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March 21st, 2016 at 7:22 AM

Muslim Like Me | Powered by Love, Acceptance, and Coffee

‘I Was Neutral Like Switzerland When it Came to Islam.’

Jaime Banyalmarjeh, photographed at home. (Photo: Lara Shipley | Flatland)
Jaime Banyalmarjeh, photographed at home. (Photo: Lara Shipley | Flatland)

According to the Pew Research Center, Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world, and Muslims currently make up just less than 1 percent of the total U.S. population. Pew projects the numbers of Muslims in America to grow to 2.1 percent of the population by the year 2050. What these findings suggest is that Islam, like all religious traditions, is not an ethnicity, race, or Facebook status — but is a very personal choice. Jaime Banyalmarjeh is profiled and photographed here as part of a week-long series on being Muslim, from KCPT and the Beyond Belief project.

Jaime Banyalmarjeh, a Kansas City high school social studies teacher at the Islamic School of Greater Kansas City, admits that when it comes to labors of love, she has a hard time saying no. She once agreed to board 17 goats for a friend.

“He had dreams of making goat cheese and I fell in love with the stupid goats,” she says.

Witty one moment, serious the next, Banyalmarjeh has enough energy to raise six children, enjoy one grandchild, and says she has cared for as many as seven horses at one time.

“I am powered by espresso,” she jokes.

But she is clearly powered by something much greater than triple-shot lattes. Banyalmarjeh and her husband, Fadi Banyalmarjeh, a Syrian Muslim whom she met at the age of 19, have five boys, one girl, one granddaughter, many horses, and as evidenced by her social media profiles, countless adventures.

While Banyalmarjeh is clearly not the kind of woman who is afraid to fall in love, Islam was not exactly her first love.

“People think I became a Muslim because of my husband, but nothing could be further from the truth,” she says. “When I got married I was neutral like Switzerland when it came to Islam. I was not a religious person. I did not identify with anything. I always thought religious people were way out in left field and most of them hypocrites. That’s where I was spiritually.”

Banyalmarjeh grew up in what she calls a United Nations family dynamic. Her family is German on both sides. In faith heritage, her mother’s side was Catholic; and on her father’s side Jewish.

“My family was so diverse,” says Banyalmarjeh. “We had Catholics, Buddhists, and Jews. We had it all.”

But Banyalmarjeh says she knew nothing of her Jewish heritage until her Uncle Jimmy casually mentioned it after 40 some years.

It was not exactly a secret, she says. “My father was just very secular and indifferent to religion. It just never came up.”

Her mother and her Uncle Jimmy were devout Catholics. So although her mother was very upset at hearing her daughter had become a Muslim, Banyalmarjeh says she knew everything was going to be OK when her beloved uncle responded with love and support.

Everything happens for a reason, she remembers him saying, and everything in her life had just led her to Islam.

Oddly enough, Banyalmarjeh says it was not her husband who drew her to Islam as much as it was a sequence of events, starting with her first trip to Syria. While dining in an outdoor restaurant with her in-laws, she saw a woman wearing a headscarf and smoking a cigarette.

“I was appalled,” she says. “She is not supposed to smoke!”

It was a kind of epiphany for her as she realized that she harbored her own prejudices against Muslim women. This led her to start asking the real questions about Islam.

The transition was gradual. One day Banyalmarjeh says she just got to the point that she just needed to make a commitment.

Banyalmarjeh had been working at AT&T since 1986, having started the job at the age of 17. And she reflects that it was probably difficult for her friends and colleagues of nine years to witness her transformation.

“I did not wear the headscarf right away,” she says. “I was extremely concerned with what everyone was going to say.”

One day in the spring of March 1995, after making her afternoon prayers, Banyalmarjeh simply did not remove her headscarf when she returned to her desk, as she customarily did after every prayer.

“I had one of those goose-bump moments,” she says. “So I just put away my prayer rug, put my headset on and said, ‘Thank you for calling AT&T,’” as if nothing had changed.

And nothing really had changed. Headscarf or not, she still loves animals, David Bowie, and she is really loving the Pope these days. In ways that remind her of her beloved Catholic Uncle Jimmy, the Pope, she says, is fast becoming the voice of a generation that seeks acceptance and love over judgment.

“I did not wear the headscarf right away. I was extremely concerned with what everyone was going to say.”

“I loved that ultimately only God is the judge in Islam,” she says, pointing out that while it’s human nature to be judgmental, most religions caution against our impulse to judge others. And Islam, she says, is no exception.

I asked Banyalmarjeh if she is fearful of what the future holds for Muslims in America, and she says that there is so much more good will than bad.

“It has not been my overall experience that most people are fearful,” she says. “Maybe I am naive.”

Or maybe she is just a woman who has turned her faith into a spiritual haven that can be both loving and accepting. Just like Uncle Jimmy.

Watch for an American Public Square panel discussion on being “Muslim in the Metro,” airing at 7:30pm, Friday, March 25, on KCPT’s Week In Review program (with a rebroadcast Sunday, March 27 at 11am). This story is part of the KCPT and Hale Center for Journalism project Beyond Belief, a series of stories and discussions about faith in our city. The project is part of Localore: Finding America, created by AIR, a Boston-based network of independent public media producers. Principle funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. 

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