In the wake of terror in Paris and in San Bernardino, California and the xenophobic tone of Republican politics in the U.S., Islam has dominated interreligious news as we close out 2015. In the month’s ugliest story, a severed pig’s head was thrown on the doorstep of Al Aqsa Mosque in Philadelphia, disturbing morning prayers and drawing the quick condemnation by Mayor-elect Jim Kenney. He said “The bigotry that desecrated Al-Aqsa mosque today has no place in Philadelphia.”
And the most heart-warming story: Seven-year-old Jack Swanson for years has been saving his money to buy an Apple I-Pad. But when the south Texas boy heard about a hate-crime that had vandalized a local mosque, he donated his collection, $20, to the mosque. Faisal Naem, a board member from the Islamic Center of Pflugerville, was so moved by the donation that he responded by sending Jack a new I-Pad, saying the $20 donation felt like a $20 million gift.
The debate around Syrian refugees coming to the U.S. has been loud and fierce, and religious communities are stepping forward with a welcome. An interfaith group in Tulsa, Oklahoma is organizing to support Syrian refugees into their community. Religious and community leaders are acting in response to their mayor, Oklahoma’s governor, and a wave of Republican voices calling for Syrians to be kept out of the country. Former Tulsa police chief Drew Diamond said that the core goal should be “to be welcoming and compassionate, and not frightened people who give up our humanity out of fear.”
After meeting with Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who would like to ban all Syrian refugees from the state, Archbishop Joseph Tobin reaffirmed that the Archdiocese of Indianapolis will welcome a Syrian family that has been vetted for the past two years. It was a relief, at least symbolically, coming on the heels of Donald Trump’s proposal to shred religious freedom in America by forbidding all Muslims entry. In St. Petersburg, Florida, Mayor RickKriseman tweeted that Donald Trump is “barred” from entering St. Petersburg “until we fully understand the dangerous threat posed by all Trumps,” mimicking Trump’s proposal regarding Muslims. In this Islamophobic atmosphere, it was reassuring to hear that 51 percent of Americans view Muslims as they view any other community, as opposed to 14.6 percent who are fearful of Muslims.
And in case you’ve been perplexed by some claims about Muslim opinions, solid new statistics show that by large majorities most Muslims around the world have extremely unfavorable opinions ofISIS. Data the Pew Research Center collected in 11 countries with significant Muslim populations, people from Nigeria to Jordan to Indonesia, make their judgment clear. In no country surveyed did more than 15 percent of the population show favorable attitudes toward the Islamic State. And in countries with mixed religious and ethnic populations, negative views of ISIS cut across these lines.
The world’s largest annual religious pilgrimage is Muslim, but not the Hajj to Mecca, which draws about two million a year. Rather, 20 million were expected to join the “Chehlum” journey, also known as the Arbaeem, earlier this month, walking 50 miles or more to reach Karbala, Iraq. The pilgrimage commemorates and mourns the 40th day after the death of Imam Hussain, a central figure in Shia history. The annual gathering, resurrected after the death of Saddam Hussain, who had forbidden it, went forward even as the Sunni forces of the Islamic State publically planned to repeat the suicide bombing incidents that marred last year’s pilgrimage. The number of pilgrims in recent years keeps growing, undiminished by war.
Speaking of pilgrimages, Pope Francis’ recent trip to three countries in Africa was an exercise in courage and interfaith conviction. In the Central Africa Republic, currently suffering from Christian-Muslim warfare, he visited dangerous communities as an interfaith bridge-builder. He made a particularly strong case for interfaith relationships in Kenya, saying “Ecumenical and interreligious dialogue is not a luxury. It is not something extra or optional, but essential, something which our world, wounded by conflict and division, increasingly needs.”
Meanwhile, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative American think-tank, sponsored a panel of Muslim leaders who think that Muslims need to acknowledge that “Terror is a Muslim issue, an Islamic issue within the house of Islam,” said M. Zuhdi Jasser, “and we must own it” in order to fight and reform it. Reporting for Religion News Service, Cathy Lynn Grossman insightfully notes that “Their stance against literalist interpretation of scripture, their insistence that Muslims take their religion in a progressive direction, and their support for nonpolitical religion, are themes that are also debated among U.S. Christians.” It’s jarring to realize that a conservative outfit like the Heritage Foundation is promoting progressive, liberal religion, but from Muslims, not Christians.
An equally surprising document emerged this month from Orthodox Judaism. Religion News Service reported that “a statement by a group of Orthodox rabbis calls Christianity part of a divine plan in which God would have Jews and Christians work together to redeem the world.” The statement says “Now that the Catholic Church has acknowledged the eternal Covenant between God and Israel [through Nostra Aetate, a 50-year-old Catholic document strongly reaffirmed by Pope Francis], we Jews can acknowledge the ongoing constructive validity of Christianity as our partner in world redemption, without any fear that this will be exploited for missionary purposes.”
And on a mournful note, a Palestinian poet, Ashraf Fayadh, has been condemned to death for allegedly renouncing the Muslim faith, or apostasy. The court’s judges in Saudi Arabia are Muslim clerics from the Wahabbi sect, one of the most conservative of all Islam’s sects. Saudi Arabia’s vast oil reserves have saved their monarchy from much criticism about Wahabbism’s fundamentalist theology and global proselytism. But that could be changing. Germany’s Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel has called on Saudi Arabia to quit funding Wahabbi educational programs around the world.
Sumerian Religion in Iceland, UK Celebrates First Annual Interfaith Week
Citizens of Iceland pay a government religion tax and have to provide considerable religious information regarding membership, to the increasing annoyance of the public. A new religion, Zuism, based on ancient Sumerian hymns, which Zuist leaders say they sing, has been established. Zuism promises anyone over 16 who registers with the new faith will get back their religion tax. Hundreds have signed up, with the government warning them they’ll have to pay taxes on the refund.
More than 300 gathered in London on November 17 for a Interfaith Summit during the first National Interfaith Week in the UK. It was organized by the 3 Faiths Forum, a leading interfaith organization in the UK. Panels, lectures, and music and drama presentations were scheduled through the day.
Shedding Religious Extremism
"UNFOLLOW - How a Prized Daughter of the Westboro Baptist Church Came to Question its Beliefs" by Adrian Chen should be required reading for anyone involved with interfaith dialogue who has wondered how to deal with “fundamentalists,” people who believe their truth is the only truth. The New Yorker profile of Megan Phelps-Roper may be the most beautiful conversion story you’ve ever read and is full of lessons to be learned.