By Nicole Magney
As the so-called Islamic State (IS) continues to gain ground in parts of Syria and Iraq, it is easy to fall into a state of hopelessness about the fate of the region and more broadly, the Muslim world. While many people are focused on how to combat IS now, as they rightly should be, we must also turn toward the future to ensure that something similar to the rise of IS does not happen again. Of course, there is no magic bullet for preventing religious extremism. It exists in all religions and will not be expunged anytime soon. However, one practical step toward the goal of eliminating the dramatic rise of extremist groups is to foster deeper understanding and respect across religious lines.
Toward the above end in South Asia, the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD) launched an Interfaith Leadership Network (ILN) earlier this year. The Network involved religious and interfaith leaders from Pakistan and the United States who met with the goal of reducing intolerance and the mistreatment of religious minorities in their respective countries. In the United States, this related to the spread and impact of Islamophobia. In the Network’s first meeting, which took place in Nepal this past January, the participants outlined common concerns and challenges relating to violence, fear, exclusion, and intolerance.
The conference in Nepal went beyond dialogue, and was ultimately a strategic collaboration between participants on how best to protect religious communities other than their own. One participant remarked in jest, “some members of my community fear that I am here building ‘Chrislam’!” However, far from a “merging of ideologies,” both Christians and Muslims sought and shared sources from their sacred texts that compel them to protect minority faiths as part of their divine obligation. So, rather than debating or seeking unity in their separate doctrines, they met to encourage one another to fulfill the duties that their respective faith traditions require.
On the final day, as the Muslim participants gathered for Jumu’ah prayer, the Christians gathered in witness. Quite spontaneously, the Muslims then offered their prayer space to the Christians, and a gathering of Islamic faithful, which included Wahhabi and Deobandi leaders from remote areas of Pakistan, sat in observance. Each group gave a thoughtful reflection on what prayer meant for them. On a cold hillside overlooking the Himalayas, American Evangelical Christian Pastors with large congregations and Pakistani Deobandi Imams with religious and institutional authority over tens of thousands, sat in reverent appreciation of the sacred practices that each of the others embraced.
Our geopolitical environment seems to increasingly promote the idea that the religiously faithful from Christian and Muslim communities have irreconcilable differences that prevent constructive dialogue. In spite of that perception, devout Imams, Pastors, and other faith leaders traveled to one of the highest places on the planet (closer to heaven?) to discuss those differences. For American participants, an important part of the conference involved acquiring a more nuanced understanding of the challenges confronting religious minorities in Pakistan. Growing out of this new awareness was a keen appreciation for how the perceived treatment of American Muslims directly impacts the fate of Christians in Pakistan – and vice versa.
Extrapolating from this lesson, the highly publicized brutal treatment of religious minorities by IS, Pakistani Sunnis, and others, has contributed to a surge in Islamophobia in the United States. However, as is evident by the rejection and denunciation of these actions from Muslim leaders around the globe, extremist ideology does not represent that of the vast majority of Muslims. Examining their religiously-grounded arguments against the actions of IS, for example, reinforces the fact that an Islamophobic mindset will only serve to perpetuate further misunderstandings and misrepresentation of one of the world’s largest religions, alienating potential allies and feeding the narrative of extremist groups that America is a hostile enemy at war with Islam itself.
While American citizens cannot control how IS, or any other foreign entity, treats the religious minorities under their control, they can further ILN’s goals of interreligious cooperation by addressing problems of intolerance and conflict at home. This, in turn, will often ease the mistreatment of religious minorities abroad. As the participants at this first ILN conference discovered, better treatment of religious minorities in one’s own country often translates to better treatment of minorities elsewhere. With this in mind, ICRD is planning to conduct a conference on Islamophobia for American Evangelical Pastors in early 2015. In a world that is endlessly bombarded with reports of brutality and narrow-mindedness, any effort toward cross-religious understanding, respect, and tolerance can only bring us closer to a saner and more peaceful future.