8 things churches can do to fight religious intolerance and bigotry

Community Evangeical Free Church of Soap Lake, WA, USA

After the 9/11 attacks, at the request of churches, Sound Vision issued a guide on how they could help their Muslim neighbors during that difficult time. Since then, we have not felt the need to do that again - until now.

The Park 51 community center controversy has unleashed a fury of Islamophobia. While many of our Christian, Jewish, and other interfaith partners have stood by us, for which we are very grateful, more needs to be done.

Churches, in particular, have been targets for Islamophobes. They have been and continue to be sent free, anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim “information”. These books and films are often sent by “non-profit” hate organizations that profit by sowing seeds of fear, mistrust and prejudice against Islam and Muslims in our nation.

One example is how millions of copies of the hateful film “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West” has been distributed to countless churches and synagogues across the United States along with 28 million homes in swing states during the 2008 U.S. presidential election.

The issue is not about free speech or fear of criticism of Islam and Muslims. Sound Vision, for example, has been critical of Muslims on issues ranging from suicide bombing to racism. Since the time of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, countless speeches, books, films, websites, and blogs have been critical of various aspects Islam. But the difference between these and the kind of hate speech and literature I’m talking about is that the former use knowledge of Islam’s texts and history, along with dispassionate discourse, to formulate an argument. The latter, on the other hand, base their critique on the kind bigotry and prejudice that no reasoned American would tolerate about any other group of people, be it African-Americans, Jews or Catholics, for example.

With this in mind, here are a few tips on what churches can do to combat Islamophobia today.

1. Balance your literature

See if your library has balanced material on Islam published by mainstream Muslim groups versus hateful tracts by those who have never read a copy of the Quran (like pastor Terry Jones in Florida, the man behind “Burn a Koran day”) or who have an axe to grind against Islam and Muslims.

In specific, authors whose works offer a factual and balanced presentation on Islam include non-Muslims like Karen Armstrong, John Esposito, and Annemarie Schimmel, and Muslims like Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Martin Lings. Here are our suggestions:

Top 10 books to read about Islam and Muslims (apart from the Quran):

  1. What Everyone Should Know about Islam and Muslims by Suzanne Haneef
  2. Islam and the Destiny of Man by Charles le Gai Eaton
  3. Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong
  4. The Islamic Threat by John Esposito
  5. Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet by Karen Armstrong
  6. Islam: The Straight Path by John Esposito
  7. Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources by Martin Lings
  8. Ideals and Realities of Islam by Seyyed Hossein Nasr
  9. Islam: An Introduction by Annemarie Schimmel
  10. And Muhammad is His Messenger: the Veneration of the Prophet in Islamic Piety by Annemarie Schimmel

2. Differentiate between critical discourse and hatemongers

Independent organizations like FAIR have come up with this a list of anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim “experts“ and authors (http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=3648). This offers a good way to figure out who is being critical of Islam and Muslims in a legitimate manner versus those who are simply hatemongers.

Remember that for Islamophobes, there are no good Muslims. That should tip you off if you start reading a book or article they’ve written or watch a film they have produced. For example, Imam Feisal Rauf, a Muslim and the Imam who is leading the Park 51 Muslim community center project in New York, is known for being committed to interfaith dialog and positive interaction with non-Muslim leaders and institutions, including churches and synagogues. Yet, he has been branded a terrorist by hatemongers who believe all Muslims are terrorists.

3. Don’t allow the Israel/Palestine conflict to fog your view of the Muslim community in the United States

For a number of Americans, Muslims continue to be seen through the prism of the Israel/Palestine conflict. In practical terms, that means they are a threat to those who hold pro-Israel views in the United States. This is what Islamophobic writer Daniel Pipes argued a few years ago.

Since Pipes made this statement in October 2001, the American Jewish Committee has sponsored studies that seek to diminish the number of Muslims in the U.S., for example. The commonly cited number is about six million. The AJC’s study claims there are a mere two million Muslims in the U.S.

Also, pro-Israel groups have funded and supported initiatives like the mass distribution of the above-mentioned anti-Muslim film “Obsession”, as well as opposition to the Park 51 community center project.

While we pray for peace and for Palestinians and Israelis, that issue should not be used by some pro-Israeli extremists to fund anti-Muslim bigotry in the United States.

It must be noted that many Jews are actively standing up in solidarity with Muslims and some speaking up against Jews who are perceived to be a part of this bigotry campaign.

4. Enhance your sermons

Sermons are a great way to fight Islamophobia and prejudice against Muslims. They help you reach your congregation in a broad-based and effective way.

One topic to cover is Islamophobia itself. What is it, its definition, why it is a form of unacceptable prejudice and what churches and what your congregants can do about it. In the same sermon, mention that Muslims, leaders and laypeople, have and continue to condemn terrorist attacks like 9/11 and others after it. Also, emphasize that these killers were not members of any mosque in the United States, nor were they Americans. They have been condemned by Muslims and their leadership.

5. When it comes to violence in Scripture, compare apples to apples

Verses from the Quran that speak specifically about Muslims defending themselves and the peace sanctuary they established in the city of Madinah over 1,400 years ago when they were under attack by the pagan Quraysh tribe should be compared to similar scriptures in the Bible. For example, nowhere in the Quran are Muslims commanded to kill women and children, something repeatedly found in various parts of the Bible.

This is a proper way to understand verses that have so often been taken out of context and used to “prove” that Muslims are terrorists bent on the violent destruction of non-Muslims.

6. Talk about Islamophobia as part of a broader pattern and history of prejudice and intolerance

Connect the problem of Islamophobia to the current attacks on and harassment of undocumented people in the United States. Both are fueled by hatred of “the Other”. President Obama and former President George Bush emphasized that the issue of undocumented workers needs to be resolved in a fair manner. They recognized that these people are workers, not criminals on par with murderers and rapists. Neither leader called for their harassment and demonization. This grew out of a vigilante movement plagued by prejudice.

7. Develop a dialogue with churches you disagree with

Dialog with other churches you don’t see eye to eye with in the interest of peace against prejudice. Strong bonds will spread goodwill and understanding, something that we find lacking, especially when the economy is bad. Fear and bigotry tend to increase in these circumstances.

Consider what would have happened if other area churches who opposed the “Burn a Koran day” campaign had started a peaceful dialog with Pastor Terry Jones to persuade him to drop his idea. The issue could have been dealt with in a more rational way without the U.S. Department of Defense getting involved.

8. Visit a Masjid

Muslim leaders in the US have announced a week of open houses and dialogue with their neighbors for the week of October 22nd. There is a lot being said about Masjids in America today. It is about time that American sees what goes on in this Islamic house of worship which is called a mosque in English.

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