At JFK airport, Muslim cab drivers have a Mecca-facing mat for prayers five times a day. (NYT)














































































































Checkered Theology

Want a free crash course in Islam? Just hail the right New York City cab.

By Jason Byassee

“You’re a Christian, a journalist, and you’re going to the Holy Land? Can you believe what the Jews are doing to the land of Jesus?”

So began the rant of my cabbie, Rashid, en route to JFK, where I was scheduled to board a flight for Jordan. “They reject every prophet who comes to them!” Rashid went on. “Moses, Elijah, Jesus, and now they have this Jesus for Jews, Jews for Jesus? They think that is going to work?”

“Are you a Muslim?” I ask.

“Insha’Allah al Rahman al... If it is God’s will—he the merciful, the magnificent... I can’t just say I’m a Muslim, but I hope to be--to submit to God’s path, but only if God is merciful. I do too much wrong—when I say ‘f___ you’ to another driver, I need mercy. When I smile and am kind, then I am a Muslim.”

I ask what Muslims think of Jordan. “They think it’s run by a dictator, just like every Muslim country.” So much for the more common view that King Abdullah is a western-friendly, anti-extremist, modern monarch. “He’s not even Jordanian is he? Isn’t his mother English? I heard King Hussein’s brother Hasan was to be king, until George Bush got him to change succession to his son Abdullah the day before he died.” Parts of this are true—Abdullah’s mother was English and Hussein did change his successor just before his death. The rest is the sort of slander one commonly hears in the Arab world, where word of mouth is more trusted than the regime-sponsored journalism parading as truth.

As if sensing my growing anxiety as a captive audience, Rashid reassures me. “Now I don’t like extremists. Islam is peaceful—you can’t be violent in the name of peace. Most Arabs hate the extremists more than they hate their dictators. But if they get fed up enough they might prefer the extremists, just to say ‘f___ you.’ That’s why everyone likes Ahmadinejad—he says ‘f___ you’ to Bush and the Jews.” Not a bad description of Iran’s foreign policy.

Wouldn’t more democratic elections bring more extremists to power?

“Absolutely—look what happened in Palestine. If you have elections it’ll be Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. That’s why we need a strong leader—a king. The king needs to care for his people. He needs to see that all his people have eaten and are safe before he goes to bed at night.”

What does Rashid think of his king, Muhammed II of Morocco?

“He’s s___. I love America. Here I can say, ‘f___ Bush,’ and they won’t lock me up. It’s not like here.”

You love this country even with your opinion of its policy toward Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel?

“I came to this country with $80 in my pocket. Now I have money, good work, I help my mother back home. My mother loves this country more than Morocco.”

Really? Even with its treatment of Arabs since 9/11?

“This country gets confused. It preaches freedom of the press, then it bombs Al-Jazeera in Iraq. Or was it Afghanistan?”


“And Al-Jazeera is just a free, Arab press. But this country has too strong a foundation to fall. When it goes wrong it comes back. It’s not like China—when its economy dies down it’ll be s___ again. I love this country.”

Rashid’s patriotism would certainly surprise the xenophobes who would close the borders and make him carry special Muslim-only ID. While his anti-Judaism is troubling, part of what he loves about America is its openness to the exchange of opinions, however volatile. Arab culture generally is open to raucous and freewheeling debate. They charge right into the matters we westerners avoid in polite conversation—religion and politics.

The key question is whether Rashid can be brought around. He is such a curious combination of anti-Jew and anti-American on the one hand, and pro-American/capitalism/democracy on the other, that it’s tough to clarify any issues, let alone convert him by way of what we call reason.

But that doesn’t matter. Our brief ride to the airport has, in Rashid’s mind and culture, bonded us forever. As I’m getting out of the cab, he sends me off with some advice. “When you say ‘Salaam Alaikum,’ wait until the man looks you in the eye, smiles, and says, ‘Alaikum Salaam.’ Some Muslims won’t do that—but they should for you, my friend, my brother.”

I press a few extra bucks into his hand and wave goodbye.

“Hey!” he yells after me. “You tipped me too much!”


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Jason Byassee is an assistant editor at The Christian Century. His last piece for SoMA was True Grace.


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