Islam and America: A Discussion Among Planners

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The November terrorist attacks in Paris struck a nerve in this country, which nearly 15 years after Sept. 11, is still grappling with the role of Islamic faith in society. Within the meetings community, the views of Muslims are as diverse as the United States itself. We asked five planners from faith-based/cultural organizations—including the Muslim-based Islamic Society of North America—for their perspective. In your opinion, do religious Americans accept Islamic worshippers to the degree they accept Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, etc.? Basharat Saleem, director of conventions, conferences and marketing for Islamic Society of North America: As a professional within the meeting industry, I have not experienced any resistance with convention centers, hotels and other vendors. From a community standpoint, people may have a different view though. Glen Alexander Guytonchief operating officer for Mennonite Church USAAccept may not be the right word. Have we really accepted theology that does not agree with our own? Religion still deeply divides our nation across many lines. Within the Protestant community, we are still divided by race and denominational doctrine. In regards to the Muslim community, I think many people are confused and somewhat ignorant. Michelle Henderson, program coordinator for United Methodist AssociationMany Christian Americans I know accept all people as children of our creator. I sincerely hope Americans are open to loving our neighbors as Christ has called us to do. [inlinead align="left"]"I don’t accept or embrace the beliefs of many Christians, Mormons, Jews or Muslims. Nevertheless, as a Christian, I treat them as I would want to be treated."[/inlinead] Charles Melear, conference planner for United Church of GodI don’t accept or embrace the beliefs of many Christians, Mormons, Jews or Muslims. Nevertheless, as a Christian, I treat them as I would want to be treated. Islamic worshippers are not monolithic, just as Christians are not monolithic. American culture is basically one of living peacefully with others who don’t threaten their safety or long-term culture regardless of their faith. I just returned from Turkey. As an American and Christian, I always felt safe and welcomed. That would not be true in all Islamic nations. Rev. William E. Townes Jr., convention manager and vice president of convention finance for Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee: There is a growing awareness in the faith-based community that individuals who hold to religiously informed values and belief systems are increasingly being bombarded by a culture drifting toward secularism. I think these factors draw together many different faith-based groups to support each other’s right to exercise individual religious freedom and the inviolable nature of conscience and faith. Do you think mainstream religious groups welcome Islam into the American faith-based community?  SALEEM: Generally speaking, the broader interfaith community has been welcoming and supporting. As an organization, we have always worked closely with different places and they have been supportive of us. We have an office in Washington, D.C., with a full-time national director who deals with interfaith and government relations. GUYTON: The roots of [Islamic] theology are quite different. Being a Christian from an Anabaptist perspective is a combination of believing in Jesus, belonging to community and behaving in a reconciling way. Not all mainstream religious groups would feel the same way. HENDERSON: I have not personally known or witnessed any Islamic persons who sought acceptance by the American faith-based community. It is my perception that Islamic worshipers largely prefer to remain separate from Christians, but I have no personal experience to draw upon. MELEAR: Any faith-based organization is welcome as far as I have seen. [inlinead align="left"]"We must denounce religious persecution and intolerance in all areas."[/inlinead] TOWNES: Despite the fact that many Muslim countries abridge religious freedom for their citizens, it is important the American faith-based community fosters each individual’s right to worship without interference by civil powers. We must denounce religious persecution and intolerance in all areas, as long as this worship respects, embraces and protects each other’s right to worship God as the conscience of the individual dictates. What actions can the American faith-based community take to promote inclusiveness and improve relations with Muslims? SALEEM: We have to continue to collaborate at national and local levels, working on projects together with different faith groups. For example, we’ve done projects with various faith groups to help stop hunger. At our 2013 convention in Washington, D.C., we packaged almost 50,000 meals as part of that alliance. GUYTON: Intentional dialogueIn the Mennonite church, we try to dialogue with the broader religious community. HENDERSON: As a Christian, I accept that I cannot control the world, so I must put my faith in the Lord to work those things out. When I build relationships with a person of any faith, I always want to give grace because that is what I received from the Lord. He has called me to love my neighbors. [inlinead align="left"]"We are not going to pray to Allah, and I wouldn’t expect someone practicing Islam or Judaism to worship Jesus."[/inlinead] MELEAR: To improve a relationship means both sides have to agree to treat each other with respect and love and follow the laws of the community in which they live. Let’s work together in our communities to reduce crime, have a cleaner city, feed the poor, etc., but there wouldn’t be inclusiveness in terms of religious services. We are not going to pray to Allah, and I wouldn’t expect someone practicing Islam or Judaism to worship Jesus. TOWNES: A renewed commitment from the entire faith-based community to advocate for religious liberty both at home and around the world would be incredibly beneficial. Should America be more tolerant of all religions? SALEEM: We’re a nation of different faiths and beliefs, and we should be tolerant of all people no matter what they believe. At the end of the day we are all one human family wanting to make things better. That’s our goal as citizens of this nation and as an organization. [inlinead align="left"]"We need to be more tolerant. This country is supposed to be the great melting pot."[/inlinead] GUYTON: Yes, we need to be more tolerant. This country is supposed to be the great melting pot. As Christians, our first duty should be to love people. Tolerance does not mean religious assimilation, but we should be able to practice our faith (or lack of faith) in peace. If you aren’t a Christian, the Constitution provides for the freedom of religion. HENDERSON: For myself, it’s a challenge every day to focus on loving others and being who I am supposed to be. I don’t know that I should decide how America should feel about religions. If a person says they are a believer, they must be informed about what they believe and passionately committed to following their belief without hurting others. MELEAR: The history of America is an example of generation after generation growing in toleration. Most of the American state constitutions in 1776 required a person to proclaim Christianity to be a governmental worker or representative. One state even required belief in the Trinity. In other words, specific doctrines were a part of the law. Slowly that expanded to allowing those of Jewish faith to run for office. Then, ultimately, any religion or even atheists could serve. At least one congressman was sworn in using the Quran. TOWNES: America should continue to welcome all people irrespective of their religious affiliation. Early American Baptist leaders such as Isaac Backus and John Leland were instrumental in supporting the Bill of Rights, which included our fundamental right of religious liberty to ensure freedom of worship without interference from government. The challenge is increasingly evident that people of faith who are guided by their religious convictions are facing ostracism and intolerance from society at large.