What’s Right with Islam

A sermon by the Rev. J. Mark Worth


1. From the Holy Qur’an (Koran): “Let there be no compulsion in religion: truth stands out clear from error. Whoever turns away from the forces of evil and believes in God will surely hold fast to a handle that is strong and unbreakable, for God hears all and knows everything.” Qur’an 2:256

  1. From Deepa Iyer, “The stories Americans tell about 9/11 leave out discrimination against Muslims,” The Guardian U.S. Edition, Sept. 11, 2015, found at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree

Most of the undergraduates in my courses on Asian- and South Asian American communities, were in kindergarten when the attacks of 11 September 2001 occurred, so they have lived in the reality of post-9/11 America for most of their lives.

But their ability to critically analyze our government’s policies and practices in the post-9/11 environment is limited, because the narrative about the day and its aftermath – lives lost; War on Terror triggered – excludes the stories of South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh communities in America and their ongoing experiences with hate violence, discrimination, government surveillance and profiling. …

Anti-Muslim sentiment is alive and well, with small businesses coming together to designate “Muslim-free zones” and right-wing groups protesting Islam in front of mosques, armed with guns. And the political rhetoric about Muslim, Arab and South Asian communities is still divisive and harmful, with presidential candidates deciding what they will do to them in order to protect the nation’s best interests.

It’s 2015, and not a month goes by without reports of hate violence targeting Muslims, Arabs, Sikhs and South Asians. This year began with the February murders of Yusor Abu-Salha, her husband Deah Barakat and her sister Razan Abu-Salha, Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. It continued with news from Bothell, Washington, where leaders of a Hindu temple found a swastika and “Get out” spray-painted on a wall and a nearby junior high school was vandalized with the words, “Muslims get out.” Just this week, days before we mark the 14th anniversary of 9/11, Inderjit Singh Mukker, a turbaned Sikh man, was assaulted while on his way to the grocery store in a Chicago suburb. The perpetrator apparently shouted, “Terrorist! Bin Laden! Go back to your country.”


We all remember 9/11. The attacks of that day were traumatic for most Americans. There was a fear of the unknown, especially the fear of another attack. I remember feeling very vulnerable, glad that I lived in a part of the country, Maine, that was unlikely to be attacked, yet expecting the worst. Recent events in Paris and San Bernidino, California, brought back many of those fears.

For Muslim-Americans there is probably a different fear. It is the fear that, no matter how moderate they might be, many of their fellow Americans might blame them for what a few radicals have done. I remember a news story from when the airlines began to fly after 9/11: a Sikh man, not a Muslim at all, was taken off an airplane because he wore a turban. Most Americans are religiously illiterate, and have no idea of the significant difference between Sikhs and Muslims.

Andrew Sullivan is an English journalist living in the United States. He favored George W. Bush in the 2000 election, and says he was an early supporter of President Bush’s “war on terror,” and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But in a 2011 article in Newsweek he said that by intervening in Afghanistan and invading Iraq, we gave Osama bin Laden exactly what he wanted. Bin Laden hoped that we would attack Afghanistan or Iraq, and that such an attack would radicalize young people in the Middle East.

We reacted out of fear and did what he wanted us to do. We weren’t thinking clearly, and so we allowed our political leaders to rush headlong into an unnecessary, poorly-planned, and incompetently-

handled war in Iraq. “About $2.6 trillion was spent in a decade of war,” Sullivan wrote. “The human cost – in lives, limbs, and loves, was incalculable. And not just for us. Millions of Iraqis lived through the closest human equivalent to hell for years as the incompetent occupation tore Iraq apart.”

Today the hope generated by the “Arab Spring” has been frustrated. Most Muslims reject the radicalism and brainless oppression of ISIS, al Qaeda, and Boko Haram. And neither do they want secular dictators like Bashar al-Assad. Yet they have been unable to achieve liberal democracy.

Overcoming fear ~

Bin Laden failed. But we failed, too. We failed to behave rationally. We sent our young people to fight and die in unnecessary and unwinable wars. We kidnapped and tortured people, including some who were entirely innocent. We abandoned our own principles. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was right: our biggest enemy is fear itself. Can we get over our irrational fear of Islam?

There is no doubt that religious extremism can produce terrorists. Does Christianity produce some extremists? Yes, of course! The Ku Klux Klan is a terrorist organization that claims to be Christian and patriotic. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was raised Catholic, and although he said he had become an agnostic, he took last rites, administered by a priest, just before his execution. Eric Robert Rudolph bombed gay nightclubs, women’s health clinics, and the Atlanta Summer Olympics in 1996, saying he was motivated by his Christian faith. In the name of Christianity, several people have murdered doctors and receptionists at clinics that provide abortions. In November of 2015, Robert Dear, who has praised the Christian terrorist organization that calls itself “the Army of God,” killed 3 people and injured 9 during a shooting rampage at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs.

We tend to not judge Christianity by its extremists, because we personally know a lot of 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 see on 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 admitted to being prejudiced 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 to being prejudiced against a religion they also admit they know almost nothing about!

Some basics ~

How many Americans know basic ideas, such as the fact that Muslims worship the same God that Christians and Jews worship? Do they know that “Allah” is simply the word for God in Arabic, and that Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews also call God “Allah”? If you are a Christian who lives in Bethlehem, you speak Arabic and the word you use for God is Allah.

Do Americans 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? How many know that, like Judaism and Christianity, Islam teaches the “Golden Rule,” to treat others as you wish to be treated? “No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother what he desires for himself.” – from the sayings of Muhammad, the Hadith of Bukhari.

Do Americans know that Islam promotes strong family and community values? Muslims and conservative Christians often express the very same values when it comes to issues such as alcohol, modesty, family, and community.

And consider the role of women in Islam. When I was preparing this sermon, I planned to say that while we have never elected a woman to our highest political office, four Muslim-majority nations have. But when I double-checked my facts, I discovered I was wrong. It’s not four, it’s seven! Turkey, Senegal, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, Indonesia, have all elected a woman President or Prime Minister.

The Qur’an says that both men and women should be dressed modestly, and yes, Muslim

women are generally expected to wear a headscarf of any color or material to cover the hair, but Islam does not require a woman’s face to be covered or hidden – that’s mostly a matter of culture, and is done only in a few countries. And many Muslim men and women understand the Qur’an (or Koran) to say only that women should dress modestly and cover their cleavage, and that it does not actually require a head covering.

Yes, it’s true that in Saudi Arabia women are still struggling to gain the right to drive cars. But that is more about the patriarchal culture of Saudi Arabia, and not necessarily about Islam. What does the Qur’an actually say about women driving automobiles? Nothing at all, of course! But we do know that the Prophet Muhammad’s wife, Khadija, rode a camel. Women drive cars in Indonesia, Bosnia, Egypt,Turkey, Algeria, Tunisia, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Albania, and other Islamic countries.

In his time, the Prophet Muhammad actually increased the rights of women, banning infanticide, and giving women the right to inherit and to testify in court, rights they had not previously had in Arabia. He was certainly not a modern feminist, but he did increase women’s rights.

And how many know that Muslims are the most discriminated-against religious group in the U.S., and that hundreds of Muslims every year are the victims of hate crimes? Can we openly address the issues of racism and religious prejudice aimed at Muslim-Americans?

Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf and Park51 ~

Four years ago Muslims opened YMCA-style community center in lower Manhattan. Although the community center contains a prayer space, the building is not a mosque. And it’s two-and-a-half blocks away from the World Trade Center site. So, although it was frequently criticized on Fox News as “The Ground Zero Mosque,” it is not really at ground zero and it is not a mosque!

Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, an initiator of the project, said he wanted to do something positive for the neighborhood, to rehabilitate one of the buildings that was damaged by debris in the 9/11 attack. He said he wanted to help heal the relationship between America and the Muslim world. Yet his efforts to do something positive were viewed almost entirely negatively.

In his book, What’s Right With Islam Is What’s Right With America, Imam Rauf points out that the three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – share two great commandments: First, to love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; and second, to love your neighbor as yourself, regardless of race, religion, or cultural background.

Muslims put great emphasis on worshiping God. Islamic acts of worship include praying five times a day, fasting during Ramadan, giving to charity, and making a pilgrimage to Mecca once in your lifetime, if possible. The great idea shared by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – that God is one – implies, Imam Rauf says, that all humans are equal, the children of one creation. The Qur’an teaches that because we are all descended from common parents, Adam and Eve, we are one human family, equal before God. Therefore we should not show preference to people based on their skin color, tribe, family, class, or gender.

Second, because we are equal, we have been given free will by our Creator, to accept or reject God. The Qur’an teaches “There shall be no coercion in religion” (Qur’an 2:256) because we have been created free to choose or reject God. “We are free to think for ourselves,” says Imam Rauf.

The prophets, he says, taught that liberty, equality, community, and social justice are essential to the human condition. Therefore, Imam Rauf says, the ideals of Islam are very close to the ideals that the United States is founded upon. Human rights, including the right to life, to freedom of opinion, freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of religion, and equality before the law, are basic human rights given by God in the Qur’an and promoted by Islam. Islamic ideals are closer to democratic American principles than they are to the dynasties and dictators who historically have ruled many Islamic nations.

We tend to forget that for many centuries Islam was more tolerant and pluralistic than Christianity was. From 800 to 1200 C.E., for instance, the Cordoba Caliphate ruled most of Spain, and

under Islamic rule, art, culture, philosophy and science flourished. Christian and Jewish scholars and intellectuals sought refuge in Spain because the Muslims granted much more religious freedom than the intolerant Christian kingdoms of Medieval Europe.

After Christians took over Spain they instituted the Spanish Inquisition to exile, torture, or execute all Muslims and Jews, and any Christians deemed to be heretics. Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, and Muslims were expelled in 1502.

In the Holy Land, although the Muslims had been generous to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and had permitted Jews and Christians to live and worship in peace in that city, in 1099 the invading Christian crusaders slaughtered men, women and children – and not just Muslims and Jews, but even their fellow Christians! Why did the crusaders massacre their fellow Christians in Jerusalem who took refuge in a Christian Church? Because they were the wrong denomination: Greek Orthodox, not Roman Catholic.

In modern times, many Islamic nations have been ruled by Europeans – Italy ruled Somalia and Libya, France ruled Algeria and Syria, Holland ruled Indonesia, and Great Britain ruled Palestine, Egypt, Sudan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Iraq. Europeans set new boundaries that created confusion and turmoil. The American C.I.A. overthrew the democratically elected prime minister of Iran in1953.

Despite a history of misunderstanding and distrust, Imam Rauf says that Islam can learn from America, and American can learn from Islam. America has perfected democratic capitalism, which provides greater prosperity than the world has ever seen before. And the American principle of separation of church and state allows all religious groups to be treated equally, so that no one religion can oppress another. This is something the Islamic world can learn from America, says the imam.

At the same time, Imam Rauf says Islam offers America cross-cultural dialogue, an enhanced pluralism, and the idea that freedom of religion does not need to mean an absence of religious faith and practice.

You may agree or disagree with what he says, but when you actually listen to this soft-spoken Muslim, he doesn’t seem scary at all. Here is a man who, not long ago, was demonized as the evil radical who wanted to build the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque.” Well, I’ve met him and spoken with him, and it turns out that he’s a flag-waving American.

Unitarian Universalism and Islam ~

Finally, a brief word about our own heritage. Francis David (in Hungarian he is David Ferenc), the pastor who established the Unitarian Church in Kolozsvar, Translylvania, back in 1568, took notice that his church sat near the border between the Roman Catholic Austrian Empire and the Muslim Ottoman Empire. Our Unitarian faith was Christian, and yet we agreed with Muslims in our common rejection of the Doctrine of the Trinity. We agree with Muslims that Jesus was in the prophetic tradition, but was not God. Rev. David saw Unitarianism as a possible bridge that might foster understanding between Christian Europe and the Islamic lands to the East. I hope that it is so.

Today our Unitarian Universalist tradition proclaims the inherent worth and dignity of every person, acceptance of one another, and a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Our history, principles, and traditions encourage us, I believe, to find a place of understanding and mutual respect between Christianity and Islam.

Can we overcome our fears? Can we talk respectfully between faith traditions, and listen respectfully? Fear can be overcome by hope. Until we stop demonizing one another, until we decide to be hopeful and respectful, the war will live on within us all.