Mr. Bari was the nicest guy that anyone would ever want to meet. For as long as anyone could remember, he owned the Bodega close to the school where kids went during lunch and after school to buy food and drinks. When they “forgot their lunch money” Mr. Bari would invariably trust them to bring it in the next day. He also ran a food pantry out of the back of his store. That way, people who accessed it could do so anonymously. The service was mostly for families or individuals who were down on their luck. They could pick up free canned food and other stuff—no questions asked.
But more important to the students was the fact that Mr. Bari funded a lot of worthy causes and special projects sponsored by the school. For example, it was a forgone conclusion that any fundraising effort that fell short could count on Mr. Bari to make up the shortfall. But now, one of the biggest tragedies the town had ever known insured that no one would ever benefit from Mr. Bari’s kindness again.
The whole debacle was prompted by the most recent terrorist attack in the US by a couple of young Muslims who had been radicalized online by a Middle East terrorist organization. That incident tapped into an ever-growing hatred of Middle Easterners—especially Muslims--that had been simmering just beneath the surface for a long time. This vitriol was localized in a conservative group of students who called themselves “The Real Americans.” They were proud to be fanatical about protecting the American Constitution—or at least their interpretation of it.
No one knew exactly who got the group started on its anti-Muslim sentiment. But their heated discussions soon turned into their belief that the only way to keep America safe was to get rid of all of the Muslims. After all, the radicals reasoned, weren’t terrorists simply Muslims trying to rid the world of all of the other religions?
The latest attack was the last straw and it catapulted the Real Americans onto the streets. It was obvious to them that the public at large didn’t have a clue as to what was really going on. Therefore, it was going to be up to the Real Americans to educate everyone. So, they spent several weeks putting together flyers, painting signs, making plans and getting permits to stage protests against the Muslims in the community. Fortunately, there was only one Mosque in town. Consequently, it wasn’t difficult to determine where the demonstration would take place.
The plan was to meet in front of the school on a Friday afternoon. Then everyone would march to the Mosque, waving their signs while chanting, “Muslims, go home!” Once they were in front of the Mosque, they would pass out the fliers that explained why it was imperative that all Muslims living in America pack up and go back to where they came from. If it looked as though the protest was making any headway, the Real Americans planned to camp out in the park across the street from the Mosque for the entire weekend.
By the time the protesters arrived, there were already several men praying in the Mosque.
In between chants for the Muslims to go home, the group sang patriotic songs like, God Bless America. Everything was going as planned until all of a sudden, an irate man came from out of nowhere. He was carrying a bottle in his right hand and a cigarette lighter in the other. “These guys don’t respond to peaceful demonstrations!” He raged. “If you want to deal with them you’ve got to fight fire with fire!”
Before anyone knew what was happening, the man bolted toward the front door of the mosque. He paused long enough to ignite the bottle with the lighter. Then he jerked the door open, tossed the flaming bottle inside where the men were praying. It all happened so fast.
There was a frantic commotion inside the Mosque followed by a loud explosion. The demonstrators scattered while a bystander called 911.
The next day, the newspapers reported a tragic fatality cause by a Molotov cocktail that had been thrown into the local mosque. The victim’s name was Ahmed Bari. The entire student body was in shock.
Unfortunately, Mr. Bari would not be the only casualty of the chain of events instigated by the Real Americans.
Mr. Peterson was one of the Junkroom Band’s best teachers ever. All of them had taken his history classes at one time or another and those classes were among their favorites.
Currently Sugar and Raj were studying World History with Mr. Peterson and they were in class the day after the disastrous demonstration. Mr. Peterson was setting up a media presentation about the Roman Empire while his students filed into the classroom. Predictably, their chatter centered on the loss of Mr. Bari.
One student lamented, “Who would have thought that Mr. Bari was a Muslim! He was such a good guy.” The other kids agreed.
Mr. Peterson stopped what he was doing. “Do you realize what you are saying?” he asked incredulously.
The students froze. Mr. Peterson’s combative demeanor took them aback. They had never seen him like that before. Immediately Mr. Peterson realized that he had been too heavy-handed, and he dialed it back.
“Let’s all just take our seats and get started.” He suggested calmly.
Once everyone was seated, Mr. Peterson directed an apology to the student who had made the offensive statement. “I didn’t mean to attack you, John, and I apologize if I offended you. It’s just that I am really saddened by the current hate campaign against Muslims. You wonder how Mr. Bari could be a Muslim and still be a good guy? The truth is, he was most likely a good guy because he was a Muslim.”
Mr. Peterson’s statement prompted his students to whisper among themselves. “Don’t tell me that you’re a Muslim too!” one boy muttered sarcastically under his breath—just loud enough for Mr. Peterson to hear.
Exasperated, Mr. Peterson replied. “No Cassidy, I am not a Muslim. But I have studied Islam, just as I have studied all of the World Religions. Mr. Bari’s generosity was a well-known fact that benefited all of us. But clearly, what was not as well-known was the fact that the Five Pillars of Islam could have motivated his generosity. If you are not aware of the Five Pillars, do yourself a favor and look them up before you jump on the hate-Muslims bandwagon.
At that point, Mr. Peterson opened his laptop, accessed the Internet, and began to read aloud.
One of the Five Pillars of Islam is Zakat or alms giving which is the practice of charitable giving based on accumulated wealth. Zakāt is the personal responsibility of each Muslim to ease the economic hardship of others and to strive towards eliminating inequality. Zakāt consists of spending a portion of one's wealth for the benefit of the poor or needy.”
Mr. Peterson closed his laptop. “If that doesn’t sound like what Mr. Bari was all about, I don’t know what does.”
The students sat silent. Then one boy piped up from the back of the classroom. “Do those Five Pillars include “Jihad?” he scoffed.
“As a matter of fact, no.” Mr. Peterson answered evenly. “Jihad as we know it today is an unacceptable practice by the majority of bonafide Muslims.”
“Look,” he continued. “I’m not pushing Islam. The fact is, I don’t belong to an organized religion. I’m just for anything that gets you through the night and helps you become a better person. Apparently, that’s what Islam did for Mr. Bari and all of us were the beneficiaries of his commitment.”
That afternoon when Sugar and Raj reported to the other band members what had gone on in Mr. Peterson’s class, little did they know that it wouldn’t be long before they would be saying goodbye to their beloved teacher.
After that fateful class, some parents developed growing concerns about what they referred to as Mr. Peterson’s “blatant atheism.” Other parents became concerned about his perceived “pro-Muslim sentiments.” These parents ventured, “Who knows if he’s going to stop with trying to turn our kids into Muslims?” What if he starts to radicalize them?” Their fears escalated, and they began to express their concerns to the school administrators—loudly.
Even though Mr. Peterson had tenure and could not be fired, the relentless taunts and persecution that his entire family suffered became too much for him and he finally gave up and resigned. The Junkroom Band members went to his office on the day he was packing up to leave. They helped him as much as possible but nothing they did could alleviate the sadness that hung in the air.
As the Junkroom Band members watched Mr. Peterson drive away from the campus for the last time, Sarah spoke softly. “I don’t support what the Real Americans stand for. But I do agree with them on one thing. Terrorists are everywhere, and we never know when they might hurt us. After all, just look at what the terrorists did to both Mr. Bari and Mr. Peterson.”