Monday, December 12, 2016

Our Ongoing Education in Understanding

An Interfaith Introduction: Unity Services, Coursework, and Getting to Know Islam

Building process of Ja'afari Islamic Center, which opened in 1989. Courtesy Minnesota Jamat.
Building process of Ja'afari Islamic Center, which opened in 1989. Courtesy Minnesota Jamat.

Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they can not communicate; they can not communicate because they are separated.

— Martin Luther King Jr., 1958

In the decade since 9/11, and especially during the resurgence of intolerance during 2010 and 2011, I have had to take a long hard look at myself and consider what I am doing to bridge the religious and cultural divide that has separated many of us throughout the country and also throughout our communities right here in the Twin Cities.

Before I go too much further, I need to explain a little about who I am and how I became so involved with this concept of making connections between cultures in my local community.

I am an Iraq War veteran, but more importantly, I am an anti-war Iraq veteran. I was opposed to the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and actually having been deployed to Iraq with the Minnesota National Guard—I had joined the Guard before I was fully aware of the implications of such a move—only proved to me that the invasion and overthrow of Iraq’s ruler and government had little to do with actually fostering security for the United States, or a democratic society for the Iraqi people. I was literally marching and speaking out against the war as soon as I returned home. My activism made me aware of other social justice issues, such as workers’ rights, marriage equality, and the issues faced by immigrant and minority groups that organizations were tackling around the Twin Cities.

In 2010 the United States experienced an uptick in Islamophobia, centered mainly on the proposed Park51 Islamic community center in Manhattan. When I was preparing a short speech that I would be giving on September 11 at an anti-war/anti-Islamophobia rally, I came across this article regarding a unity service that would be held by the Ja’afari Islamic Center in Brooklyn Park. The event was open to anyone, and although I would be cutting it close time-wise, something told me I couldn’t let this opportunity pass.

So, after giving my speech, I literally ran to my car, and made my way out to Brooklyn Park.

Unity in the Middle of America

Once at Ja’afari, I was greeted by Imam Hussein Wajii and two members of the center, several members of Redeemer Covenant Church (a Christian congregation also in Brooklyn Park) as well as two gentlemen from Solomon’s Porch (a Christian community in South Minneapolis).

Upon entering the center, every person I encountered (all men, since most mosques—or, in Arabic, masjids—follow the tradition of a room separated by a partition, with men on one side and women on the other) were very welcoming. Everyone was eager to meet all of the visitors and introduced themselves.

As we all sat on the carpeted floor, doing our best to imitate the other men around us, I couldn’t help but feel greatly humbled and honored to be welcomed into this place of prayer and worship, both unlike and similar to my own.

Once the service started, each of the speakers—Imam Wajii, Sheik Jaffer H. Jaffer, a visiting Imam who actively worked on interfaith relations, and Rev. Steven P. Larson of Redeemer Covenant—reiterated the same message, which was essentially that we all must come together as people of faith, of all faiths, and learn about and support each other in our communities.

The Imam, Sheik Jaffer, spoke briefly of the Florida pastor Terry Jones, who had planned on publicly burning the Quran that weekend. He wondered whether Jones was aware that the Quran contained not only many verses, but also an entire chapter dedicated to the teachings and sayings of Jesus. Although Jones had ultimately decided against the public Quran-burning event last September, Sheik Jaffer used this as an illustration of how misinformation and ignorance about Islam and the Quran needs to be dispelled, and how people of all faiths need to come together and learn about one another, from one another.

After the service was concluded, the center provided snacks and beverages, I was struck by the open hospitality and welcoming atmosphere that this community was extending its visitors. I had a chance to learn a lot not only about the Imam and others who attended Ja’afari, but also about the members of Redeemer Covenant and Solomon’s Porch.

It all made me realize how neglectful I’ve been regarding actually reaching out and connecting with those I proclaimed to support just a few hours before at the anti-war/anti-Islamophobia rally.

Fear of Difference and the Damage It Brings

Perhaps it was my awakening awareness of how fragile the situation still is for Muslims here in America, but the past few months have only strengthened my resolve to be a bigger part of the solution. I was outraged and saddened when the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, Rep. Peter King, held hearings regarding terrorism and Muslim Americans—instead of any radicalized Americans. The hearings weren’t about combating home-grown terrorism, something that poses a threat to us all, but about singling out one group of Americans, one religious and cultural group at that. Muslims in America want the same things that every American wants: a chance for something better for themselves and their families, a chance to practice their faith freely, and the right to live in peace with their neighbors. These simple truths do not require “hearings” or inquisitions to reveal, but the ability and willingness to simply listen, ask, and interact without an agenda other than to understand.

As if that wasn’t enough to chip at any sense of normalcy and progress that had been achieved regarding reconciliation efforts, the Florida pastor who caused such a stir last September with his plans to publicly burn Qurans—that’s right, Terry Jones—decided to go ahead and burn the Islamic holy book, sparking protests in Afghanistan. Those protests resulted in the deaths of at least 20 individuals, and a setback for an already unstable and precarious situation for the country, not to mention U.S. forces there.

When fears and prejudices regarding Muslims—or any religious or cultural group singled out by hatred—navigate the actions of elected individuals and other leaders, communities and governments suffer major damage, from alienation and disaffection to havoc—at home and abroad.

Deepening the Understanding of Other Perspectives

To continue my journey of understanding and outreach to a previously unfamiliar community, I recently completed an Arabic reading and grammar class, and an Into to Islam class through Minneapolis Community Education. Both courses were taught by Shahir Ahmed, and I highly suggest both of them, especially Intro to Islam, to everyone wanting to learn more. These classes helped me see two things right away: That Islam is a very fascinating and intriguing faith, a faith system that its roots within Abraham, as does Judaism and Christianity. And, just like understanding any religion or faith system, one needs to be able to learn from an open manner, which can be scary for some.

In addition to the interfaith service and the community classes, another perspective came from a prominent Minnesota Muslim leader and educator, Tamim Saidi. Saidi was born in Afghanistan and lived there until he was a teenager, when he was forced to leave—on his own—and escaped to Pakistan. He lived there as a refugee for about two years. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1990 and has called Minnesota home ever since. Saidi is the vice president and founding member of both the Islamic Resource Group and the Northwest Islamic Community Center. A teacher and educator, Saidi has spoken to thousands of Minnesotans about Islam and Muslims’ culture and way of life. He has also written for EngageMN.com, a local group with a mission to improve the understanding of Minnesotans about their Muslim neighbors and Islam.

In an email, Saidi gave some helpful suggestions on reaching out to Muslim communities if you’re unfamiliar with the faith:

Get to know Muslims personally. If you have a Muslim in your neighborhood, go visit them, or invite them to your house for dinner (no pork, and no alcohol, or ask them of their dietary prohibitions).
Call the mosque closest to you (look up on www.Islamicfinder.com, and put in your zip code) and find someone to give you a tour of the mosque and visit with Muslims. You can also do this as part of your churches, synagogues, youth group, civil group etc… You can always just drop in also, but it might be easier for you if you have a guide the first time.

Read an unbiased book about Islam. Yes, I know there are a lot of books written to attack Islam, but there are a lot of good ones also: Karen Armstrong‘s books are great, so are John Esposito’s (both non-Muslims). Yahiya Emerick and Suzanne Haneef (both Muslims) also have good introductory books as well. And even Emerick’s The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Islam is very well written. It is certainly not for idiots.

Or just invite some local Muslims to explain Islam. IRG, www.IRGMN.org, which I am part of, is an educational organization.  We could do any where from 20 min to 4 hour presentations from Islam101 to Get to know your Muslim neighbor, Women In Islam, Jesus in Islam, Muslims in workplace etc … These presentations are free, and we have done hundreds of them over the last 10 years.

Lastly to understand that there at 1.5 BILLION Muslims around the world (that’s 5 times the population of the USA). So obviously there are some bad Muslims, but they make up less than 1% of the Muslims. Muslims are NOT a monolithic community, we have great diversity.  In America 1/3 of Muslims are converts. Of course having more people like you [Ray] in media who would make an effort to seek and find regular Muslim-next-door would be great in putting things in perspective for our fellow Americans.

From the people I have spoken with, I have heard that we have 90% in common and 10% are our differences.  We all need to focus on the similarities rather than our differences.  At the end of the day, I think, as Americans we need to understand that Muslims are just another group of Americans in an increasing diverse America in 21st Century.

Saidi also described his experiences as an American Muslim:

Overall, wonderful!
99.9% of my personal experience has been positive.
The people I have been in contact for the past 21 years, since I came as a refugee from Afghanistan, have been remarkable. I have found most of my fellow Americans to be kind, considerate, compassionate, understanding, good-willed and good-mannered.
I do think I have been very lucky. But I know of a lot of Muslims who have felt discrimination, prejudice and bias towards them based on their looks or their faith.
I think part of my experience has been that I work and live around highly educated people (doctors, pharmacists, nurses, professionals), and polls have shows people with higher level of education have less prejudice.

Although I am now much more educated about Islamic culture and belief, and have begun the process of learning the Arabic language, will this automatically enable me to understand all things Islamic? Nope. Will it be hard to learn Arabic at the age of 28? Heck yes.

Taking entry-level language and religion classes are just two of many small steps I intend to take this year to bridge the divide that separates me culturally and religiously from others throughout my community, and it’s amazing how many connections and resources I have gained just within the process of writing this article.

Now that my journey has begun with a few small steps towards bridging the gap, what will your small steps be?

Ray Camper is a Twin Cities political and social justice activist who writes in his spare time. Ray currently works in St. Paul with disabled individuals. He attended Metropolitan State University, where he studied Human Services and Political Science.