My own first exposure to Muslims was in children’s church. The children’s pastor at my Christian and Missionary Alliance church in Kentucky talked to us about the people living in the “10/40 Window” (a term referring to much of the Middle East and North Africa), and told us about the need to love the people there by showing them Jesus. But what does it mean, to show someone Jesus? That is a question I have wrestled with throughout my life thus far, and I still wrestle with it daily, as I know many of you do as well.
Since my days in children’s church, my experience and understanding of Muslims around the globe, and in the U.S., has widened and deepened. I studied in Egypt my last year of college and came to know many Christian and Muslim Egyptians. It was when I returned to the U.S. and felt like I was constantly having to convince people that I did, in fact, receive an incredible welcome in Egypt, that I realized America has a lot of work to do in how Muslims are perceived and presented in popular culture and media.
As I sank deeper into my graduate studies at the University of Denver, where I was doing a hybrid program in religious studies (focused on Islam and comparative religion) and in international politics, I also came to know a number of American Muslims. I realized many things through these relationships, a couple of which I will mention here. In the first I became aware that I tended to think of Islam as something “over there,” since I had experienced Islam primarily in a Middle Eastern context, and had not prior to this point taken the time to get to know and listen to my Muslim neighbors. Second, that the rhetoric and debates about Islam in popular culture and American media tend to entirely disregard the American Muslim people whose lives are so deeply affected by what some think of as extracted intellectual debates.
While my own journey certainly involved learning things (i.e. taking courses in Qur’anic interpretation and Muslim modernities) a huge part of my journey was developing authentic relationships with Muslims that I came to know both abroad and in the U.S.; I did so by taking the time to really listen to them, and allowing myself to be changed through those encounters. Another critical part of this journey for me came with my orientation toward justice for those who are marginalized or “Other-ized” in society. I worked with college students throughout my graduate studies engaging them on issues of racism, poverty, and immigration, and really deepened my own disposition toward seeking justice as an essential part of my faith and my life’s work. This, too, was deeply informed through relationships with people very different from myself and through taking the time to really listen to the pain of others. I was challenged to think hard about what it means to be a good ally, or as my friend Rev. Jennifer Bailey says, “how to humbly but boldly accompany others who are targeted or discriminated against in some way.”
I now direct the Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign. This is a coalition of 31 national denominations and organizations,1 from the Union for Reform Judaism to the Council of Catholic Bishops, Sojourners and the American Baptists, the Christian Reformed Church and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, in partnership with the Islamic Society of North America. All of these groups came together in 2010 when anti-Muslim bigotry was at a high level in order to say publicly that religious communities in the United States will not stand idly by when one community comes under attack. Too many communities have been the targets before, and we have to stand together—shoulder to shoulder—to say that an attack on one is an attack on all.
From the beginning, this campaign asserted that anti-Muslim bigotry is an affront to our religious values—of hospitality, love, and the injunction to refrain from “bearing false witness”—as well as to our American values—of religious freedom, equality, diversity of background and belief etc. As religious communities, each of our own freedoms is dependent upon those being equally extended to other religious communities. If we curtail those freedoms for some, all our freedoms are at risk.
Shoulder to Shoulder started from a national press conference featuring the heads of religious denominations sharing this message, and since 2010, it has been an ongoing campaign working on multiple levels. At the national level, we help keep our member denominations and organizations informed about the experiences of American Muslim communities, how research and activist organizations understand Islamophobia (which, as we know, is complex and well-funded2), and we help coordinate multi-religious responses to particularly egregious acts of hate, bigotry or discrimination targeting Muslims.3 We also work with the organizations and denominations to help them equip their clergy with the knowledge, relationships and tools to get to know their Muslim neighbors and stand in solidarity with them.
In asking, what does it mean to stand up with the Other, it is critical to listen to the voices of the American Muslim community, in all its diversity. This is, of course, challenging. American Muslims have different opinions and experiences about various issues and topics, as do other religious communities in America.
While some of our work on this issue is best done at the national level, with denominational leadership and in conversation with other national groups and government bodies, we also know that the long-term sustainable work to create more inclusive communities is done at local levels. In this vein, we also have a community membership network of local congregations, interfaith organizations, and community groups that have chosen to join us. We help connect them to one another, share best practices, and engage them in nationwide initiatives. In some cases, we work with our member organizations to help them build partnerships or deepen their engagement with one another in their communities. For instance, we are working with community members in Irving, Texas, the town recently made famous by the “Ahmed clock incident,” to help them put together some meetings and an event to build partnerships with Irving-based clergy and church communities that have until now been fairly quiet locally; this despite the the mayor’s attempts to disparage local Muslim community over and over again.4
This year, we brought twenty four Jewish, Christian and Muslim emerging leaders to the Islamic Society of North America’s national convention as part of our Emerging Religious Leaders Seminar.5 Participants came to Chicago a day and a half in advance of the ISNA convention in order to prepare and to discuss the issue of Islamophobia as well as the opportunities and challenges of dealing with it as emerging clergy or interfaith leaders. Participants immersed themselves in the ISNA convention sessions, with Shoulder to Shoulder-led breakout sessions, learned from the experience of the American Muslim community in a way that they would not otherwise. Now, these participants are writing, reflecting, and acting in their own communities, as a way of implementing what they have learned through this program.
Another manifestation of anti-Muslim bigotry around which we have organized is the anti-foreign law trend. Originally posited as an anti-Shari’a law movement in state legislatures, this trend has morphed into an anti-foreign law trend sparked by a language shift declaring Shari’a as unconstitutional.6 Many legal experts, including the American Bar Association, have publically voiced that this trend is unconstitutional and discriminatory.7 Shoulder to Shoulder has worked with religious leaders nationwide, coordinating with local religious leaders in states where foreign law bans have been proposed, to inform them about the bigotry entailed in this legislation and its potential negative effects on religious communities.
Additionally, in the fall of 2014, we worked with a broad coalition of national organizations to engage and network with local religious communities in Alabama, where there was an anti-foreign law amendment on the ballot. The head of the Christian Coalition of Alabama spoke-out against the proposed amendment, and encouraged its members to do the same. This trend shows how discrimination meant to target one religious group can in fact have negative impacts on many religious communities, since the U.S. Constitution does not allow singling out any particular one as such. It is thus a good example of how our religious communities writ large should not only engage in solidarity with American Muslims (because it is the morally right thing to do) but that in doing so, religious communities are also standing up for their own rights.
As a coalition of religious leaders, we push our public officials to stand against anti-Muslim rhetoric, because we need to hear from those in positions of power, whether religious or political, when people are being targeted. We are working with a coalition on a religious freedom/anti-bigotry pledge to that effect this fall, with Imam Mohammed Magid, Pastor Bob Roberts, and a number of others who come from different communities but are concerned about the political rhetoric. Disparaging rhetoric, and the failure to call it out, has real life consequences and bolsters those promoting hate against Muslims.
We are also currently working with our members and a number of refugee resettlement organizations to form an interfaith working group to address the ways in which the Syrian humanitarian crisis is both impacted by, and will have an impact on, U.S. society. We have named and continue to stand in solidarity against the anti-Muslim rhetoric, which has also converged with anti-refugee rhetoric, with the hope this will impact the way in which Congress discusses the Syrian refugee crisis. We are also looking at how the potential influx of Syrian refugees into the U.S. will impact communities, and as a result, are working with refugee and Muslim organizations, Syrian American bodies, clergy, and interfaith and community networks. The goal is to craft a plan that addresses the broader issue of anti-Muslim bigotry while helping those individuals and families.
We have found that addressing the issue of anti-Muslim sentiment requires building inter-religious relationships, knowledge and understanding; moreover, it involves a deeper look at the racism and anti-immigrant trends in our country and in our own communities. Islamophobia is certainly an issue of religious mis-understanding, but it is also part of the broader issue of who is legitimately considered part of the society in which we live. In my view, if we try to treat Islamophobia without acknowledging the way it overlaps with racism and xenophobia we will fail to fully address the issue. We have to talk about how our country and our communities deal with difference. I often hear people say that many different communities, religious or otherwise, have had to go through a “hazing” process whereby they are eventually accepted, particularly if they can assimilate into an American identity (which is often synonymous with “whiteness.”). I see the point here, but I also want to press us on this: why do we allow this to continue to happen? Does it really have to happen with each new community (or those perceived as new communities), or can we do the harder work of going after the root issues at hand that make this a recurring problem in American society? What unpacking of American identity do we need to do so that this does not keep happening with new communities?
As a follower of Jesus, I find myself asking what it means to “show people Jesus,” and more and more, I am convinced that it involves deeply getting to know those who have been designated as the Others of our society. Standing with and standing up for the Other is what I feel called to do, and I know those engaged in Shoulder to Shoulder feel the same way. We work for the rights and inclusion of Muslims in American society not in spite of our own faiths, but because of them, while relying on the religious freedoms we are guaranteed for our communities to thrive together in this nation that is so full of possibility.
1All 31 members are listed on the Shoulder to Shoulder website: http://www.shouldertoshouldercampaign.org/about/.
2See, for instance, the Fear, Inc. 2.0 report from the Center for American Progress, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/religion/report/2015/02/11/106394/fear-inc-2-0/; and the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding’s report, “Islamophobia: A Threat to All,” which includes a data visualization map and several reports on the intersectional nature of Islamophobia: http://www.ispu.org/islamophobia.
3For instance, when some Americans planned armed protests of mosques around the country during the very weekend following this conference, we worked with our denominations and a number of interfaith groups around the country to organize interfaith solidarity rallies, in person and online: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/islamophone-hate-rallies-counter-protest-love_5617ff19e4b0e66ad4c7c191.
6Scott Keyes, “Breaking: 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Declares Oklahoma’s Anti-Sharia Ban Unconstitutional,” Think Progress, January 10, 2012, http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2012/01/10/401693/oklahoma-sharia-ban-unconstitutional/?mobile=nc.
7For example, see Eugene Volokh, “Foreign Law in American Courts,” Oklahoma Law Review Vol. 66, no. 2 (Winter 2014): 219-243; and Faiza Patel, Amos Toh, and Matthew Duss, “Foreign Law Bans: Legal Uncertainties and Practical Problems,” Brennan Center for Justice and The Center for American Progress, May 16, 2013, http://www.brennancenter.org/publication/foreign-law-bans-legal-uncertainties-and-practical-problems.
9Including written testimony for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Syrian refugees, http://www.shouldertoshouldercampaign.org/2015/09/30/shoulder-to-shoulder-testimony-for-senate-judiciary-committee-hearing-on-refugees/; and an opinion piece in the Hill, among other contributions to this debate: http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/civil-rights/248265-when-prejudice-overcomes-our-aid-efforts-for-refugees.