An Evangelical Christian Responds to Muslims

Feisal Abdul Rauf and Douglas Johnston. Photo Credit: Dialogue Institute
Feisal Abdul Rauf and Douglas Johnston. Photo Credit: Dialogue Institute

I was privileged recently to participate in a conference entitled “Islamophobia and Religious Freedom” at Temple University in Philadelphia.  The conference was sponsored, in part, by the organizations headed men whom I have had the pleasure of getting to know over the past few years – Dr. Douglas Johnston of The International Center for Religion and Diplomacy and Dr. Rick Love of Peace Catalysts International.

The primary purpose of the conference was to address the perpetual rift between Evangelical Christians and Muslims in the United States – two groups that seem to always be at intractable odds.  There were a number of excellent presentations by experts in various aspects of religion and religious freedom from both the Christian and Muslim faith traditions.  Some presentations covered sensitive topics of concern to the Christian and Muslim communities respectively; however, these topics were discussed in a much-needed spirit of brotherhood and reconciliation.

No participant at this conference was under the illusion that the fault lines between the evangelical Christian and Muslim communities are imagined.   This conference was not designed to have Christian and Muslim leaders come together, sing “Kumbaya”, and sweep the issues under the rug.  The purpose was just the opposite.

I had the pleasure of moderating an enlightening discussion concerning barriers to peaceful relations with Muslims, real and perceived, among Evangelical Christians.  The presentations focused on concerns about Islamic extremism in America, the persecution of Christians in some Muslim-majority countries, and the perceived failure of moderate Muslims to counter the extremist Islamic message.  These are serious topics and valid concerns among Evangelical Christians.  I would like to share my insights on each of these topics in the context of the presentations at this conference.

While media coverage implies that Islamic extremism is increasing and spreading in the Middle East, the facts do not support the notion of a rise in Islamic radicalism here in the United States.  According to Charles Kurzman of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, there have been over 190,000 murders in the United States.  Of those, 37 were committed by Muslim-American terrorists –  a miniscule percentage that certainly belies the notion of Islamic extremism infiltrating American society.

Many within Evangelical Christianity have asked “why do Muslims hate Christians so?” in response to the media reports of persecution of Christians in some Muslim-majority countries.  However, I can assure you that many Muslims ask the same question of Christians when they hear the vile general accusations toward Islam that are hurled by some prominent evangelical Christians.  Unfortunately, we heard stories of young Muslim children right here in the United States that have been beaten and ridiculed for their faith by other “normal” children.

The third topic in my panel discussion asked the question, “Where are the moderate Muslims?”  The fact of the matter is they are there and are vocal; however, as we all know, especially during the current election cycle, those that stand for peace are not as attractive to the media as those who advocate controversy.  As Sally Quinn of the “On Faith” blog of the Washington Post has said, “If it bleeds, it leads”.  Do we, as Evangelical Christians, feel the need to publicly condemn the Westboro Baptist Church each time they spew hate in the name of Christianity?  Or the hundreds of murders that occur across the United States every month committed by misguided individuals that happen to be from a Christian background?  We do not automatically make the connection between violent acts and a person’s religion in any context other than Islam.

Again, I do not pretend to believe that there are not issues between the two faiths that must be addressed head-on; however, I am dismayed at the seeming prejudice displayed by some in both faith traditions that imply that the two faiths are somehow incompatible and incapable of peace.  Honestly, I am not sure what lies behind that feeling among some – I am sure it is exceedingly complex.  I can only speak to the misunderstandings and enmity that originate within my faith tradition – Evangelical Christianity.

The challenge for Evangelicals in addressing these issues is that we tend to revert to our basest human natures which are clearly not in line with the teachings of Jesus Christ.  We do this out of a real or perceived fear.  Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves, whether they be black, white, Jewish, Islamic, or just like us.  What “loving someone” means has a number of different interpretations for different people; however, loving someone as ourselves leaves no doubt as to what we are commanded to do.  In doing anything other than this, we, as Christians, risk losing our Christian identity and betraying the Christian values that we claim to espouse.

How Does it Feel to Be Hated?

Imagine a scenario where a group of members of a congregation are heading to their church or church conference. They know before hand that awaiting them outside the church doors are men and women, armed with fully loaded guns and riffles, spitting out all kinds of racial slurs and religious slanders. How would that make you feel if you were one of those church members?

For Muslims, this scenario has become a daily reality. Muslims across the world, and across the different states and cities of our American nation, are facing this growing reality that not only disturbs their worldview and identity formation, but puts them physically and socially at risk.

For Dallas Muslims, this scenario has developed into a burdensome situation where they have been challenged with increasing religiously cloaked bigotry since the beginning of 2015. It all started with the terrorist attacks in Paris earlier in January and ended up in the battlefields of hatred on Texas grounds. A Muslim family event in Garland, Dallas vicinity, that took place in a conference building that belongs to the Garland Independent School District flared up the anger of conservative and fundamentalist groups who vowed on social media to stop the event. The Garland district did not give in to their requests to cancel the Muslim event because the building in question has always been used for functions outside the school district. The conservative groups started a campaign on social media asking people to demonstrate in front of the building on the day of the event. They showed up in hundreds, on their Harley Davidson bikes, with their rifles and guns fully loaded and unconcealed. They shouted at the Muslim families going into the building and threatened them, bullied them, and terrified them. They employed all kinds of racial slurs, religious bigotry and dirty language.

The Muslims in Dallas reacted right after they became aware of this anti-Muslim campaign. They planned a counter demonstration with signs expressing love and compassion as part of their religious tradition. They returned hatred with love. It took a lot of courage from these few Muslims who stood up bravely asserting their American identity and Muslim identity.

A few days later, Muslims were planning to take part in yet another annual event, the Muslim Day at Capitol Hill. Once again, bigots rallied online to stop this event. When they failed to have it cancelled, they stormed Austin and disrupted the Muslim event at Capitol Hill, right when American Muslim children were singing the national anthem. Muslims were told things like “don’t carry our American flags,” “all terrorists are Muslim,” and “go back home.” They were screamed at and assaulted…

The next day, a Muslim clergy and interfaith leader, Imam Bakhach, was invited to lead the prayer at the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo (30 miles from Dallas). The interfaith prayer was part of a 23 day program where faith leaders from different faith traditions were invited to pray at the event, in recognition of the religious diversity in Fort Worth as well as in the Stock Show. Many Rodeo fans were outraged and cried out against this inclusion with statements like “Muslim/Islam has no place in this country” and “I just will choose NOT to go somewhere that embraces a religion that wants me, my family and my people DEAD.” Imam Backhach was supposed to lead the prayer again on Monday but decided to cancel his participation saying, “I love Fort Worth. It really hurt me to see this reaction.”

That was a brief description of American Muslim realities today that may give you, the reader, an idea of how it may feel to be hated as a Muslim. However, Texas and America are not home to only bigots, for there are a lot of great patriots and awesome Christians and Jews and other peoples of faith who are standing up in solidarity with their Muslim countrymen and women. Take for example the event that took place last weekend at North Haven Methodist United Church where Muslims were called up and invited to the church to be recognized as neighbors and to be given a pledge of friendship and support. Members of other faith traditions, like Buddhists, have participated in that event that started with prayers, then Arabic musical instruments playing the song This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land, with the audience, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and others singing along.

So what is the Muslim response to religious bigotry attacking their religion in America. Love.  “Forgive them Father, for they do not know:” They are scared because they don’t know, because they lack the true knowledge, compassion, and courage to know. They hate us because they fear us. They fear us because they don’t know us, and they don’t wish to know us. Polls show that negative perceptions of Muslims and Islam increase among people who never met a Muslim. On the other hand, those who have a Muslim friend are more likely to have a positive image of the faith tradition. I extend an invitation to those who hate us to come to know us. Let us start a dialog with no strings attached. Let us listen to your deepest fears. Let us face our fears together.

I don’t hate those hatemongers; I feel pity for them. They have missed the real purpose of creation: diversity. Recalling the Qur’an, chapter 49, verse 13:

O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).

Lessons from History

On this day, the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in southern Poland,  I am reminded of the senselessness and bizarre nature of violence in the name of religion.  I visited Auschwitz in 1988 and was deeply moved by the spectre of what occurred there so many years ago.  The thought of men, women, and children murdered simply because they existed were haunting.  At the time of Auschwitz’s liberation, the horrors that came to light seemed to hold the promise of shocking some sense into the world.

However, as time passes and the events of the Holocaust fade further into the past, it seems as if the human race remembers nothing.  Have we forgotten the lessons of the past?

The recent events in Iraq and Syria involving the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and in Nigeria involving Boko Haram are of great concern to the West and rightfully so.  ISIS has singularly proven itself to be one of the most brutal and bloodthirsty organizations the world has ever known.  The horrifying images of hostages being brutally beheaded on video in the name of Islam threaten to further fan the flames of sectarian conflict in the Middle East.  A secondary, but no less troubling, byproduct of these images has been the hostile reaction of many Christians in the United States toward Islam, believing that Islam is accurately represented by the barbaric acts of ISIS.

As part of a Church symposium on Christian-Jewish relations in 1996, Pope John Paul II spoke of the historical misinterpretation of Christian theology used to demonize Jews.  He decried the moral “numbness” this caused in the larger Christian conscience as part and parcel of the lack of Christian resistance to the Holocaust.  Similarly, questioning the true nature of Islam in the context of the brutality of ISIS is heating up, especially in the United States against the backdrop of the September 11 terrorist attacks.  There have been examples of politicians, religious leaders, military officials, and celebrities publicly calling into question the integrity of Islam.

Public statements by some who align themselves with conservative Christianity, such as that of Retired General and Vice President of the Family Research Council Jerry Boykin, seem to encourage sectarian strife between Christians and Muslims in the United States.  Boykin recently implored Americans to “…have more babies and populate this country with red-blooded Americans” to counter the population growth of Muslims in the United States.  Boykin’s statements imply that Muslim Americans are not patriotic which follows a common fear among some conservatives of a massive conspiracy among American Muslims to infiltrate American society in the hopes of establishing Islam as the dominant ideology.

The precursor to Kristallnacht in 1939 Nazi Germany was the assassination of German diplomat Ernst von Rath by a young Jew despondent over his family’s forced emigration from Germany to Poland.  Hitler used this act by one person as a pretext to increase wholesale persecution of an entire race writing, “for once the Jews should get the feel of popular anger”.

While the publicity that some public figures have received recently is concerning in terms of the impact their generalizations may have on uninformed listeners, I believe there is an opportunity to foster interfaith dialogue in this hostile environment.  The brutality of ISIS and Boko Haram is prompting Muslim advocacy groups in the United States to disassociate themselves and their understanding of Islam from the twisted theology these two groups use to justify their actions.  There has been a significant increase in such statements from Muslim groups since ISIS began to receive widespread media attention.  This has occurred despite the claim among many conservatives that Muslims remain silent in the face of these atrocities and, therefore, are somehow complicit with them.  As the acts committed in the name of Islam become more ghastly, the logical question becomes how can a faith produce both terror and beauty?  I encourage the reader to realize that true faith, any faith, does not produce brutality and oppression.  It is the misuse of religion to force political and social change that results in the acts of hatred we see on our computer screens.

German Christians largely allowed complacency to mute their opposition to the Nazi persecution of Jews.  As American Christians, let’s not miss this opportunity to join the Muslim voices in denouncing terror in the name of Islam as an abomination against Islam and, indeed, against anyone of any faith.

Charlie Hebdo and Interfaith Relations

The latest attack in the name of religion has roiled French society and once again sent shock waves throughout the Western world.  The fear of a deepening clash between Western and Islamic values grows more acute with each such incident.  The January 7th shootings at the offices of the French satire magazine, Charlie Hebdo, targeted the right to free speech, a cornerstone value of Western civilization.  For some, the assertions of inevitable confrontation between East and West made by Samuel Huntington in his classic work, Clash of Civilizations, reflect the unfortunately reality of the post-modern world.

How can we, as Christians in a predominately Christian society in the United States, react to this latest provocation in a positive way?  In a broad sense and most importantly, we must make an effort to identify and combat purposeful misinformation that portrays all Muslims in a negative light based on the actions of a small minority.  This incident, like others before it, will be used by extremists on both sides of the political spectrum to advocate for an extreme response.  The far right element in France, personified by Marine Le Pen, has already seized on the opportunity to paint all Muslims as somehow complicit in the actions of terrorists.  Such xenophobia will only thrive if not confronted by reasonable and well-informed opinions.  Extremism begets extremism and plays into the hands of the terrorists.

The first specific reaction we Christians should have to this terrorist action is to acknowledge and amplify the condemnation from Muslims the world over toward the Charlie Hebdo shootings.  Muslim organizations in France and here in the United States have spoken out quite forcefully against the shootings, disavowing any relationship between the killers’ actions and Islamic values and principles.  Regardless, the notion that moderate Muslims must “take back” their religion is a tired and invalid argument.  Moderate Muslims should not have to feel as if they need to disavow themselves of the actions of obviously misguided criminals anymore than I felt the need to differentiate myself from the genocidal actions of, say, the Serbian Christians against Bosnian Muslims during the Bosnian War of the early 1990s.

Secondly, we must try to understand more fully the sensitivities toward depictions of Mohammed in Islam.  Christianity and Judaism both have elements of rejection of representations of the divine as well so it should not be a foreign concept to us.  Muslims do not believe that Mohammed was divine; however, the early followers of Mohammed did recognize the excessive reliance on icons among their contemporary Christian and Jews of the 6th and 7th centuries and warned against the propensity to worship icons in place of true divinity.  Clearly and without a doubt, the actions of the terrorists in reacting to the defamation of Mohammed by Charlie Hebdo was wrong and is an assault against the Western value of free speech which should be defended vigorously.  At the same time, we Christians also have the right to speak out against such disparagement and defend the sanctity of the faith of our Muslim brothers and sisters just as we would want members of other faith groups to respect the symbols of our faith.

Thirdly, we must remember that the actions of “Islamic” terrorists are indiscriminate in terms of who they target.  One of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo shootings was a Muslim police officer who was assigned the task of protecting those who lampooned his religion.  His sacrifice has been memorialized very eloquently on Twitter under the hashtag #JeSuisAhmed.  The killing of Muslims by “Islamic” terrorists should be a clear indication that their actions have nothing to do with fulfilling their twisted understanding of Islamic values.  Rather it should be understood that these terrorists attach themselves to Islam in order to “legitimize” political agendas or, more simply, to feel empowered to lash out against the dissatisfaction with their own lives and direction.  This is not endemic to Islam – all religions are consistently used to legitimize positions that have nothing to do with religious principles.

We, as American Christians, must acknowledge that there is a certain amount of prejudice inherent in the Western view of Islam.  Prejudice is best countered with knowledge and understanding.  I would encourage my Christian brothers and sisters to seek out true knowledge of the values of Islam rather than automatically assuming that these terrorists reflect true Muslim faith.  We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be sold a bill of goods, especially by criminals.

 

Interfaith spirituality: Listen to God, hear the other

As a devout Muslim woman who is founded in Islamic education, I feel pleasantly surprised when I enjoy a spiritual experience just by listening to non-Muslim faith experiences. Often, interfaith participants say that one of the benefits of interfaith dialog is a strengthening of one’s own faith. This is true for me; not only my own faith increases when I am speaking about Islam but when I hear other people describe their own spiritual experiences as well.

Last week I surge in spirituality during an event that I attended for the second year. The Multicultural Alliance’s annual Interfaith Retreat for Seminarians is a program prepared by MCA Texas to gather seminarian students and faculty from the three faith traditions, Judaism/Christianity/Islam, for four days of dialog, learning, and compassion. This year’s theme was “Tell Me a Story” where students and faculty from eleven seminaries in Texas, California, Connecticut and Maryland listened to presentations from resource scholars who shared about what telling stories meant in each of the three faith traditions.

After each presentation the group of seminarians dispersed in pre-assigned smaller groups of five to six where they spent time discussing their reflections on the topic. Through these meetings, several people expressed deep personal experiences of faith that evoked echoes of awe throughout the room. Personally, I felt visions of God and His blessings upon His creation as I listened to each story and reinforced my own faith and hope in a better future. As a Christian woman described how her daughter one day surprised her by speaking eloquently about issues of faith, I thought about my own daughter who currently does not show any interest in religious devotion and wondered: “Could she one day grow up from the seed I had planted and surprise me by an indulgence into leaps of faith?” I also listened to a another woman’s story with her husband who was not rooted in faith, yet he was the main spiritual support system in her career as a chaplain and seminarian. She and I had lengthy discussions about how our husbands have been the major tools that God used in order to facilitate our religious missions by making them generate energy, power, and aspiration into our spirits.

Some insightful talks inspired me as a guide of how I may react if put in a similar situation in the future, of how to deal with calamity and life’s trials, or of how to deal with any kind of loss. The young Rabbi’s story of how he was hit by a truck four months before his wedding and how he meanwhile spent his time with pain and temporary disability while tending to an herb indoor garden was mesmerizing. Each one of us has at some point faced hardship and struggled with putting things on hold until one was able to get oneself together. The Rabbi’s experience is a reminder that sometimes you cannot wait for the storm to pass but you need to learn how to dance in the rain. Pain and loss are parts of life but life doesn’t stop at their doorsteps. A Christian woman who lost her husband recently was another example of how life must go on because the Giver of this life is alive. She is attending her first seminary semester and looks forward in a pastoral future despite her severe personal loss. These are examples that I personally value when I wake up every morning from now on, whether the morning is shiny or gloomy.

I shared personal stories and experiences of hope, love and peace that I felt God bestowed upon me during my journey in religious studies. I was surprised that my stories touched the hearts of the Jewish and Christian participants who found them inspiring. I received a lot of confirmation and thumbs up, encouraging me to keep going forward. All this came from people who were total strangers but who in four days became very close. So close that I realized that what they gave me could not have been given by many people who exist in my personal life and shared my Muslim faith. They gave me the spiritual and intellectual support that only people who study religion know about. Living in a secular world with a strong faith is not always easy. People don’t understand why I am keeping up with religious dietary restrictions or prayer or practices. Friends wonder why I seem so distant and unwilling to sacrifice my study time to keep a high profiled social lifestyle. Some family members complain that I don’t spend enough time with them or that I don’t give them enough attention…

Interfaith dialogs are like a savings account: the more you put in them the more you will end up with. And if you sincerely bring God to these conversations you will discover God in new ways. Very few people realize this theology of interfaith but for those of us who know it we can’t live without it. It is our support system. This seminarian retreat has become my spiritual treat and refuge thanks to my Jewish, Christian and Muslim interlocutors who gift me with finding God by listening to their stories.

Celebrating Amidst The “War on Christmas”

On this Christmas Eve, as I listen to Christmas carols on the radio and read the Christmas Story from Luke to my children, I think about those of other faith traditions, like Dina, who are considered to be faith minorities in the United States.  How do they receive the theology behind Christmas?  Does the religious “Other” feel threatened by the celebration of Christmas in American society?

Dina’s post very eloquently describes her experiences being Muslim during the Christmas holiday.  Fortunately, for those of us who want to see interfaith relations improve in the United States, her comments bring a measure of relief centered on the realization that there do exist avenues toward common religious understanding.  However, I would like to address a negative factor that inevitably is revisited during this time of the year among some American Christians – the idea that Christmas is under attack – the “War on Christmas“.

There is, no doubt, an increasing secularism in the United States that lead some to believe that nefarious efforts are afoot to erase the influence of Christians in the public sphere.  Our society’s secular nature was established by our Founding Fathers with the intent of establishing a government that is not beholden to one particular religion for fear of oppressing others, as had been their experience in Europe. The increasing diversification of the American societal landscape since the nation’s founding has made secularization even more necessary in order to ensure a “level playing field” without favor toward one faith over another. There is no real evidence to suggest that a non-Christian faith group is attempting to willfully eliminate Christian influence in the public square; rather, the so-called “War on Christmas” is simply a fairly benign byproduct of the principles of the separation of church and state that this country was founded upon.

Do I believe that American society would be in a better place if Christian principles were allowed to shape public policy? Absolutely! But I also believe that our society would be better off if Muslim or Jewish morality were exclusively practiced rather than succumbing to the absence of public morality. Unfortunately, the nature of man has proven to lead to the abuse of power in order to promote a certain agenda and, when the agenda has been religious in nature, this abuse has proven to have had catastrophic results in the past. Those that promote religion on the public arena quite often end up casting a negative light on their religion rather than achieving any kind of moral purpose. James Madison, the Father of the United States Constitution, said,

“Every new and successful example, therefore, of a perfect separation between the ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance; and I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in showing that religion and Government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together.” (Letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822)

Our nation’s diverse society requires a great modicum of respect by faith groups toward each other. Personally, I have never felt physically threatened in exercising my faith in this country and have not met many other Christians who do. A preoccupation with a mythical “War on Christmas” only serves to create a siege mentality among those Christians who believe in it. Christians cannot reflect the teachings of Christ while circling the wagons to fend off attacks and we cannot demonstrate Christ’s most important teaching, forgiveness, while constantly in defense mode.

The meaning of the Christmas season, to Christians, is about the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ. We should remember, however, that not all of our fellow citizens take the same meaning from the holiday. When it comes to the relationship between Christians and Muslims, particularly during the Christmas season, we Christians would be better served in remembering that Jesus is a central and revered figure in Islam as well as Christianity. As Dina expressed in her post, a Muslim following true Islam will join a Christian in honoring Jesus during this season. So, as Christians, we should put away the armor and sword during this season and reach out to our brothers and sisters in the Abrahamic tradition with a focus on the teachings of Jesus as a bridge over the divide.

I do not celebrate Christmas – but I do celebrate Jesus

One of the hardest things for a Muslim parent in America is to raise children who don’t believe in Christmas. I say specifically “a Muslim parent” because once I reached beyond the childhood stage of my kids it no longer mattered whether we celebrated Christmas or not. But when my kids were in elementary school, it used to behoove me to preach to them the theology of Jesus the way Muslims believe it while their classmates bragged about their Christmas wish lists, presents, trees, and santas!

Muslim Americans are not the only non-Christian group feeling challenged by the theology of Christmas. Many intellectuals call this theology as part of the Christian privilege that Christian Americans enjoy in this land that also enjoys a diverse religious landscape. From Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, to Hindus, Buddhists, to atheists and agnostics, many Americans complain about how they have to go through Christmas every year, including receiving Christmas wishes, without feeling alienated.

However, I don’t feel alienated in America. That’s because I believe in religious pluralism that preaches respect of all faith traditions and their followers. I actually enjoy the holiday season with its decorations, lights, festivities, and joyful atmosphere (including shopping  deals)! Once I taught my children that Christmas was not part of our Muslim theology we became at ease enjoying the cultural aspect of the season. Moreover, Muslims don’t feel “left behind” simply because they don’t celebrate Christmas, for we do celebrate someone who is greater than this holiday: We celebrate Jesus.

Jesus, peace be upon him and his mother Mary, is mentioned several times in the Qur’an. The virgin Mary has a whole chapter in the Qur’an dedicated to her name. The Qur’an teaches that Jesus is the word of God, the spirit of God, and the messenger of God. He was miraculously born without a father, he miraculously spoke to people while in his cradle, and he performed several miracles like healing and giving life to the dead through the will and permission of God. Like all the biblical prophets mentioned in the Qur’an, each Muslim is obligated to believe in Jesus as truth. Without the belief in Jesus Christ a Muslim’s belief is incomplete according to the Qur’an.

The mission of Jesus, the son of Mary, according to the Qur’an, was to bring ease to the children of Israel (the Jews) by reducing some of the commandments that were difficult for them while affirming the truth in the Torah. The Qur’an then narrates that at some point, Jesus felt betrayal from his brethren, so he asked around, “who are my helpers in the way of God?” A group called Hawariyyoun (the Helpers of Jesus) replied that they were his helpers and declared submission to the will of God. Then the Qur’an continues with God talking to Jesus and telling him that He would be caused to die and be exalted unto God. (Qur’an, 3:55) (For the beginning of the story of Mary, John the Baptist and Jesus refer to 3:35 onward).

Even though Muslims believe in Jesus and celebrate him they faced disagreement with Christians. Issues like the trinity, Jesus’ crucifixion which Muslims don’t believe in, and theological matters about the nature of Jesus put the two faith traditions in discord. However, the Qur’an forewarned about this discord and advised Muslims about the way they should do “interfaith” with their Christian brethren. “Interfaith” is interaction between different faith groups, a phenomenon that was born in the twentieth century. Yet, the Qur’an fourteen hundred years ago instructed its followers on the way to interact with Christians:

“Say ‘O, followers of earlier revelation! Come unto that tenet which we and you hold in common: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall not ascribe divinity to aught beside Him, and that we shall not take human beings for our lords beside God. ‘ And if they turn away, then say, ‘Bear witness that it is we who have surrendered ourselves unto Him.'” (Qur’an 3: 64).

The Qur’an doesn’t tell Muslims to kill, mock, or wage wars against Christians because of their theological differences. Those who misunderstand it are betraying God.

Ferguson and Muslim reactions to racism and prejudice

By Dina Malki

Diversity in creation is divinely willed and planned. It was not coincidental that humans turned out having different colors. Muslim tradition includes a narrative (Hadith) by Prophet Muhammad that explains how God created Adam from different colored clays and, as a result, gave humans different colors. God also willed that humans speak different languages, have different cultures, and form different communities. The Qur’an is very clear about the reason of this diversity:

“And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colors. Indeed in that are signs for those of knowledge.” [30:22]

“O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that you may despise one another). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is the one who is the most righteous. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (will all things).” [49:13]

Just as Americans, including myself, in the aftermath of the Ferguson events, have been questioning whether they have progressed at all during the last five decades in matters of civil rights, many Muslims, including myself, also have been evaluating whether the 1.5 billion Muslims who live around the globe still live up to their Islamic teachings. Muslims too have sinned with prejudice by “othering” people that belonged to a different race, ethnicity, nationality, and religion. I say “sinned” because they acted against their religious traditions. But are all Muslims sinners? Of course not. And it is the role of interfaith to find like-minded people of faith that belong to different religions and join their voices to create a symphony of peace and compassion.

To focus on the events in Ferguson, take for example the Muslim reaction to the crisis. Muslims for Ferguson is a social media group that was formed to raise awareness among Muslim Americans about the prejudice of the police against protestors who objected the killings of two black men, Mike Brown and Eric Garner.  Muslims for Ferguson saw that the killings represented a “disturbing trend of officers using excessive force against black and brown people,” and urged Muslims “to join a movement declaring that all lives, including black and brown lives, matter.” Moreover, imams (Muslim religious and mosque leaders) all over the country have been preaching against racism and prejudice, describing it as a great injustice to God’s creation.

Among the many ethical values that Islam teaches is unity. Diversity does not essentially create division. Diversity is a valuable asset that creates creativity and growth. Diversity in any nation enriches its national thread with different talents and resources. Diversity within a religious tradition leads to freedom from stagnation. Diversity within an interfaith community builds bridges of communication and cooperation. Prejudice, on the other hand, is a spiritual and social ill that cuts through unity and ignites friction and enmity. A divided nation or community becomes an easy prey in front of its enemies.

So, what is the Islamic solution to division and conflict? Like all other faith traditions, Islam adopts a theology of reconciliation that can take place after justice has been served. Justice is not a tool that the masses or individuals can freely use; it is rather a legal tool by the authorities, whether secular or religious, to give back human rights to those who have been oppressed. As a matter of fact, reconciliation is a duty in the Muslim tradition that narrates how God does not look at people who are having conflict. If God does not look at a people He will not send mercy their way.

Grayson wrote in his post that white Christians needed to listen to black Christians. I say that white Muslims, too, need to listen to black Muslims. A recent initiative has started in the United States to raise awareness among Muslims of the dangers of racism within their own community. The Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative is an effort to remind Muslims that racism is against the teachings of their religion. One of the main things that Islam emphasizes is action. As much as it is important for humans to have a pure heart and a good intention, action is actually required as a proof of faith. This is why it is not enough for Muslims to silently reject racism and injustice; they need to condemn it by action or, at least, by words. Listen to this narrative (Hadith) from Prophet Muhammad:

“Whoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then let him change it with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart- and that is the weakest of faith.”

Prejudice comes in all forms: racism, religious intolerance, stereotyping, othering, etc… Muslims, too, need to question their practices with all people including peoples from other faiths, and see if they are living up to their religious ideals and morals. If they are not, then it is time for them to dust off some of that rust on their hearts.

Ferguson and Interfaith Relations

It seems as if the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri have most people taking sides – either justifying Officer Darren Wilson’s actions or condemning the shooting death of Michael Brown, the young man who Officer Wilson fatefully encountered on a Ferguson street August 9th, 2014.  The emotions around this case are racially charged and seemed to be dictated by the color of one’s skin.  African Americans decry the bias they believe is inherent in the treatment of African American youths by law enforcement.  Caucasian Americans wonder why African Americans can’t see the reason for the their bias in the face of the violence and rioting that occurred after the Grand Jury’s declination to file criminal charges against Officer Wilson.

Whether one view is absolutely right or wrong is as irrelevant as it is a fantasy – as in any conflict, both perceptions of the issue have some truths and some falsehoods.  The false perceptions of motives and inclinations of blacks and whites toward each other in this country spring from the sinful practice of prejudicial thinking.  Prejudice – the preconception of a person or group of persons based on ethnicity, religion, or any other characteristic – devalues the integrity of the person as an individual, unique in his or her own right.  In its worst form, prejudice can be the catalyst for violence.

Jesus Christ warned against assuming the motives of others’ actions in the Sermon on the Mount.  Matthew 5:46-47 recounts Jesus’ clear teaching concerning how we are to treat others that we may be fearful of due to prejudices:

“If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?”

His approach is one of forgiveness and turning our focus on our own actions, looking ourselves in the mirror and assessing whether we are acting as He would want.

There are lessons in the racial divide caused by such stereotyping of African American youths that can be applied to interfaith relations.  Marc Gopin, professor of religious studies at George Mason University, talks about the concept of “Othering” in his book Holy War, Holy Peace: How Religion Can Bring Peace to the Middle East.  “Othering”, according to Gopin, is defined as viewing another individual or group through the lens of biases that we have developed over years, biases that tend to grossly exaggerate a negative preconception in a sub-conscious effort to counterbalance fear.

When we engage in “Othering”, we dehumanize the individual or group we are targeting.  In our eyes, the “Other” loses his or her human and, most importantly, unique qualities in the fog of stereotyping.  Suddenly, their motives become suspect and nefarious, their raison d’ etat somehow disconcerting and scary.  I personally find it difficult to engage in “Othering” when I know members of the group in question.  Knowing them on a personal scale breaks down the stereotype and applies a human face.

Jim Wallis of Sojourners has written a beautiful piece on the importance of proactive reconciliation to the Christian walk.  He writes, “It’s time to listen — for us white Americans to listen to black Americans; for white parents to listen to black parents; for white Christians to listen to black Christians. This may be the most important thing we have ever had to do: to listen, really listen.”  As Christians, we are commanded by our faith to be peacemakers and reconciliation facilitators rather than dividers, just as Jesus reconciled us to our heavenly Father through His death and resurrection.

The incident in Ferguson, Missouri should give us pause to consider whether prejudices influence how we view the religious “Other”.  In the highly-charged American political climate, simple misunderstandings of other religious traditions are exploited to fuel fear and further political agendas and, in doing so, legitimize these misunderstandings as truth .  All people of faith must be on guard to avoid allowing fear and unfamiliarity of other religious traditions and, in some cases, years of learned and unchallenged bias, influence behavior toward others.

If we take the time to listen to one another on faith issues as well, rather than jumping to conclusions and automatically casting the “Other” is a demonizing light, we are in obedience to God’s commands and we may learn a few things along the way.