The Old Testament’s story of Joseph; an epic in jealousy and betrayal, slavery, adultery, and ending in forgiveness and reconciliation can read like a Hollywood blockbuster. The central character, Joseph (Yusef, in Hebrew and Yosuf, in Arabic) is similarly revered in Islam; his plight of being favored by his father only to be hated by his brothers, who conspire to get rid of him by making up his death and selling him as a slave to a caravan headed for Egypt, where he rejects his master’s wife’s advances – the biblical version of sexual harassment – but ends up being accused of adultery and imprisoned is similarly repeated in the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book. Once saved from the dungeon, Joseph – an immigrant, in today’s terms – is seen by Egypt’s Pharaoh as a wise man filled with God’s spirit and appointed to a position of power. Joseph, the outsider, advises the Egyptians to save food during the years of abundance, to use later when the seven-year famine hits Egypt. In short: It is the universal story of a grateful immigrant returning the favor offered him by the host nation by saving the Egyptians from certain devastation.

Columnist Michael Gerson’s often-quoted comment that immigrants “are not just mouths but hands and brains,” could as well be about Joseph!

There are other well-known ancient Middle Eastern refugees mentioned in the sacred texts common to Jews, Christians, and Muslims: Abraham, Moses, Mary, Jesus, Hagar (Hajar, to Muslims) and Mohammed, each crossing borders in one time or another in search of safety and security, food – or water in case of Hajar, Islam’s esteemed single mother – or following a divine promise. Mohammed, persecuted for speaking of the oneness of God in a city of idol-worshippers, was chased away from Mecca, Islam’s birthplace, to find refuge in Medina.

Millenniums later, we watch Syrian refugees fleeing horrifying violence only to face, with a few exceptions, a wary and hostile Europe and lately a divided America, unwilling to offer protection, spooked by a campaign of fear-mongering, a common tactic by the Republicans during elections (who could forget the case of Willie Horton, a black man, during the 1988 presidential election?) that nags us to see the displaced women and children of Syria as potential terrorists.

While the Republican presidential candidate, a self-declared conservative Christian, divides the nation and pits one community against another by dehumanizing refugees, people with disabilities and immigrants and exaggerates the fallacy of the American Muslims, a mere 1 percent of the total U.S. population, taking over America. There’s a need for us, the children of Abraham, Sarah and Hajar, to revisit the parts of the holy scripture common to us all, which asks us to show mercy and love to our neighbors, old and new, Mexicans and Muslims included.

The separation of church/synagogue/mosque/temple and state, itself a cherished American value, aside America’s diverse faith communities could find valid reasons; the Golden Rule principles dictating “bear no grudges against others”; protection of the society’s vulnerable; remembering the mass murder of innocents in the Nazi Germany; our genuine and common love for America and its values, to organize as a force to stop the politics of division and intolerance that’s gripping the nation, clouding the citizens’ judgment while staining the nation’s soul.


As Golden Rulers, we could set aside our theological differences, as significant as they are, temporarily to stand up to such tyranny. A coalition of like-minded people of all faith traditions, and atheists, could defy those seeking chaos. Change begins with us: Walls will be built should we fail to dismantle the walls encircling our own hearts, trapping the love stored there for others.

In Joseph’s story and those of other refugees in the Judo-Christian-Islamic traditions – Abraham, Moses, the pregnant Mary escaping King Herod’s soldiers, and Mohammed – the outcome could have been different if they were not protected from harm by strangers.

Often the mystery of religion is found in the stories and miracles, which have the magical power to help us escape, unscathed, the evil of the time we live in. With American society facing a famine of human decency during the current election season, we each could play the role of Joseph to save this great country from a possible political calamity.

Reza Jalali advises multicultural and Muslim students at the University of Southern Maine and Bowdoin College. He’s the author of “Homesick Mosque and Other Stories.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: