I spoke at a public library event promoting interfaith awareness in 2012. It didn’t go well.
To be exact, the questions from the audience didn’t go well. I made introductory remarks about my religious tradition, but then the questions started pouring in from people who showed up to the session angry. The questions morphed into angry rants about Sharia and Jihad. Our mosque’s interfaith team tried its best to answer the antagonistic questioners. Nothing helped put out the fires already raging in their minds.
They came seeking validation. No lecture, event or research could change their minds.
I encounter this mindset frequently when talking with Americans of other religious backgrounds. I’m the cause of their problems, say these fellow Americans who have closed their minds to new information. The only source of trusted information, in their mind, is Fox News.
Imagine my surprise when a recent interfaith event went quite differently.
Last month, the Islamic Center of Frisco hosted our annual Interfaith Ramadan Iftar. Of the 150 Texans who joined us, approximately 90 were not Muslim. The overwhelming majority had never attended an iftar — an after-sunset dinner during Ramadan — nor stepped inside a mosque before. A wide cross-section of community leaders attended, including representatives of non-profit organizations and local school districts. Even a few of our elected leaders showed up. All accepted this invitation to learn and break bread and the fast with their Muslim neighbors. It was an evening of warmth, love and eventual understanding as they learned about Ramadan. Attendees expressed fascination at how their Muslim neighbors fast for 18 hours without food or drink.
We then had the question and answer session. Someone asked about Sharia law. A sudden wave of anxiety flooded my senses. Our mosque’s scholar explained Sharia so beautifully and ended by saying that politically, Americans are made to fear Sharia. Sharia is not political. Sharia is just the set of guidelines Muslims use to live by (ie. how to fast, how to give charity, etc.). The gentleman, surprisingly, was truly grateful for this clarification. After the call to prayer, which signifies the breaking of the fast, those of us who are Muslim prayed and then headed to dinner.
While we were serving our guests, the common response was that we need to eat because we’ve been fasting for so long. During fasting and even after, you attain this level of spirituality in which your body craves all that is good for your soul. Islam teaches us to give utmost respect and hospitality to guests — a concept with which they were not familiar.
As I reflect on the past six years of interfaith solidarity work, I think this experience is reflective of a broader trend. Americans of all religious backgrounds have made immense progress. More and more people are accepting the notion that all Americans should be free to practice their faith without discrimination. Americans are joining alliances, non-profit organizations, churches, mosques, synagogues and other organizations that are proactively engaging each other across religious boundaries. Interfaith solidarity helps bring to life what we have in common and what we can learn from our differences.
From my experience at that library interfaith event to the interfaith dinner at the mosque, I’ve seen a real growth in dialogue that helps build bridges.
If you ever get an invite to your local mosque or to visit with your Muslim neighbors, I urge you to accept the offer. I promise that you will not be disappointed.