In My Own Words: Ignorance, fear and hate by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I’ve read many novels that offer a view of the inner life of Christians. However, the young adult novel “No True Believers” by Rabiah York Lumbard (Crown) is one of the few I’ve read to present a serious look at the internal world of an American Muslim. I asked for a review copy of the book because, while I’m well aware of religious prejudice against Jews in our country, I wanted to learn more about the way prejudice has impacted the lives of a different religious minority.

What I received did just that: readers learn what it is like to be mistreated by those in your school who dislike Muslims – who hold you responsible for anything any Muslim does, even if you don’t agree with their politics or religious practice. In fact, no one cares enough to ask you what you think: prejudice exists because you are considered a representative of your group. Jews are very familiar with that idea: I grew up in a world where the first question asked, when someone assassinated a president or did anything awful, was, “Are they Jewish?” There was an enormous sigh of relief if they were not because that meant we were safe.

While I did experience some antisemitism when I was in high school, it was nothing like what Salma, the main character of “No True Believers,” experiences. All that happened to me was some rude and ignorant talk and, fortunately, much of that wasn’t done to my face. Salma’s experience includes physical violence. The principal of her school is no help. In fact, he seems to approve of what occurred. (I actually have no idea what the principal of my high school would have done because I never thought to talk to him or anyone else at the school about antisemitic comments.)

What was wonderful about the novel was learning of Salma’s attempts to put her religion into practice by acting in a caring way toward those who dislike her, to not make assumptions about people she doesn’t know and to try to bring herself close to Allah through all her actions. Her attempts, which did not always succeed, were inspiring because she allowed herself to learn from her failures.

Salma (and the author) notes what happens when people are ignorant of each other’s religious practices. That ignorance becomes fear, a fear of the unknown. Then it’s far too easy for fear to morph into hatred. That’s when all members of a group are lumped together; that’s what made people see Selma and all Muslims as potential terrorists. This is what drives the novel’s plot, parts of which are more convincing than others.

What is convincing, though, is the portrait of Salma as a loving, caring, flawed individual who is trying to better herself through her religious beliefs. The author notes that the Islamaphobia directed at her and her husband caused them to move from the United States to the United Arab Emirates. That is a sad commentary on our country. It’s one thing to move to another country to more easily practice your religion; that’s one reason people make aliyah to Israel. It’s another to leave the U.S. because you feel persecuted.

Ignorance, fear and hatred: there is far too much of those in our world. We need to open ourselves to each other’s faiths – to gain knowledge about each other in order to understand what we have in common. You can do that by joining an interfaith group that allows for open dialogue. You can also read “No True Believers” to hear one woman speak about prejudice.