headscarf unless in the company of all women.

The thing is, people are people. Nice people attract nice people and generally figure it out, even if making the first initiation of friendship is, as always, a bit uncomfortable to do. The best way to get to know someone is to talk to them. Ask them about the things that interest you: gardening, sports, the price of gas, how to cook something, your kids, the weather, your job.

So now that you’ve clicked (you’re nice, they’re really nice), how do you move forward?

Here are some ideas:

· Ask if they want to meet for coffee or tea at a coffee shop

A note about the bill: Don’t be surprised if the Muslim family (particularly a more recently-arrived immigrant family) offers to pay the entire tab. In many Middle-Eastern countries, the bill is never split. When friends routinely go out, one person in the group will pick up the tab, and another time, someone else will do it. It becomes fair in the long run because you eventually end up paying. It is generally understood that if you invite someone, you will want to pay, even though there will generally be jostling for the bill. Things are a bit different in the US depending on how long the Muslim family has been here. Those people that have been here for many years are familiar with each person/couple paying for their own tab; people who are relatively new to the US will find splitting the bill a bit unusual.

· Invite them for tea (or coffee) to your house

This is an easy arrangement. Serve tea or coffee plus pastries and maybe some fruit. You can add savories if you like. The point is a to create a comfortable environment so you can chat and get to know one another. Be careful if you serve pie, that the crust has not been made with lard, which is a pork product. Check the ingredients of store-bought cookies, etc. to make sure they contain no lard (or alcohol).

· Arrange play dates with the kids

If you have young children who go to school with Muslim children, you can arrange a play date at your house. Like many parents, Muslim families are protective of their children. You can invite the parent to come along with the child and make it a play date/parent tea.

· Invite the Muslim friend/neighbor/family for a meal (lunch, dinner, barbecue)

Relax. Anything you prepare will be fine. Just be careful of ingredients. No alcohol. No pork products. To be safe, you can serve fish or keep it vegetarian. If you want to serve meat of any kind, buy it from the “halal” meat market and be sure to tell your guest that it’s “halal”. Be sensitive about your dog. Fido may be a member of your family, but think of Fido as being temporarily very muddy, as in tracking in lots of dirt and mud. As noted above, many Muslims get nervous around dogs because if a dog touches their clothing, they cannot pray in that outfit until it is washed. Think of it as Fido getting mud all over your guest’s clothes.

After all that chatting and eating and bragging about your kids, you will find that your Muslim neighbor shares much the same joys and concerns as you. Your Muslim neighbor will also be grateful to you for having reached out. The hope is to develop relationships that bridge the divide created by unfamiliarity and bring out the very humanity in each and every one of us.

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