Monday, March 14, 2011

Building Bridges to the Muslim World by Emily VanLaeys

The other night Mark and I attended a program at the Oneonta Unitarian Church called: "Understanding Islam: An Evening to Build Bridges." A lot of people in Oneonta and the surrounding area are interested in building bridges with people of other faiths, as proven by the excellent attendance at our annual Thanksgiving interfaith service and other events, such as this one. The attendance was so good for this dinner that people were seated at tables all over the building.

The halal meal (which abides by Muslim dietary rules) was hosted by the church’s Mali Task Force that sponsors 51 students at a private school in Mali, a West African country. The recipes were Pakistani in origin: delicious, and hot enough to clear out any sinus problems you might have had! The meal was shared by community members from many faith backgrounds, including special guests from Sidney Center’s Sufi community. 

After dinner we watched a film titled: “What a Billion Muslims Really Think.” You can see it online: The movie is based on a Gallup survey of Muslims worldwide, and includes some interesting revelations such as: only 15% of the world’s Muslims are Arab, and only 7% of them support violent terrorist tactics. The movie was followed with a question and answer period, with answers provided by a local professor of world religions, and a member of the Sufi community. Participants agreed that this was a wonderful opportunity for members of different faiths to learn more about each other.

If only more Muslims and Christians/Unitarians/Jews had such an opportunity to break bread together and talk. So much of the misunderstanding between people of different faiths and cultures stems from misinformation which is difficult to sort out without honest and open communication. I recently befriended a Muslim woman from Saudi Arabia on Facebook. She is a member of a Facebook group called “Anti-Islamaphobia.” This group posts videos and quotes with the intention of clearing up misnomers about Islam, but someone in the group has the idea that disseminating misinformation about Christianity will help their cause. 

My new friend posted this image on her FB page:
I tried to explain to her that these ideas are taken out of context from some obscure Bible passages that no Christian follows literally. She asked for the scriptural references, which I hesitated to give her because she didn't seem to understand that these ideas, being thousands of years old, do not apply to anyone today. I did give her the scripture in which Jesus saved a woman from stoning by saying to her accusers: "He who is without sin may cast the first stone."

My Saudi friend uses an internet translator to translate my English into Arabic, and vice versa. The translations are poor, and so the language barrier adds a further challenge to the differences between our cultural and religious backgrounds. I really don't know if she understands what I have tried to explain: that Jesus came to replace the old biblical laws with the divine law of love and mercy. As my communication with this woman continued, I realized that her goal was to convince me that Islam is the only way to the kingdom of heaven. She assured me that Islam recognizes Moses and Jesus as true prophets, but that Mohammed is the best and the last. She also stated that Buddha was sent by Satan, so Buddhists are actually devil worshipers!
I wish that the Gallup survey had asked how many Muslims believe that theirs is the only path to God, because it is just such exclusive thinking that leads to discord between religions. 

On the same day that my Muslim friend wrote: ". . . to say and believe there is no god except Allah and Mohammed is his messenger -- this is the key of heaven and few want to get it," I also received a message from a fundamentalist Christian who warned: "ALL other religions are false and deceptive." Words like these lead to conflict and ill-will among God's children. 

Events such as the community halal meal foster goodwill among diverse peoples. But such events assume a basic attitude: that peace and goodwill among the world's people is our shared goal, and the goal of our God -- whether that God is called Allah, Jesus, or some other name. Do we fear the torment of hell after this life, as these two internet friends think we should, or do we want to be more loving in this life, in order to end the hell on earth that is caused by pride and self-righteousness? The people of the world cannot build bridges of peace and understanding unless we agree that they must be built.

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