My cousin was a prisoner in Abu Ghraib, the notorious American torture camp in Iraq. Not because he had committed any crime or was part of the insurgency resisting we foreign occupiers, but because my fellow Americans, in their desperate desire to win the war, arbitrarily swept up everyone they could. He languished in the prison for a year while being abused and tortured by young American soldiers. They would force him to stand in place for hours, deprive him of sleep, and attempt to humiliate him by not allowing him to relieve himself in the bathroom. When they would allow him to use the bathroom, they would throw open the door so he would have no privacy.
When he was not in prison, he lived through the horrors of the war: corpses lining the streets, some desecrated, as American soldiers liked to take body parts - especially ears - as trophies of war. What to us was nameless and faceless "collateral damage" to him was human and real, flesh and bone, legs and torsos, earth drenched in blood and faces frozen in anguish.
My cousin narrowly escaped death. He was visiting his neighbors and left their house shortly before a bomb was dropped. Their home was destroyed and everyone killed. He hadn't gotten far when he saw the explosion and rushed back to see if he could save any of them. In the destruction all he found were mutilated bodies. Our type of war is impersonal, so it is especially cruel.
I admired my cousin before I met him. I’d always only heard good things about him. My mother speaks of him with love because he loves and cares for her like she was his own. He is humble and hard working. He is God conscious. Through her - by reputation - I had come to love him too.
This past summer, when I had a chance to spend time with him, I asked him about his life. I wanted - I want - to know him better. I have come to admire him even more. I see in his words and actions thoughtfulness, kindness and caring. I see a man who is psychologically resilient, stable and strong. Fifteen years of living under cruel sanctions and two American wars plus a year of injustice and torture in prison did not erase his grace, compassion or humor. He has not developed PTSD like so many of my fellow Americans suffer from after just one tour of duty. I look at him and I am humbled and I am grateful for the life I have.
In my view, my cousin is a man of grace. I do not see how anyone can experience all of the horrors he has and remain - if not by grace - loving, compassionate and considerate. Yet he - like me and everyone else - is multi dimensional. In this case, one of his dimensions is that he believes that gays should be thrown to their death and their corpses stoned.
He doesn’t seem to believe this in a vigilante sense. I don’t think he would join a posse to round up the fags and kill them. I don’t think he would ever personally hurt anyone unless in self defense. He seems to believe in “live and let live.”
My cousin’s belief seems to to be that in a more perfect, more just society, the government - in addition to guaranteeing peace, security and order, in addition to caring for the poor and providing general social services to those in need - would kill anyone who is openly gay.
His belief doesn't phase me and it doesn’t change my view of him. I know he's not cruel. I know he's not evil. I know he’s not…whatever bad thing you might be thinking. I know he doesn’t hate me. I know he offered to pick me up from the airport very early in the morning and drop me off on way back despite working two full time, labor intensive, exhausting jobs. He did so deliberately, intentionally, purposefully, altruistically, just to be good. Because that is what family does. That is how blood family - and the broader human family - are meant to treat each other.
I don’t know what to make of his beliefs. They came up casually in a conversation over Ramadan Iftar as we were all breaking our fast. As someone who believes in a personal engaged, co-creative God, I wonder what lesson God wants me to take away from this experience? At the very least, it teaches me to put into practice the Qur’an’s admonition to not let feelings get in the way of doing good for others, if it causes no harm.
I also feel and hope that I am graced. I wonder what it means that two people who seem conscious of God have such divergent views? It reminds me of Lincoln’s word from his second inaugural address: “both may be wrong, but both cannot be right.” It reminds me to be humble and to continue searching.
I wonder how he would react if he knew I was gay? I imagine he wouldn’t comprehend it. I imagine it would seem like a paradoxical impossibility. I am a Muslim who - by the grace of God - prays five times a day, fasts, abstains from intoxicants, reads the Qur’an, has gone to Hajj, gives alms and is also comfortable marrying a man. That is an uncommon mix.
I don’t think I care how he would react. I have no reason to. We are linked and he will always be family, but we live half a world apart, which means our lives are not deeply intertwined. Also, my life is objectively easier than his, so I have the bandwidth to be compassionate and understanding and bridge the gap. True mercy and compassion are demonstrated from a position of power. It is when we have the ability to retaliate or to withhold but choose not to that we show who we are.