It may seem odd for a scholar and activist of interfaith studies to ask a community to spend more time talking within its own faith tradition. Yet, that is exactly what I am asking for.
While editing a book on interreligious education in North America, I was struck by two things: 1) How many interfaith councils around the country originated as ecumenical councils within their own Christian denominations, and 2) That Christian seminaries had programs and classes, or in the case of my own seminary, were founded with a commitment to teaching Christians of diverse backgrounds. Some of these programs have disappeared. Others have moved into the interreligious sphere.
You would think that as a non-Christian I would celebrate these developments in the area of interfaith education. In one sense, I do; my own physical presence at a Christian seminary would not be possible without them. And yet, when speaking recently to a philanthropist, who complained that it’s easier and more fashionable to get money for interfaith work and not for intra-religious Christian conversations, I realized how much I worry about the limited spaces for different Christians to interact with one another.
In the United States, Muslims are blessed with welcoming, hospitable interfaith partners from the Christian community. Muslims are also targets of hateful theology, hate crimes, and policies that seek to ban some members of our community. Many of these actions are based on some racially exclusivist theologies that tie a vision of this country to a Christian dominion in which Muslims are demonized as not just the other, but the enemy.
I was recently invited to speak to a group of students at Chicago Theological Seminary. I have a long history with the seminary, having co-taught one of their first interreligious courses. As is often the case, young white Christian progressives asked me, “Professor Syeed, what can I do to help Muslims in America?” I get this question nearly everywhere I speak.
I am thankful for the projects that teach people how not to be bystanders when a hate crime is conducted against a Muslim, or programs where women wear the hijab in solidarity with their Muslim sisters. After some years of reflection in preparing pastors for the future, I have concluded that one of the most effective use of resources, time, scholarship, and energy is for Christians to talk to one another.
My life depends on Christians announcing the good news AND that Muslims are not demonic worshippers of some foreign God. My life depends on Christians having those complex, emotionally exhausting conversations during the holidays with uncle Harry when he makes a derogatory remark. My life depends on you, as Christians, being willing to be uncomfortable in your own spaces and not being silent when someone says something Islamophobic.
My children’s lives depend on what you teach your children about my community and our beliefs. Islamophobia is not just based on interpersonal interactions and being nice to one another at the individual level. Certainly, that is a place to start. But it is also a systemic and structural form of racism that needs theological, political, and large-scale, community-based interventions in order to be obliterated.
Very often, we think diversity-based work starts when the element of diversity comes into the room. As I said in a recent address to a group of educators at a Catholic college, Islamophobia is often dulled when a student has a positive experience with a Muslim. When they have no Muslims in their community, it is more important for educators to teach accurate religious literacy about the community. You become the road to understanding or misunderstanding for those around you.
So, if you ask me, especially in times when white supremacist rhetoric and action is sadly tied to some form of Christianity, whether I need you next to me day by day, I will say yes and thank you for the times when your embodiment may literally save my community. I live in times when my mosque has been threatened, where I have been threatened.
But more than anything, I need you to talk to one another. Your gospel is a thing of beauty and your Lord, who is a prophet for me, is a person of great integrity and hospitality. Spread this news not just when we are together as Christians and Muslims, but also to one another. Have those complicated, challenging, and enlightening conversations in the academy, at Sunday school, and in the street.
My life depends on it. And call on me and call me out whenever I need to speak to my people about your beautiful tradition. Our lives depend on us both speaking to our own communities. We can function as interrupters of oppression that our communities have wrought against one another.
A Pakistani Christian student once interrupted my understanding of what it meant to be a minority in a majority Muslim society and it forever changed how I teach Islam, recognizing how Muslims must be critical of one another when Muslims in power abuse that position.
What we say to each other in publicly performing tolerance is not a true determination of our embrace of one another’s existence. What we say about each other in private, when the other is not around, may be the most destructive or productive words we ever utter.