WASHINGTON, D.C. — Forty leaders gathered to explore ways to combat anti-Muslim speech and behavior July 11-13, 2016, in Washington, D.C. Among the 40 academics, activists, Christians, Jews, journalists, Muslims, non-religious, and politicians present was Jonathan Bornman, global consultant serving with Eastern Mennonite Missions.
“I don’t think I have ever been in a more diverse working group,” said Bornman, a member of EMM’s Christian Muslim Relations Team. “We came together because we all believe that religious freedom is a bedrock of American culture and that religious freedom means freedom for all religions, including Islam. In light of this, we are concerned about the rising anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S.”
The Washington work group identified numerous factors feeding this rise: fear that grows in response to violence promoted in the name of Islam, failure to understand the diversity of Islam, American involvement in long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, economic insecurity, and political candidates and media who legitimize anti-Muslim sentiment.
“This anti-Muslim sentiment is not just ‘out there’ somewhere. It happens here,” said Bornman, referring to his hometown of Lancaster, Pa. “Many Muslim refugees have been resettled here. Over the past two months I have talked with a young man whose middle school-aged sister, who dresses in traditional hijab, was called 'ISIS' and had her scarf pulled at school. I have talked with an imam who told of children coming to Arabic class being taunted with 'ISIS, ISIS, ISIS' on the street in front of the mosque.”
At a June 15 Iftar celebration, Lancaster Muslims told Bornman of the sense of threat and pressure they live under. Ugly, uncivil speech in the public arena and in current political campaigns is creating tension, suspicion, and bullying in the community.
The leaders who gathered committed to ongoing work to restore civil dialogue and to combat the increase in anti-Muslim speech and behavior. An immediate priority is spreading the word about the upcoming Eid al-Adha, an important Muslim feast which commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son.
This year Eid al-Adha will be celebrated close to or on 9/11, a day when Americans, including Muslim Americans, will remember and mourn the loss of over 3,000 lives during the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S. carried out by militants associated with the Islamic extremist group Al-Qaeda. Many Muslims worry about hate crimes this September because others may assume they are celebrating 9/11 rather than a religious feast.
Muslim festivals follow the traditional lunar calendar. They occur at a different time each year in our modern calendar. “So there is no connection, other than proximity in time, between this year’s celebration of Eid al-Adha and 9/11, no intent within the American Muslim community to communicate disrespect for the grief of those who lost loved ones,” said Bornman.
In Bornman’s presentation to the Washington group, he shared a case study of Christian-Muslim interaction in Kenya that highlighted dialogue, witness, peacemaking, and hospitality — four activities that Jesus called his followers to actively engage. “As you might guess, the word ‘witness’ provoked some questions in this diverse group,” said Bornman. “However, there was real openness to what I shared, including the fact that both Christians and Muslims are committed to ‘bearing witness.’ Although we disagree about the content of that witness, we agree that freedom to bear witness to what we believe is an essential religious freedom.”
Going forward, these concerned leaders hope to catalyze new initiatives that emulate projects and strategies which have already been successful in combating anti-Muslim speech and behavior. Examples include Faith Angle Forum, which trains journalists to accurately understand the religious dimensions of stories they report. Muslim Funny Fest features Muslim comedians who perform across the U.S., including recent performances in New York City. Miss-Understanding is a group of female Christian and Muslim theologians who meet to promote mutual understanding of their faiths.
EMM’s Christian Muslim Relations Team holds seminars for Christians on how to understand rather than fear Muslims and how to relate to Muslims. Team members refer to themselves as peacemakers confessing Christ, and all have extensive life experience among Muslims. More information about seminars and other resources is available at emm.org/peacemakers.