The Common Good
February 2009

The New Face of Islam

by Jim Wallis | February 2009

The answer to fundamentalist religion is prophetic religion.

Here’s a principle: Religious extremism is best undermined from within, rather than smashed from without.

There is now ample evidence that the latter strategy does not work and often makes things worse. For example, both right-wing Christians and zealous political neo-conservatives have a preference for military solutions to the real threats created by Islamic extremism. This issue of Sojourners highlights another, better way by offering a look at the new face of Islam.

Another principle: The best antidote to the religious fundamentalism in our faith traditions can be found—in every case—within the prophetic tradition of the religions themselves. The answer to bad religion is not secularism, as the new atheists like to claim; rather, it is better religion.

And a third principle: The best thing that moderate and progressive Christians can do in the struggle with fundamentalism in other faiths is to make a powerful alliance with the moderate and progressive leaders and communities in those very faith communities. The answer to fundamentalist religion is prophetic religion, and a new alliance between prophetic religious leaders, across faith lines, is the best way to defeat the threats of modern fundamentalism.

Two of my favorite voices on prophetic Islam are Eboo Patel and Daisy Khan, whom we feature in this issue of Sojourners.

Eboo Patel is one of the most dynamic and charismatic young leaders I know, and he gives me a great deal of hope. He has created the Interfaith Youth Core, which gets young people talking and working together across faith lines. Eboo is an author, activist, and stump preacher in the best of the revival tradition. Here’s some of what Eboo says:

“If religious extremism is a movement of young people acting, and interfaith cooperation is a movement of senior theologians talking—then we lose.”

“The noise about religion and religious diversity is dominated by the voices of aggressive atheists who hate religion, religious extremists who hate people, and religious bigots who hate Islam.”

“We are creating a new category in American and global life, which is the category of interfaith cooperation. Right now, people need to see a progressive Muslim.”

DAISY KHAN IS so bold she organizes Muslim women to change the image and the reality of Islam across the world. Flying in the face of common perceptions about the subordinate role of women in Islam, Daisy sees women as a vanguard of change within her own faith. And like Eboo, she focuses on a new generation. According to Daisy:

“Islam is becoming an American religion, and this represents a victory for all Americans who cherish our nation as a beacon of tolerance and acceptance of all traditions.”

“Now as Muslims continue to find our way in American public life, we ask Christians to respect and support us. We ask them to consider us citizens, allies, and brothers and sisters in faith, rather than strang­ers, enemies, or competitors for devotees. Hear us and help us tell our story.”

“I firmly believe that the core values of Islam—faith in and obedience to the Divine, reverence for individual rights and communal well-being, compassion and justice, respect for pluralism and diversity—are entirely resonant with American values.”

ANOTHER NEW FACE of Islam is Rep. Keith Ellison, elected to Congress from Minnesota in 2006. Ellison was the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress and stirred controversy by deciding to take the oath of office by putting his hand on the Quran instead of the Bible when being sworn in. In a brilliant move, Ellison asked the Library of Congress if he might borrow a special copy of the Quran from their collection, a book owned by Thomas Jefferson, to use in the ceremony. That reminded people of how Jefferson supported religious diversity and the separation of church and state. In 1777, Jefferson drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which said “that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” That statute became a foundation for the similar religious clauses in the Bill of Rights.

Despite this, attacking Ellison became popular among conservative talk-show hosts, some conservative Christians, and then-Rep. Virgil Goode, a conservative Republican mem­­ber of Congress from Virginia who went on a tirade against Islam and warned that Americans should close their borders to Muslims. (In this fall’s election, Virgil Goode lost his secure incumbent seat to Tom Perriello, a young Christian activist for social justice.)

A couple years ago I invited Ellison, an African-American convert to Islam whose family roots in America trace back to 1741, to speak at a poverty mobilization because of his long record of anti-poverty activism. I introduced him by saying that while some Christians seemed upset by his election to Congress, the Christian advocates gathered that day in the capital were very happy to have him there—which brought several hundred activists to their feet in a standing ovation, clearly moving the young member of Congress.

One of the most stirring defenses of religious liberty on behalf of Muslims in America came from Colin Powell, appearing near the end of the election campaign on NBC’s Meet the Press, as he endorsed Barack Obama:

“I’m also troubled by ... what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, ‘Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.’ Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian.

“But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America.

“Is there something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, ‘He’s a Muslim and he might be associated [with] terrorists.’ This is not the way we should be doing it in America.”

Amen.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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