Religious Prejudice and Islam

Consider This column in The Harvard Press, November 3, 2016

By Rev. J. Mark Worth

The Police Log in the October 21 Harvard Press reports that anti-Muslim graffiti was painted on the wall of the Route 2 overpass on Depot Road. A local family believed the graffiti was directed against them.

What kind of nation are we? ;In the 20th Century it was often said that the United States had three religious faiths: Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism. Today we are a nation of Catholics, evangelical Protestants, “mainline” Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, agnostics, humanists, and many other groups.

And, in fact, there have been Muslims in our land since at least 1568. George Washington wrote that he was willing to hire workers of any religion, “They may be Mahometans [Muslims], Jews, or Christians of any sect, or atheists.” And defending religious pluralism, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “neither Pagan nor Muhammadan [Muslim] nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the Commonwealth due to his religion.”

Prominent American Muslims include, or have included, Congressman Keith Ellison, boxer Muhammad Ali, civil rights activist Malcolm X, comedian Aasif Mandvi, jazz musician Art Blakey, singer Jermaine Jackson, television’s “Dr. Oz” (Memhet Oz), Nobel Prize-winning chemist Ahmed Zewail, basketball’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, religious scholar and author Reza Aslan, CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria, and many others. There are 3.3 million Muslim-Americans in the United States today. That’s three times as many Americans as belong to the denominations in Harvard represented on either end of the Town Common, the United Church of Christ (the Congregationalists) and the Unitarian Universalist Association, combined.

What kind of nation are we? In the midst of the divisive rhetoric of this election year we must ask ourselves, are we a nation of religious liberty as our Constitution promises?

Yes, we remember the attacks of 9/11. That day was traumatic for all Americans. I remember feeling very vulnerable, glad that I lived in a small community that was unlikely to be attacked, yet expecting the worst. 
For Americans of Middle Eastern heritage there was probably a different fear. It was the fear that, whether or not they were Muslim, and no matter how moderate they might be, many of their fellow Americans might blame them for what a few radicals had done. 
 I remember a news story from when the airlines began to fly again: a Sikh man, not a Muslim at all, was taken off an airplane because he wore a turban. Most Americans still have no idea of the difference between Sikhs and Muslims.
 There are many religious extremists around the world: Does Christianity produce some extremists? Yes. There was Jim Jones of the Jonestown massacre, and David Koresh in Waco, Texas. In the name of Christianity, people have murdered doctors who provide abortions. Eric Robert Rudolph bombed gay nightclubs and the Atlanta Summer Olympics in 1996, saying he was motivated by his Christian faith. But we tend to not judge Christianity by its extremists, because we personally know so many sensible and likeable Christians.
 But if you don’t know any Muslims at all (and polls say that most Americans admit they don’t) then you might tend to judge all Muslims by the negative reports you read in the news, or the fictional Muslims who are portrayed as the bad guys on TV and in movies.
 A Pew Research poll in 2010 found that 43% of Americans said that they feel prejudice against Muslims. At the same time, 85% of those polled said they knew very little, or nothing at all, about Islam. So apparently many Americans admit they are prejudiced against a religion they admit they know very little about.
 How many Americans know basics? Do they know that Islam, Judaism, and Christianity all share roots in the story of the Biblical patriarch Abraham? How many know that Islam has a very high regard for Jesus, teaching that he was a great prophet, and that his mother was a virgin? How many know that, like Judaism and Christianity, Islam teaches the “Golden Rule,” to treat others as you wish to be treated? Yes, it’s true that in Saudi Arabia women are not allowed to drive cars.But that has nothing to do with Islam. Women drive cars in Egypt, Indonesia, Turkey, Algeria, Tunisia, Pakistan, and other Islamic countries. What does the Qur’an actually say about women driving automobiles? Nothing at all! But we do know that Muhammad’s wife, Khadija, rode a camel.

We have not yet elected a woman president, but Muslim-majority nations have been led by a woman in the top political office nine different times. Turkey, Pakistan, Kosovo, Senegal, Kyrgystan, Mauritius, and Indonesia have all had at a woman Prime Minister, and Bangladesh has had two.
 Some Americans claim that the Qur’an teaches violence. As a religious leader, I’ve studied both the Bible and the Qur’an. Frankly, I find the Bible to be more violent than the Qur’an.

Of course, you can cherry pick either book and make it sound violent. For instance, the Bible tells us, “Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks,” Psalm 137:9. We know that is not the tone of the whole of the Bible, which also tells us, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” But that’s the point. If we just look for the violent verses, they can be found in both the Bible and the Qur’an. And both also teach peace. The Qur’an says, “There shall be no compulsion in religion,” Qur’an 2:256.

Yes, there are some violent Muslims. There are some violent people of all religions, and of no religion, in this world. 
 Can we overcome our fears? Can we talk respectfully between faith traditions, and listen respectfully? Fear can be overcome by hope. Until we decide to be respectful, the war will live on within us all.

Rev. J. Mark Worth, interim minister

Harvard Unitarian Universalist Church