Reflecting on their visit to a mosque in southwest Houston, the college students I took there shared that the visit had changed their conception of Muslims, made them want to learn more about Islam and encouraged them to stop fearing every Muslim and instead seek to engage with them in conversation.
These were conservative Christian college students. Not progressive liberal tertiary educated hippies.
Taking the opportunity to listen, to talk, to ask questions, to grow in their understanding and actually get to know a Muslim man (who surprised them by acting and talking “like a normal human being”) changed their perception of Islam. Whereas before they viewed Islam as something to automatically fear they now understood it as something to learn more about. In regards to Muslims themselves they were no longer people to be instinctively distrusted, but instead people to get to know and befriend.
To say the least, I was massively encouraged by the occurrence and such reflections from the students in attendance. The visit to the mosque was a consciousness raising event.
This experience brings the recent arson attack at another local Houston mosque into sharp contrast.
Within weeks there were two groups of non-Muslims visiting a mosque in southwest Houston. One group came to listen, to ask questions and to understand. The other to maim and destroy.
On Saturday May 14 two men arrived at Madrasah Islamiah, doused portions of it in gasoline and then set it ablaze. Thankfully the mosque was spared total destruction, but much worse damage was done to the local psyche.
According to a KHOU 11 interview a mosque member, Atif Fattah, said, “There wasn’t significant damage. It was the act itself that’s scary.”
Mustafaa Carroll of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) claims the event qualifies as a hate-crime and has involved the FBI in the investigation. His dour reflection is that the event was bread by fear and distrust, and that unfortunately, where there is mistrust, hate is not too far behind (read more of the KHOU report here)
Distrust of another individual or group of people is often based on fear. Automatic fear and distrust is bread by ignorance. Ignorance bred by lack of experience or education. As religious commentators Putnam and Campbell mention in their tome on American religion, American Grace, that the United States is rife with religious tension. What keeps us from abject sectarian violence like that recently occurring in Egypt is the fact that we are related to Muslims, Atheists and Catholics. We work with Protestants, Hindus and Buddhists. While we may hold to one belief, we are often involved in a familial or friendly relationship with someone of another faith. Thus, America’s religious pluralism does not explode into religious violence…too often.
Sadly, it did here in Houston just days ago.
As many of you know, I am all for religious education, but it is my growing conviction that religious education in book, lecture or discussion form, although beneficial, is not enough. Religious experience and interaction with people of other faiths leads to better interreligious dialogue and more positive interactions in the community between people of various religious backgrounds. While transactional education often gives people information to weave into their own presuppositions, religious experiences transform people’s presuppositions, misconceptions and distrust.
Carroll aptly notes that with distrust comes hate, and with hate comes violence.
My hope is that with experience comes friendship, and with friendship comes trust, and with trust a little less violence. My experiences tell me that this is often the case when individuals are given the chance to meet, talk and interact with people of other faiths.
Knowing that positive experiences breed friendship, growing trust and greater understanding, my question is what type of experiences, or lack thereof, brought such distrust in the two individuals who set fire to the mosque last Saturday? What happened that their thoughts turned from distrust to the hate that lurks behind such fear?
What about you? What have been your direct interactions with Muslims in the USA? What have you learned? If you were in the class that visited the mosque with me, what are your thoughts and reflections?