Every year, as the anniversary to September 11th roles around, I notice a definite uptick in Islamophobia. For just one example, it doesn’t take too much time browsing the Internet conclude everyone of Arab descent or with affinity for Islam should be pinned with the guilt of that horrendous day. This trend saddens me, not only because it is inaccurate and culturally harmful, but also because Islamophobia draws us farther away from the solution to what we think we are fighting.
There are those who believe the only way that we will ever stop militant extremists who identify themselves with Islam is to annihilate the religion itself, but this is simply not true. All one must do to see this is to look back into history: what happens any time a world power tries to crush a religion, or even a segment of a religion? It flourishes, it grows, it spreads, and if anything else, it becomes affirmed in its original goals. Crushing Islam will not and cannot end the horror of terrorism.
This hypothesis of mine was affirmed over Labor Day weekend when I had the opportunity to join with nine other rabbinical and seminary students for the purpose of interfaith dialogue at the 51st annual ISNA Convention at the Cobo Center in Detroit. ISNA, the Islamic Society of North America, is an umbrella organization that meets every year to provide a space were American Muslims can come together for a cultural reunion and a safe place to discuss a wide variety of topics. Myself, a Christian, came to this convention with certain stereotypes and preconceptions, and I quickly found those inadequate to describe what I experienced.
The first thing that struck me is that just as there seem to be 37 different ways to pronounce “Masjid” (Mosque), there is a multitude of expressions of Islam, similar to Christianity’s denominations. The ISNA convention is unique because it brings together so many different viewpoints under one roof. Whenever I would look around one of the Cobo’s rooms, even a small one, I was amazed at the diversity of people in attendance. I saw Muslims of every tradition, race, age, gender, and socio-economic status in attendance. There were college students, professors, businesspeople, laborers, young couples, old couples, single folk, moms, dads, and kids.
I was invited to prayers and the Friday Khutbah (sermon), and each day from 9 in the morning until 11 at night, I would join these folk in big main sessions, meals, and a number of smaller conversations – 163 sessions to choose from, almost all moderated by women. The topics ranged from practical, like making mosques accessible to those with disabilities, finding the “right one” to marry, and navigating Obamacare; to fun, like how to use your camera phone to produce art or learning Arabic calligraphy; to serious, like dealing with secularism, protecting religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries, and finding peaceful solutions to Palestine. The atmosphere among the 20,000 people gathered there was one of respect, dignity, and passionate dialogue.
During the convention, I was able to attend 12 of these sessions (all of my choosing) and what I saw was enlightening and inspiring. To begin with, I don’t know of any Christian event or conference that draws together this kind of spectrum of religious thought – ISNA was anything but homogenous – or that covers this kind of topical array. Also significant is that these Muslim Americans were predominantly discussing issues that we talk about in our churches and synods and dioceses – a simple change in some of the proper nouns and there were times I could have thought I was sitting in a Christian conference discussing the issues of the day.
It is this commonality over what we share that impacted me the most. I met American Muslims, some born here and others immigrants, who love this country. They expressed that they came here on purpose – to seek freedom of religion, to raise their families in peace, to find economic opportunity. I heard conversations about all of our religions working together to hold secularism at bay. Sessions discussed helping kids get the best education possible, and worrying over their young people not coming to Masjid (sound familiar?). I met many American Muslims who are working to find non-violent solutions for peace throughout the world, and I learned of instances where they are spending millions of dollars of their own money to promote the safety, rights, and citizenship of religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries. I saw them take stands on important issues and listened to them participate in our political process. There are differences between Muslims and Christians in America, theologically and culturally, but what I found in the many-shared issues is that we often have the same goals.
During my last night in the hotel, and over my drive back to Grand Rapids, this experience pressed on me how important it is to fight Islamophobia by dropping stereotypes and preconceptions, learning more about my American Muslim neighbors, humbling myself a bit, and finding more ways to work together for the good of our great nation. American Muslims have again demonstrated to me that they possess both the desire and a unique voice for speaking out against the political misuse of Islam by violent extremists. As global citizens, we should encourage that voice, and empower it, working together with all of our neighbors for the good of our world.
Edit: A version of this post has been published in the Detroit Free Press, 11 September 2014.