The Care of Freedom


    by Lewis Brett Smiler
    September 5, 2019
    Originally published in Scarlet Leaf Review, August 2019

    Mr. Lawson still had Jimmy’s bicycle.  It had been in the garage gathering dust, as the old man could not bear to give it away.  He could not bear to give away anything that belonged to his son.  Jimmy died fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, but his memory must live on.  Mr. Lawson hoped to see the day when the Muslim enemy was finally defeated once and for all.  Yet, much to his horror, this same enemy was now trying to take over the very town where he lived.  The Muslims wanted to open a mosque at the local shopping center, right across from his favorite supermarket.  Nothing could be scarier.

    Every Monday evening, the town council held a meeting and residents were welcome to speak for five minutes on any topic.  Mr. Lawson was going to warn the council about the dangers of a mosque.  He would explain that Muslims were a vicious breed, supporting violence and terrorism, and had no place in any Christian society.  The old man thought of the cancer that quickly consumed his wife many years ago.  If a mosque opened in town, the Muslim menace could spread across the community with the same dangerous speed.  Mr. Lawson needed to send a message loud and clear that the town’s identity was at stake, but it might not be so easy.  The more he thought about the town council meeting, the more his anxiety grew.

    Would the town council heed his warnings?  Would they vote against the mosque?  There were times when Mr. Lawson wanted to move away and not deal with these battles.  Now that he was retired, he was free to go anywhere he wanted.  But he could not stop thinking about what Eisenhower said, “History does not long entrust the care of freedom to the weak or the timid.”  This quote had inspired Jimmy to join the service and now served as a reminder to Mr. Lawson.  Jimmy saw freedom as an ongoing fight and would never give in to cowardice.  He would have expected nothing less from his father.

                Mr. Lawson struggled to prepare a speech for the council meeting.  He had been praised time and again for his carpentry skills, but his writing left much to be desired.  Organizing thoughts on a paper had always been a chore for him.  If Jimmy was around, he could have helped assemble a speech.  In fact, Jimmy would have probably given the speech for him.  Mr. Lawson pushed that thought out of his head.  He was going to give the speech himself and must find someone to assist him.

    He remembered Mrs. Rosen, Jimmy’s favorite teacher.  She probably knew better than anyone how severe the Muslim threat was.  There was no question that she would assist Mr. Lawson with his mission.  He called her on the phone.  They spent quite a few minutes discussing Jimmy before Mr. Lawson brought up the issue at hand.

                “Mr. Lawson, have you ever met a Muslim before?” asked the teacher.

                “Thankfully I haven’t.  But I see them around town  . . .”

                “My next-door neighbors are Muslim,” said Mrs. Rosen.  “Some of their customs seem different, but they are just ordinary people like you and me.  Their son Baraa is constantly asking me questions about American history.  He was born in America and wants to learn more about his country.”  Mr. Lawson was too shocked to speak.  He could not believe that Mrs. Rosen was treating Muslims as regular Americans.  Did she forget that Jimmy died fighting them?

                “Your son greatly admired Eisenhower,” the teacher continued.  “Are you aware that he was the first U.S. president to visit an American mosque?”

                “That’s not possible.  Our country did not have Muslims back then.”

                “What makes you think that?  We’ve had Muslims in the United States since colonial times.”

                “Nonsense!’’

                “Mr. Lawson, the library has an excellent book on Eisenhower, and I strongly recommend checking it out.  If you get out a pen and paper, I’ll give you the title.  You’ll see that Eisenhower really did visit a mosque in Washington.”  Mrs. Rosen’s comments were becoming quite bizarre.  Was this the same brilliant teacher who inspired Jimmy all those years ago?  Perhaps it was, but something had clearly changed.  Could she have some form of dementia?   Mr. Lawson was glad that she had retired last year, as she was clearly not fit to teach anymore.  Jimmy would have been horrified to see how Mrs. Rosen had declined.

                Mr. Lawson began to wonder who else might be able to help him write a speech for the town council.  Perhaps he did not need to have a prewritten speech.  He began to remember all the conversations he had with the young people in town.  Mr. Lawson had convinced quite a few high school students to start giving blood once they came of age.  He did not need to follow a script to persuade them.  All that he needed to do was speak from the heart, to explain how their donations save the lives of fellow Americans.  The old man was passionate about helping the sick and injured, and others could feel that passion.  All that Mr. Lawson needed to do was show that same passion at the council meeting.   It did not matter if he was speaking to a few people or a whole audience.  The message would be just as effective.

    ***

    The week passed.  Mr. Lawson arrived early for the town council meeting but saw there was already a small group of Muslims there.  Their exotic clothes made them impossible to miss.  They might be able to intimidate some people, but not Mr. Lawson.  They were not going to stop him from speaking the truth.  “History does not long entrust the care of freedom to the weak or the timid.”  Mr. Lawson thought of Eisenhower’s words whenever he felt nervous.  Those same words had been such a source of strength to Jimmy.

    The meeting went on for almost an hour before residents were invited to make public comments.  Muslims began walking up to the podium, all speaking about their need for a mosque.  They mentioned supporting the food pantry and raising money for the town library, but Mr. Lawson did not pay attention to their lies.  All that they cared about was promoting terrorism and everything else was just an act.  Hopefully, the town council would be smart enough to see it.

    Mr. Lawson turned his head for a moment and noticed that Zak was sitting a few rows behind him.  They waved to each other.  During the past few months, he and Zak had frequently volunteered together at the blood bank.   What was Zak doing at tonight’s council meeting?  Did he attend meetings regularly or was he also there to oppose the mosque?  Mr. Lawson could definitely use his support.  The more voices there were to oppose the mosque, the better.

    The old man watched as Zak walked up to the podium.  He seemed a little nervous.

    “My name is Zakaria, and I’m another member of the local Muslim community.”  Mr. Lawson could not believe what he just heard.  Did Zak actually say that he was a Muslim?  How could that be?  Zak always talked like a regular American and wore regular American clothes.  Mr. Lawson watched in horror as Zak spoke about the similarities between a mosque and a church.  Was this the same Zak that he often volunteered with?

    The surprises did not end there.  Another man, also wearing normal American clothes, walked up to the podium and introduced himself as a Muslim.  His face looked so familiar.  Mr. Lawson soon realized that he was one of the regular platelet donors at the blood bank.  Platelets had far more value than whole blood, but they also took significantly longer to donate.  Yet, this man would sit patiently for two hours with a needle in his arm, dedicated to saving as many cancer patients as he could.  How could he possibly be a Muslim?   How could any blood donors be Muslim?   Muslims celebrated the deaths of Americans.

    Mr. Lawson suddenly felt pale, unsure if he would be able to talk.  Other residents spoke on an assortment of municipal issues, but the retired carpenter was too stunned to say anything.  Was he failing Jimmy by staying silent?  Was he too timid to fight the Muslim menace?  How could he speak against the people he knew and worked with?  This was not a scenario Mr. Lawson had prepared for.

                The meeting came to an end without the council reaching a decision on the mosque.  The vote would come at a future meeting, possibly next Monday.  

                “Are you okay, Mr. Lawson?” asked Zak.

                “I’m doing fine,” the old man responded.  He was telling Zak a huge lie.  Mr. Lawson felt anything but fine, as the world that he knew was rapidly falling apart.

    ***

    The next morning, Mr. Lawson visited the local library and checked out the book on Eisenhower.  It seemed Mrs. Rosen was telling the truth.  In 1957 President Eisenhower had actually visited a brand new mosque in Washington, D. C.  He referred to the Muslims as “my Islamic friends” and welcomed them as regular Americans.  Eisenhower said that America would fight for their freedom to worship as they wished.  Mr. Lawson felt nauseous as he read the president’s speech.  Was this the same Eisenhower whom Jimmy had admired?

    Many questions raced through Mr. Lawson’s head.   Jimmy had given his life fighting the Muslim enemy.  How would he have felt if he knew about the mosque visit?  Jimmy had to have been aware, as he had studied Eisenhower so intently.  How come Eisenhower’s actions never bothered him?  The more Mr. Lawson thought about it, the more puzzled he was.  There was only one person who might be able to help him, and that was Mrs. Rosen.  He decided to call her again.

    “You were right,” Mr. Lawson told the teacher.  “The book says that Eisenhower welcomed a mosque in Washington.  But how could that be . . . Eisenhower was a smart president . . . Didn’t he know what Muslims were about?”

    “Do you remember when Eisenhower was elected?” Mrs. Rosen asked.

    “Yes, I do . . . But I was only a boy then, too young to vote.”

    “What did you think of Muslims back then?”  Mr. Lawson was silent for a moment.  This was not a question he was expecting.

    “I didn’t know that Muslims existed.”

    “And why didn’t you know?”

    “Mrs. Rosen, will you stop with the questions!  I want to know why Eisenhower welcomed the Muslims as friends . . . Why did he welcome terrorists into our country?”

    “Because most Muslims aren’t terrorists,” explained Mrs. Rosen.  “Most Muslims in the United States lead ordinary lives like we do.  But you don’t hear about them on the news . . . they don’t offer enough drama for the news to care about.  The news is important, Mr. Lawson, but it doesn’t tell you everything . . .”

    “I learned a lot from Jimmy,” the old man interrupted.  “He used to write me about the Taliban . . . how brutal they were.”

    “The Taliban are brutal,” said the teacher, “but they don’t represent all Muslims.  Your son was fighting to free the Afghan people from Taliban oppression.  Are you aware they were also Muslim?”

    “I hadn’t thought about it . . .”

    “The Taliban were brutal to other Muslims who did not support their ideology  . . . Tell me, Mr. Lawson, do all Christians have the exact same beliefs?”

    “Definitely not . . . “

    “It’s the same with Muslims.”  Mr. Lawson was not sure how to respond.  The world was definitely becoming more complicated.

    “I strongly encourage you to talk with the Muslims here in town,” the teacher continued.  “Find out what they believe.  You’ll discover that they are quite different from the Taliban or many of those other violent groups.  If you’re interested, I can introduce you to my neighbors next-door.”

    “You mentioned them last week,” said Mr. Lawson.  “What are they like?”  

    “They’re wonderful people.  When I went to visit my sister in Toronto, they took care of my cats.  Did I mention their son Baraa?  He is constantly keeping me on my toes.”

    “How so?”

    “He is asking me questions about all the different presidents and why they made certain decisions.  I can’t tell how you many times he asked about the Supreme Court and what they do . . . ”  Mr. Lawson was feeling very uncomfortable.  This Muslim boy was sounding too much like Jimmy.

                “Mrs. Rosen, I need to get going but . . . but I want to thank you for all your time.”  The old man could not wait to hang up the phone.  He had hoped that Mrs. Rosen would resolve his confusion, but she only made it worse.  Perhaps he should just stay away from council meetings and not worry about Muslims.  It might be the best option.  His expertise was carpentry, not history or geography or any of those other social studies.  He should just stick with what he knew and leave everything else alone.

    But then Mr. Lawson thought again about Jimmy.  His son always wanted to understand the world, not run from it.  In two days, Mr. Lawson would be volunteering at the blood bank again.  Zak would probably be working with him.  Was he going to run away from Zak?  Was he going to run away from all the donors who might be Muslim?  No, that was not an option.

    Mr. Lawson recalled the many conversations he had with Zak.  They discussed everything from the price of gasoline to the trouble with bird feeders.  Zak would always spoil the donors with too many cookies and once worried when there was a low turnout.  Mr. Lawson never noticed anything strange or exotic about Zak and, as much as he tried, he could not visualize Zak as a terrorist.  He knew Zak to be a good person, just as good as any Christian.  Perhaps Mrs. Rosen was right.  Maybe there were different types of Muslims and not all of them were the enemy.  Mr. Lawson reached into his drawer and went through a mess of papers.  He hoped that he would find Zak’s phone number around somewhere.  There were many questions he wanted to ask.

    ***

                “Do you go to church every Sunday?” Zak asked.

                “Yes, every Sunday,” responded Mr. Lawson.  “If I miss one Sunday in a year, it’s highly unusual.”  The retired carpenter realized that he might have exaggerated a bit.

                “I go to the mosque every Friday,” said Zak.  “This is when we have our community prayer service.  How would you like to come with me this Friday?”  Mr. Lawson did not know how to answer.  He never expected anyone to invite him to a mosque.

                “You’d be very welcome there,” Zak continued.  “We always welcome visitors.”

                “Are you sure of this?”  Mr. Lawson took a deep breath.  “I guess if Eisenhower visited a mosque, I can certainly do the same.”

    The old man could feel the anxiety building up.  In just a few days, he would be accompanying Zak to uncharted territory.  This was nothing compared to the dangers Jimmy faced in Afghanistan.  He had to keep reminding himself that.

                It was late Friday morning when Zak picked Mr. Lawson up at his house.  The nearest mosque was a forty-five minute drive.  Mr. Lawson could not believe Zak had to drive this far every Friday for a prayer service.  It made sense why he wanted to open a new mosque in town.  Mr. Lawson pushed the thought out of his head.  He still could not bear the idea of a mosque near his house.

    Zak pulled into the parking lot of the mosque where he prayed.  Mr. Lawson carefully eyed the building design.  Instead of having a cross on the top like a church, the mosque had what looked like the moon.  Zak explained that it was a crescent, the symbol of Islam.  When Mr. Lawson walked inside, he was shocked to see that the prayer room did not have any chairs.  There were a few seats in the back, but not much else.  It was nothing like a church.

    He was told to take off his shoes and place them on a shelf.  Zak said that this was a standard practice in all mosques.  Mr. Lawson wanted to ask more about this custom, but he did not get a chance.  Other Muslim men, some dressed in exotic attire, were walking over to greet him.  “As-salāmu ‘alaykum.”  Their voices sounded friendly, but what did those words mean?

                “It’s an Arabic phrase,” explained Zak.  “It means ‘peace be upon you.’”  A bearded man walked over with a bottle of cologne and sprinkled a few drops on Mr. Lawson’s hand.  “He wants to share a good scent with you . . . it’s a way of showing hospitality.”

                “Salami li kum,” said Mr. Lawson.  He was not sure if he was pronouncing the phrase correctly, but the bearded man smiled.  Another man started asking Mr. Lawson questions about himself and his family.  Before long, he overheard someone discussing the Taliban.  Much to his amazement, the people at the mosque hated the Taliban as much as he did.

    “They are not Muslims,” one person said.  “They don’t know what it means to be a true Muslim.”

                It was soon time for the prayer service to start.  Standing in the back of the room, Mr. Lawson watched with fascination as seventy to eighty Muslims kneeled to the floor.  Some were wearing business suits, some dressed casually, and others had foreign clothing.  It was hard to make sense of all their strange rituals but, once the imam gave his sermon, the retired carpenter felt surprisingly at home.  The imam spoke of treating everyone as equals, whether they are wealthy or poor.  He emphasized the importance of charity and cited passages from the Koran, the Muslim holy book.  Mr. Lawson noticed that the imam had a heavy foreign accent, but it did not seem to matter.  He could not believe how similar the talk sounded to a Christian sermon.

    The prayer service soon came to an end and many Muslims were now putting their shoes back on and leaving.  Mr. Lawson stood in shock, as the world he knew continued to change.  What was he going to say at the town council meeting?  The question continued to perplex him as he struggled to sleep that night.  The Muslims he met were good people and their mosque was a warm, friendly place.  How could he speak against them?  “History does not long entrust the care of freedom to the weak or the timid.”  Mr. Lawson kept trying to tell himself that he was not being timid.  If he fought against a mosque in his town, he would be fighting against freedom for fellow Americans.  This went against everything that Jimmy believed in.  The Muslims had just as much right to a mosque in town as Mr. Lawson had to his church.

    The next morning, he called Mrs. Rosen on the phone.  He wanted to tell her about his mosque visit but also had some questions regarding her Muslim neighbors.

    “What is the name of your neighbor’s son?” asked Mr. Lawson.

                “It’s Baraa,” answered the teacher.

                “Baraa  . . . I’ll try to remember that.  It’s an Arabic name?”

                “Yes.”

                “The way you described him before, he sounded so much like Jimmy . . . I would like to meet the family.”

                “I’ll speak with them tonight,” replied Mrs. Rosen.  “Would you prefer an evening or a weekend?”

                “Most evenings are good.”  Mr. Lawson then spent quite a few minutes describing his mosque visit while Mrs. Rosen had plenty to say about her neighbors, particularly Baraa.  The conversation eventually ended and the old man went back to his usual chores.  He was about to take a much-needed nap, but then an idea came to him.  Mr. Lawson returned to the telephone and called Mrs. Rosen back.

                “Does Baraa have a bicycle?” he asked.

                “Not yet,” the teacher responded.  “But I know that he badly wants one.  He recently asked me about the history of bicycles . . . he wanted to know when they first became popular.”

                “I’d be happy to give him Jimmy’s bicycle,” interrupted Mr. Lawson.  “It’s been gathering dust for much too long.”

                “That’s very generous of you, Mr. Lawson.”

                “If Baraa doesn’t know how to ride, I can teach him.  I’ll make time.”  After hanging up the phone, Mr. Lawson proceeded to the garage and started cleaning the bicycle.  He could not wait to see Baraa riding the bike around the neighborhood, for it would be a wonderful way to honor Jimmy’s memory.

    © 2019 Charter for Compassion. All rights reserved.

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