The Common Good
February 2012

Friends and Neighbors

by Nancy Milio, Curt Torell | February 2012

A Quaker community in North Carolina reaches out to its Muslim neighbors.

DO WE HAVE a gaping hole in our commitment to nonviolence and inclusion regarding Muslims in our community? That’s the question that the Chapel Hill Friends Meeting in North Carolina asked several years ago.

As our Muslim-American neighbors became semi-excluded in the media and political arenas, we asked: How do we take the first steps to make contact with Muslim individuals and groups? We became connected to a widening network, accepting invitations and offering them. We moved carefully, respectfully, never wanting to burn bridges, always following up on what we agreed to do.

Our first Muslim-Quaker effort proved to be too ambitious, trying to combine too many youth groups too fast. We learned a few guidelines: Think small and simple. Stay local. Take account of competing participant commitments—the jobs and families of volunteers, the erratic schedules of youth, the organizational imperatives of officials.

We discovered the range of political and religious thinking within the Muslim community. One issue is youth education; as one leader put it, youth group leaders tend to have a traditional Islamic view and be “distrustful of Americans in general.” There was also disagreement over whether to reach out to non-Muslims or to respond publicly to public attacks. These differences seemed to be based on home-culture expectations from their and their imams’ countries of origin. Their various backgrounds also shaped attitudes toward Muslim decision-making and the role of women in their community.

All this helped us tread the fine line between being intrusive and contributing supportive suggestions. Evidence of our success: several requests for private discussions to act as a sounding board on contentious issues within the Muslim community—and a request to use our Meeting house for a Muslim wedding, which we happily allowed.

Bridge-building work within our Quaker community involved other hurdles. We smoothed the path through awareness-raising forums, book reviews, and handouts that explained Muslim terms. Some members voiced discomfort. One noted that some members were already feeling burdened with responsibilities and questioned interfaith engagement’s long-term demands and “politics.” One leader wanted assurance that the Meeting would not risk its nonprofit status. But once the analogy to our spirited civil rights and anti-war work was made, that qualm was calmed.

Our first collective move as a Meeting came after the controversial arrest two years ago of alleged North Carolina Muslim terrorists, whose family members were also roughly treated. We sent a letter to the press and government officials calling for due process. Published by the leading state newspaper, the letter sparked a response, which spread by email within the Muslim community, from a well-known Muslim chaplain and professor. He wrote us: “Alhamdulillah! Praise be to the Lord ! ... [your letter] means A LOT to many of your Muslim brothers and sisters locally and beyond.”

We also lauded editors when they printed op-eds by our Muslim colleagues. Soon, one paper offered a monthly column by one of the Muslim leaders with whom we work.

Many hurdles remain as Muslims, like us, move toward unity of spirit, voice, and service. The good news is that because of a recent airing of issues within the Chapel Hill Muslim community, the traditionalists on the Chapel Hill Islamic Society are taking steps to open membership and governance control to women and men across the Muslim community, holding open elections for the group’s shura, or governing board. The progressives hope this will also allow the community to speak with a unified voice to the wider non-Muslim community. Emblematic of this growing resolve, the entire spectrum of groups organized the first open interfaith iftar, the breaking of the Ramadan fast.

We are committed to stand alongside our neighbors as the way opens, recognizing that we must remain in a learning mode as we all find our place in the new multicultural world.

Nancy Milio is on the governing body of the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Curt Torell co-chairs Abrahamic Faith Leaders for a Just Peace in the Middle East.

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