Honest Conversations with our Muslim Neighbors

By Katherine Bruns (Guest Blogger)

The CT Council for Interreligious Understanding (CCIU), the Muslim Coalition of CT, and Hartford Seminary presented the seventh in a series called “Honest Conversations with Muslim Neighbors” on January 28th, at the First Church in Middletown, CT, hosted by the Middletown Refugee Resettlement Coalition, of which First Church is a member. It was a well-attended event with about 120 attendees, deftly moderated by Trinity College professor Dr. Janet Bauer.

The four well-spoken panelists represented the diversity of Muslim voices in our community. The list of their accomplishments and involvement in the community is extensive and beyond what can be included in this short blurb. In brief they were: Dr. Reza Mansoor, a cardiologist and founder and past president of the Muslim Coalition of CT; Linda Miller, an African-American Muslim, long-time Middletown resident and retired teacher and nurse; Dr. Feryal Salem, Assistant Professor of Islamic Scriptures and Law at Hartford Seminary whose research focuses on early Islamic thought and the Islamic scholarly tradition; and Maryam Bitar, a native of Damascus, Syria and senior at Trinity in the IDP (adult Individualized Degree Program) and volunteer with the city of Hartford’s Commission on Refugee and Immigrant Affairs (CRIA).

After each panelist gave a brief introduction they took turns answering hand written questions from the audience, presented by the moderator. In the beginning there was a minor, though jarring interruption from about eight protesters who had entered the church and had been quietly handing out pamphlets opposing refugee resettlement as well as some hate speech before the discussion started. A few were escorted out politely and deftly by the pastor of the church. The rest remained and stayed quiet. It was a sobering reminder of the reality our “Muslim neighbors” face daily.

Dr Mansoor, when asked what the biggest challenge was in negotiating interfaith dialogue, replied that poll after poll reveals that the favorability rating of Muslims after 9/11 continues to decrease despite the reality that 60% of the respondents claim they do not personally know a Muslim. He pointed out that 10% of US physicians are Muslim so rather than coming to the U.S. to try to harm, as opponents to (Muslim) refugee resettlement might assert, they represent a significant portion of the healing profession. In response to further questions about “Muslim culture” (there is no one culture! – all the panelists pointed out), Dr Mansoor said that the values in Islam are no different than values held dear by other religions and peoples. He believes that the current “clash” stems more from a lack of knowledge than from real differences. He added that Arabic words like jihad and sharia have “taken a life of their own” in the United States, and proceeded to give in-depth description of both words and how they are misused both by the U.S. media and by ISIS.

Dr. Salem, asked why more Muslim leaders haven’t spoken out against ISIS, responded that indeed they have and encouraged attendees to read both the “Marrakesh Declaration” (http://marrakeshdeclaration.org/about.html) and “Letter to Baghdadi” (http://www.lettertobaghdadi.com). She also pointed out that the media help this misperception by focusing only on negative news and headline grabbing sound bites. She answered many questions about male/female equity and said that the Qur’an clearly states that women are equal to men and, like any religious text, Qur’anic scripture is sadly either taken out of context or interpreted in the narrowest terms. When asked about the difference between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims, she gave an explanation but made it clear that current fighting in the Middle East (a Euro-centric term, she interestingly pointed out) is political in nature and gave a historical rundown to the current situation.

As the only American-born, and African-American Muslim Ms Miller brought an important lens to the discussion. She pointed out that non Muslims should not look at the very small minority of Muslims represented by ISIS, other terrorist organizations or extremist clerics and think they represent the vast majority of Muslims any more than she should have looked at the KKK in the 1950’s and 1960’s and let them represent all of white America. When asked about how communities could help welcome refugees she gave several suggestions including volunteering with refugee resettlement organizations, offering to volunteer at schools and simply being kind to immigrants who clearly “look different.”

Maryam was asked if she faced discrimination. She replied yes but that she just turns the other cheek. She pointed out that she is named after (the Virgin) Mary, who is revered in Islamic scripture according to Dr. Salem, and comes from a town in Syria not far from a village that is the last that still speaks Aramaic – the language spoken by Jesus. She answered a question about whether Muslim women could leave their houses unescorted by pointing out that she left Syria and flew all the way to the United States by herself in 2010.

It was agreed by all that fear, stemming from the ignorance of facts about Islam, has led to the current view of Muslims in the United States, and to the reluctance to welcome more refugees. The more “Honest Conversations” that can be had, the better.

Looking ahead: Dr Mansoor welcomes youth to his Berlin Mosque on Sunday afternoon, February 14th for a “Youth Hang-out Day” (see the event calendar and contact info at www.berlinmosque,org). Further “Honest Conversations” will be held, including on February 21st in Suffield and March 1st in Windsor. Details will be available on CCIU’s website (www.ccfiu.org ) and Facebook page. In addition, the Wadsworth Atheneum, together with CCIU, will be presenting another Interfaith Film Series in March. (https://thewadsworth.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/2016-Winter-Spring-Film-FLyer-Web.pdf)