Righting Our Narrative

By Bernie Pelletier

On December 20th, 2015, Mr. John Larson, U.S. Representative for Connecticut’s 1st Congressional District convened an interfaith panel of 4 muslim representatives (2 imams and 2 heads of Islamic centers), a rabbi, and a priest for a roundtable discussion on tolerance and inclusion. The event took place at the Hartford Public Library and panelists included Rabbi Debra Cantor, B’nai Tikvoh – Sholom, Father Michael Dolan, Pastor of St. Margaret Mary’s Church in South Windsor, Imam Kashif Abdul-Karim – Muhammad Islamic Center of Greater Hartford, Mr. Abdul-Shahid Muhammad Ansari – Head of the Greater Hartford NAACP, Imam Mirzet Ef. Mehmedovic Bosnian American Islamic Center, Hartford, and Mr. Khamis Abu-Hasaballah, President of the Farmington Valley American Muslim Center.

Representative Larson moderated a passionate 2-hour session. He started off describing a similar meeting in West Hartford where Dr. Saud Anwar, former mayor of South Windsor and Representative Larson led a similar discussion. Larson started the session saying:

“Hate has no place in America. Though we have heard some alarming rhetoric in the wake of the horrific attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, now is the time for unity and tolerance, for voices of faith to rise above the fray. To that end, I am hosting a discussion with leaders in the Muslim, Jewish, & Christian communities to discuss interfaith partnerships and dispel some of the divisive rhetoric towards Islam.”

Larson’s first question seemed like a “softball” question: “If someone wants to learn more – where do they go for information?” But the question proved to be surprisingly hard to answer. The panelists suggested that interested people should visit a local mosque, find a trusted Muslim friend, find an authentic Quran with Arabic and English translation, contact the Saudi embassy for a free, and authentic Quran and read works by John Esposito. And yet, conversely, the panel cautioned not to read the Quran without a teacher who can provide the context and under no circumstances rely on “Google” searches because of the prevalence of deliberately misleading websites. The exchange underscored the importance and difficulty in countering decades of ignorance and deliberate misinformation to confound and confuse the uninitiated.

Larson made the point that some of the difficulty is as simple as language. He and others observed that Allah – is the Arabic word for God. In Arabic-speaking lands Christians, Jews, and Muslims – all use this term for their God. Yet – in the United States – many non-Muslims’ believe that Muslims worship a different God. Such basic misinformation makes clear the amount of work needed to be done.

All the panelists agreed with Father Dolan that one of the most effective ways to improve relations in the community is “to meet each other doing good”. There was also agreement amongst all panelists that given the tone of politics today, merely being inwardly-focused was not enough.

Rabbi Cantor spoke movingly of her synagogue where many members had lost family in the holocaust–they felt acutely the change in political climate and were therefore speaking out against it.

Imam Mehmedovic spoke of his life in Bosnia during the ethnic violence there. He recalled running through the woods when he was only 12 not knowing if he would live to the end of the day. When he got to the US as a young man, he felt safe – and focused on creating a mosque in the south end of Hartford. But now he felt strongly about reaching out to the greater community

Khamis Abu-Hasaballah described a very similar story. He emigrated from Gaza and like Mehmedovic felt safe and secure for a long time. Now he is working hard at the Farmington Valley Muslim Center to make it a welcoming place for all the faiths (and even atheists).

Imam Kashif Abdul-Karim and Abdul-Shahid Muhammad Ansari spoke of their shared experience as African-American Muslims. They spoke of the need to reach across religious and racial lines on issues of economic and racial justice. Working to understand and influence the media was high on their list of steps to improve Muslim- non-Muslim relations. Imam Abdul – Karim emphasized the need to “right our narrative”.

Representative Larson ended the session with a call to action. He requested those assembled to think of “zip code 06120”, the poorest zip code in Connecticut, as an opportunity to “right our narrative” by working together on the problems of poverty, racism, alienation, and violence. He noted that the media had been invited to cover this event – and that no members of the media were in attendance. This is the struggle we all face – to address a perception problem when the media selectively covers violence and confrontation and ignores outreach and dialogue.

It is appropriate to close with a famous quote from Rabbi Hillel “If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?”