by Martin Brooks
Douglas Johnston, known as the father of faith-based diplomacy, opened a recent conference on Religious Freedom and Islamophobia at Temple University by saying, “The greatest asset we have to fight militant Islam is the American Muslim community. Unfortunately, we have alienated many in this community.” Johnston also said, “As the Muslim community is marginalized, it plays into the hands of extremists.”
Peace Catalyst, along with The Dialogue Institute and International Center for Religion & Diplomacy, co-sponsored and hosted the conference October 6-8. It was a gathering of approximately 40 Evangelical Christian leaders from around the country to explore and better understand the consequences of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry and to develop thoughtful responses to Islamophobia in the United States. Selected Jewish, Muslim, and non-Evangelical Christian representatives also participated to help provide a broader contextual understanding of the issues being addressed.
Many in evangelical circles are concerned with the impact of overgeneralized anti-Islamic rhetoric and how that impacts common goals that we all share for religious freedom and security. The polarization between the Muslim and Christian communities is doing great harm to our nation and to our Christian witness. The thriving of all people is also increasingly difficult in such circumstances. This is why the Religious Freedom Conference called together academics and practitioners for this conference and used the lenses of biblical, historical, legal, and political rationales to explain why Islamophobia must be resisted (Honestly, I think we even need a new term to refer to this phenomenon. “Islamophobia” is pejorative and alienating to the very people who need to be involved in the discussion).
At this conference, Howard Cohen of Tulane University spoke of how the founding documents of the United States protected the diversity of religious practices in our nation. What made the United States unique was the elevation of civil law, which both accommodated and protected the religious liberties of all. In this season when Islam is being scrutinized based on the actions of ISIS and Al-Qaeda, Cohen said, “We need to think scalpel, not meat cleaver. We are bound to do so by our constitution.” To refuse to have a more nuanced conversation about Islam is to reject the very core of what it means to be an American. It is to reject constitutional and legal principals on which our nation was founded.
Feisal Abdul Rauf, founder of the Manhattan Cordoba Initiative, indicated that much of the tensions between the Muslim communities and the West are the direct result of American foreign policy. Rauf claimed that too many Muslims believe that if they die in getting revenge they will be happy. Rauf said, “We have created enough people that feel this way that we now have a problem. Simplistic one-liners will not resolve the issues.” He went on, “The real divide is not between Islam and the West but between extremism in all religions and modernists. This is a war that we all share.”
Muslims are concerned about the growing distrust of Muslims in the United States and where this distrust might lead. Will their children be able to get good jobs in America if they let others know that they are Muslims? Might they be deported or put in detention camps as some Presidential candidates have suggested? They feel they are being collectively held responsible for the actions of extremists. In the United States it is unlawful to discriminate based on religious preferences, but politicians seem ready to capitalize on the fears of the populace. It is a calculated risk on their part since Muslims only represent 3% of the U.S. population. It is as though the politicians believe that Muslims and our constitutional principles can be sacrificed in the quests for political power. Perhaps this is just electoral rhetoric, but it is a dangerously short-sighted strategy. It is not only illegal to discriminate based on religion, but it also alienates the very people who have the greatest chance of reversing this season of radical jihadism.
Majid Alsayegh, Chairman of the Dialogue Institute and former director of the Islamic Society of North America, said that the Muslim community is trying to help promote mutual respect between Christians and Muslims. They have urged Muslim immigrants to learn American history and to embrace the principles of religious freedom and equality for all. Majid said the Muslims should be the first to condemn violence done in the name of Islam. He cited the Open Letter to Al-Baghdadi as an example of Muslim scholars speaking out against radical jihadism and referenced Thomas Friedman’s Arsonists and Firemen article. There are people motivated to disrupt peace for a variety of reasons, and we need to evaluate the competing agendas through this lens: are people trying to ignite fires or put them out?
Many believe that Islamophobia is bad for American Muslims, which it is, but it has also damaged the reputation of the church as a loving place that accepts all. Church attendance peaked five weeks after 9/11 and has been going down ever since. People are not impressed with the church’s response to the world’s crushing problems, so they turn elsewhere for answers. Too often the church’s responses are driven by fear or politics or nationalism rather than the love of Christ for all those created by God. We are called to be ambassadors of the kingdom of the Prince of Peace. As God brings the nations to be our neighbors, we need to see them as a gift to help build bridges between cultures that frequently do not understand each other. Alienating our Muslim neighbors is a rejection of our constitutional principles as well as our very faith.
Martin Brooks is Peace Catalyst’s Midwest Regional Director and is based in Louisville, KY where he lives and makes peace with his wife Susan. More from Martin at http://seguesintl.com.