Interfaith effort in Menlo Park seeks to unite what political rhetoric divides

By Maha Elgenaidi, Executive Director.

This opinion originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Our country is living through a time of intense polarization and suspicion — especially in regard to Muslims. Efforts to restrict Muslims’ travel and immigration, and proposals to register Muslims and surveil mosques, bear witness to deep-seated fears and divisions that threaten our nation’s traditional commitment to tolerance and pluralism. Stereotypes prevail even at the highest levels of government, as we saw this week when President Trump retweeted violent anti-Muslim propaganda videos on Twitter.

Left unchecked, stereotypes many of us hold about groups that are “different” can morph into much worse manifestations of ignorance: the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., numerous instances of mosque vandalism across the country, and the senseless desecration of Jewish cemeteries, among others.

That’s why Trinity Episcopal Church in Menlo Park has partnered with Islamic Networks Group in San Jose and with other local Muslim and interfaith organizations to deliver a series of workshops and community talks to dispel common stereotypes about Muslims and Islam.

Trinity Church is engaging with Muslims because they face the most intense distrust in the United States today. A recent FBI report shows a 26 percent rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes from 2015 to 2016, and in a recent poll Muslims were ranked as the religion eliciting the least favorable feelings in America; on a “warm feelings” scale of 100 they rated a rather cool 48, just two points below atheists at 50.

This isn’t surprising when you consider that few of us regularly interact with Muslims. Carol, a Trinity parishioner, noted as much after a recent event featuring a Muslim speaker, saying, “We often don’t know we have stereotypes because we think they’re simply the truth!”

This misbegotten Islamophobia contributes to further division in our society. Mainstream Christians need to stand up loudly and courageously against these currents of anti-American thought. After all, our Constitution’s First Amendment promises the free exercise of religion in this country.

The Bible and the Quran both call their readers to experience the great diversity the world has to offer — without abandoning our own religious convictions. We firmly believe that nothing could be more pleasing to God than a global chorus of worshipers raising a multitude of holy names to the sky.

We’re not starting from scratch. The Lambeth Conference of 1988 affirmed the Episcopal Church’s view of Islam and Judaism, noting: “These faiths, which at times have been fiercely antagonistic to one another, have a particular responsibility for bringing about a fresh, constructive relationship.”

Likewise, Muslims have also committed themselves to the task of dialogue. The 2007 document “A Common Word between Us and You,” a letter signed by more than 130 Muslim religious leaders addressed to then-Pope Benedict XVI, the Patriarchs of the Orthodox Churches, and the leaders of the largest Protestant denominations, states: “Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world’s population. Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world.”

Trinity Church is making it happen, most recently with a “Hearts for Justice” conference, which brought religious leaders together to discuss the practice of various faiths in America. The church also held a talk by noted author Sumbul Ali-Karamali on “Jihad and Pluralism in Islam” followed by Maha Elgenaidi from ING (the co-author of this commentary) speaking about the diversity of Muslim women around the world. Starting in January, guest speakers will come to teach a four-week “Introduction to Islam” course. Even more is planned for 2018.

Trinity Episcopal Church — and more importantly, its members — want to move the dial on interfaith community building in the Bay Area and beyond.

This kind of programming works. After one presentation by a Muslim speaker, a parishioner shared with the Rev. Matthew Dutton-Gillett from Trinity (the other co-author) that she and another parishioner began what became a 90-minute conversation about the relationship between Christianity and Islam. The discussion suggested a new openness on the part of some congregants to revise stereotypes they had held about Muslims.

This is a call to join us in this effort. It is specifically a call to white mainstream Christians, whose identity has been dangerously co-opted by divisive forces in our politics and media.

Extremists in both Islam and Christianity can claim ownership of their respective faiths all they want, but they can never co-opt our moral courage to stand up and do what is right.

And doing what is right is, in this case, blessedly easy — it is to know your neighbor — or better, to love your neighbor. There is no alternative that satisfies the basic demands of Islam and Christianity as that simple command does. Join us.