IN DECEMBER 2007, Naomi Mwangi, a Christian, fled her home in Kisumu, Kenya, as men with machetes attacked towns across the region. For five weeks violence raged nationwide. When the bloodshed ended, more than 1,300 Kenyans were dead and another 650,000 had been displaced. Mwangi and her family ended up living in the Maai Mahiu refugee camp, south of Nairobi. She was 12 years old.
Mwangi is coming of age in a society with ethnic violence in the background, extremist violence in the foreground, and massive economic inequality. Africa has the highest concentration of young people in the world and more than half of them are unemployed. Mwangi wanted something different—she wanted to work for peace.
Now 21, Mwangi is a leader in grassroots peacemaking campaigns that seek to end conflicts between the 42 ethnic groups in this majority-Christian country. The 2007 election violence pitted Christian against Christian, as ethnic ties trumped religious affiliation. Even now, during elections, Mwangi told Sojourners, “Leaders motivate youth to join in the political crisis ... to fight against another tribe.”
A major obstacle to social and economic stability among youth in Kenya is unequal distribution of government-issued identification cards. Kenyans need ID cards for everything from voting and university enrollment to obtaining grants for entrepreneurship programs. But historically, the ruling government doled them out as political favors, and they’ve often been denied to members of minority groups.
“There are plenty of applications at election time,” Mwangi said, explaining that the ID process is slowed down or delayed when it seems one ethnic group could tip the chances of a politician who represents a different group.
"Islam Hates Us!"
The recurring headline screams across every kind of media. Fear-based stories about Muslims have become standard fare this election cycle, rooted in the notion that Muslims are recent arrivals in America and somehow don’t belong. Some go so far as to suggest Muslims need to be plucked out from American society and “sent back home.”
Burkinis aren’t showing up at the beaches on either side of the English Channel yet, but the thought that the full head-to-ankle swimsuit might catch on among Muslim women in Europe has already sparked lively debates in Britain and France.
Fewer men than women show up in U.S. churches, and women are markedly more likely to pray and to hold up religion as important. But in Muslim nations, it’s the women who are missing in action at the mosque — and yet they’re on par with men in upholding almost all the Muslim pillars of faith.
In 2005, Amina Wadud stepped in front of a crowd of one hundred Muslims, women and men, to offer a sermon and lead them in prayer — something previously unheard of for a woman to do. Wadud has been vocal about gender equality in Islam for decades. She is a prominent speaker, writer, and scholar of Islamic studies. But I didn’t know of her until my senior year of college. In my last class as an undergraduate student, I decided to take a class on Islam. I was intrigued by our reading list at the beginning of the semester, but Amina Wadud and her book, Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam, were just words on my syllabus.
To protest the anti-Muslim rhetoric of this presidential campaign, high school counselor Martha DeVries decided to wear a hijab in public every Monday. DeVries, 47, attends a Baptist church and identifies as “a follower of Jesus,” but said she felt a responsibility to outwardly display her acceptance of Muslims and refugees.
It all began for me as a young girl, spending many childhood summers with my aunt — my father’s eldest sister. Her name was Hilal, which means “crescent moon” in Arabic. No name could have been more appropriate for her — just as the spiritual lives of Muslims center on the crescent moons of the lunar calendar, my family’s spiritual center stood upon this strong minded, faithful, and dedicated matriarch.
Sudanese Christians and human rights groups are urging the government to produce two clerics, whose location has been unknown since their arrest in December. Hassan Kodi, 49, secretary general of the Sudanese Church of Christ, and another pastor, Telal Ngosi, 44, were detained after attending a Christian conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in October. The two represented the Sudanese Church of Christ at a meeting to discuss the plight of Christians in Sudan and South Sudan.
Our Founders knew that religious liberty is essential not only to protect religion, but because religion helps strengthen our nation. From our Revolution to the abolition of slavery, from women’s rights to civil rights, men and women of faith have often helped move our nation closer to our founding ideals. This progress is part of what makes us a beacon to the world.
Last fall, 16 West Point cadets — none of them Muslim — signed up for an elective on counter-terrorism and created a Facebook page to appeal to young Muslims thinking about joining the so-called Islamic State group. The cadets aimed to convince those tempted by the terrorist cause to see jihad in Islam as a peaceful endeavor. For their project to succeed, the cadets knew, they would have to learn more about the faith, and build a social media platform that reserved judgment even on those who expressed admiration for committed terrorists.
A Muslim man who shielded Christians after a passenger bus was ambushed by suspected al-Shabab militants is being saluted as a symbol of unity. Salah Farah, a schoolteacher, died Jan.18 in Nairobi, where he was airlifted after being shot in the arm and hip when he resisted militant demands that he identify Christians on the bus during the December attack.
Pope Francis is studying an invitation to visit the Grand Mosque of Rome — extended to him several days after his first visit to the city’s Great Synagogue. If he accepts, Francis would be the first pope to visit the mosque. He received the invitation on Jan. 20 during a short audience he gave to Muslim community leaders at the Vatican.
What is revealed to the world at the Epiphany in the Incarnation is that God’s language to the world is embodied Love. Jesus, whom Muslims revere as a prophet, is the message of God’s love for those who were previously deemed beyond love’s boundaries. What Jesus reveals through his life, death, and resurrection is that it is we humans who cast out, and God who draws in. God’s love excludes no one. Jesus is God’s revelation that Love has no boundaries.
HARPERONE'S RECENTLY released The Study Quran (following The Study Bible and Commentary on the Torah) promises to be a needed resource in a time of religious turmoil: A new English translation, it is also the first to provide extensive, line-by-line commentary by scholars on meaning and context drawn from hundreds of years of Islamic tradition. Included are several essays on specific themes—including war and peace, science, and human rights.
The process used to shape this work was unique as well. The team of editors led by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., strove to include perspectives and interpretations from the broadest range of Muslim communities—Sunni, Shia, and others—without lifting one above the others. The team’s goal was to create an in-depth, accurate, and accessible translation for use by Muslims, scholars, students of religion, and anyone else wanting to rise above today’s media chatter and explore this sacred text.
From the introduction:
The Quran is the constant companion of Muslims in the journey of life. Its verses are the first sounds recited into the ear of the newborn child. It is recited during the marriage ceremony, and its verses are usually the last words that a Muslim hears upon the approach of death. In traditional Islamic society, the sound of the recitation of the Quran was ubiquitous, and it determined the space in which men and women lived their daily lives; this is still true to a large extent in many places even today. As for the Quran as a book, it is found in nearly every Muslim home and is carried or worn in various forms and sizes by men and women for protection as they go about their daily activities. ... The Quran is an ever present source of blessing or grace ( barakah) deeply experienced by Muslims as permeating all of life.
Since the Dec. 2 attacks in San Bernardino, Calif., the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee has received more than a dozen phone calls from Muslim Americans locally reporting a variety of workplace discrimination and harassment complaints. Of those calls, one has triggered a lawsuit, and two similar workplace suits are in the works, said Fatina Abdrabboh, executive director of the Michigan office, who hopes the litigation sends a message to employers.
“We’re watching. This stuff can’t go unchecked … and if you think of putting someone in the back room or letting them go because of the headscarf, you can’t do it,” said Abdrabboh, who urges the public and employers not to “feed into this rhetoric against us.”
Religion inspired countless other acts of forgiveness, mercy, and hope this year. But religion — or perversions of it, some would say — also inspired horrific violence: the “faith-based” cleansing of ancient lands, and bombings and shootings motivated by scriptural justifications. It was a year also of religious-inspired activism, seen perhaps most prominently in a pope who advocated for the poor and for a solution to climate change. Here is an overview of some of the most consequential religion stories of the past year, with thoughts on what to look forward to 2016.
Christian leaders have hailed as an act of bravery and selflessness the shielding of some Christians by Muslims after suspected al-Shabab gunmen in Mandera County ambushed a passenger bus.
Francis marked the start of the jubilee on Dec. 8, when he opened the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The yearlong celebration calls on Catholics to reflect on the theme of mercy and forgiveness and showcase a more inviting faith. That theme resonates in Africa, home to about 200 million Catholics. A sizable part of this population is tormented by war, violence from Muslim extremists, HIV/AIDS, and poverty.
Following a surge of attacks on mosques and Muslims — a backlash against recent extremist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino — Islamic leaders have been installing more security cameras and hiring more security guards. But as they worry about the physical safety of their flocks, they are also paying attention to the spiritual damage Islamophobia can inflict.
Hate crimes penetrate Muslims deeply and widely, said Kameelah Rashad, Muslim chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania.
“It erodes their sense of identity and their sense of their spiritual selves,” she said.
President Obama supports the right of Muslim Americans to celebrate religious holidays, the White House said Dec. 11. He just can’t give them the day off.
Responding to a petition on the White House’s “We the People” site, the White House declined to declare federal holidays for the Muslim holy days of Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr.
That’s because Congress has only designated 10 federal holidays each year: New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
“Proposals for new permanent federal holidays are typically the province of Congress,” the White House said.