Last evening at the Unitarian Universalist Society, the community heard from three local Muslim leaders. We were able to ask questions, including the tough questions, that many have been asking about Islam during these trying times. Perhaps even more important than the content of the responses was the SRO turnout, including many from the Jewish community. It shows that we care and that we want to be informed. The speakers happen to be good friends of mine - I serve with two of them on the Interfaith Council board. They helped us to understand a few important things:
1) That the essence of Islam has been misrepresented by those who distort it for political ends, including fundamentalists, Isis and those fueling the flames of Islamophobia.
2) That moderate Muslims have been speaking out against extremism, but they have been drowned out. The speakers cited especially the work of Duke Professor Christopher Bail in analyzing the media-aided impact of the anti-Muslim fringe, including his recent book "Terrified." From the book's introduction: "Bail traces how the anti-Muslim narrative of the political fringe has captivated large segments of the American media, government, and general public, validating the views of extremists who argue that the United States is at war with Islam and marginalizing mainstream Muslim-Americans who are uniquely positioned to discredit such claims."
While there is significant anecdotal evidence that moderate Muslims do speak out (see also here), Kareem Adeeb, one of the spokespeople, made it clear last night that the risks of speaking out are infinitely higher for moderate Muslim clergy than for others. Adeeb himself was targeted and nearly killed three times by terrorist groups when advocating moderate positions in Lebanon. That makes it all the more important that leaders of other faith groups rise to defend the Muslim moderates and help them to re-frame their faith. It takes far more courage for Kareem to do what he does than for me to defend him. To see the recent birth of a Reform Movement in Islam is a tribute not only to the courage of those initiating this step, but to the pluralistic culture of America and Canada that has allowed non-fundamentalist expressions of many faiths to thrive - including of course our own.
3) That many of the oft-cited problematic sections of the Quran have been deliberately misinterpreted by extremists and taken out of context by others. It would have been helpful last night to have had a page of text in front of us and have the speakers address specific verses. Still, I can relate to how an ancient sacred text can be misinterpreted over the centuries - our Bible certainly has, both by extremist Jews and by anti-Semites; and the Bible also has passages that are very problematic. The speakers also went so far as to defend the treatment of women in traditional Muslim society. That too needs to be fleshed out more in future dialogues. But here again there are parallels to Judaism. The ultra-Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law regarding women and other matters has become increasingly stringent over the past few centuries, just as Muslim society has polarized.
4) But the main point I got out of last night, and one that came through loud and clear even with a challenged sound system, as one of empathy. For all the pain everyone is feeling with the rise of ISIS and increases in terror, the pain being felt by Muslims is at least as acute. For not only are Muslims by far the most frequent victims of this terror (including last week's attack on children in Pakistan), but on top of it, they are facing unprecedented fury and discrimination at home, including, now, here in America.
We cannot allow Islamophobia to prevail. As Jews, we have seen firsthand the results of unrestrained hate. We've seen it directed against us and, regrettably, at times by us.
Let's hope that in this country cooler heads can prevail and we can work closely with the Muslim community to deepen the ties that bind us. As one of the speakers said last night, the Muslim community is in great need, not of sanctions and suspicion, but of a hug. And perhaps that is what last night's overflow turnout was all about.
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