Over the past 18 months, Middle Tennessee has been thrust uncomfortably into the spotlight of national debates about the place of Islam in American society, owing to controversies over the proposed Islamic Center in Murfreesboro and proposed state legislation outlawing the practice of Sharia law. Not surprisingly, disproportionate attention has been paid to right-wing groups like the Tennessee Freedom Coalition and ACT America, with their sexy apocalyptic rhetoric of a clash of civilizations — this despite the fact that their agenda has been consistently routed in the local courts and publicly drubbed whenever it has surfaced in the General Assembly.
Yet even among the vast majority of the populace that favors religious freedom over extremists on all sides, legitimate concerns remain, whether they're Christians concerned about Islamic fundamentalism, Jews troubled by perpetual hostilities in the Middle East, or American Muslims worried that their patriotism and right to worship are coming under attack. As sign-wavers and slogan-shouters dominate the headlines, the chance of a neutral middle ground where people of different, perhaps even conflicting faiths can openly address these issues has become more difficult. Which made a gathering last week at the West End United Methodist Church all the more noteworthy, as leaders from Nashville's Muslim, Jewish and Christian faith communities set out to find light where others have supplied mostly heat.
The event was titled "Family of Abraham — Toward a Common Vision." The program featured Sayyid M. Syeed of the Islamic Center of North America, with responses from Rabbi Daniel Levitt of Congregation Sherith Israel and the Rev. Becca Stevens of Vanderbilt's St. Augustine Chapel. Had they all walked into a bar, the panel might have served as the setup for a joke — but this was not something the audience had heard before. By evening's end, the discussion had ventured into areas that clearly made people uneasy, especially tensions between American Jews and Muslims. Yet people left with the sense that doors for understanding — or at least dialogue — had been opened, not shut.
This was the second "Family of Abraham" event, the first held on July 13 in the auditorium of the University School and featuring keynote Mark Pelavin, of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, with opening remarks by Mayor Karl Dean. Both events had ecumenical representation including local Christian leaders: Stevens in November, and Father Joe Breen and the Rev. Sonnye Dixon last July. The events originated in a narrower dialogue within a Nashville-area group of Muslims and Jews — the Circle of Friends — using a text prepared by Syeed and Pelavin. (Originally, they were to have appeared together in July; scheduling conflicts delayed Syeed's visit and necessitated the second installment.)
In his prepared remarks, Syeed addressed the most serious conservative objections to Islam: First, that Islam is incompatible with democracy, and second, that Islam is anti-modern and hostile towards science. Indeed, Syeed used the phrase "pluralist democracy" repeatedly within the first few minutes, partly to remind the audience of America's long tradition of accepting immigrants and minority groups, but also in explicit contrast to the undemocratic regimes from which Muslim immigrants to America are largely drawn. He further highlighted the high degree of educational attainment among many in the community, including in the sciences.
"Many of us came here from countries where there was no democracy, where having achieved education, there was no place for us," Syeed said. He extolled the fact that leadership in the Islamic Center of North America is democratically elected and includes women in prominent positions.
Syeed further addressed gender issues exemplified by the Saudi ban on women drivers and, most horrifying for the Western sensibility, female circumcision. Syeed argued these are national or tribal conventions nowhere compelled by the Koran. "It was not easy [for some new immigrants] to cut the umbilical cord from practices that were totally non-Islamic, but were practiced in the Muslim world," he conceded, adding that rejecting these practices was a focal point for his organization. Finally, he washed his hands of terrorist activities and anti-Western radicalism, arguing that his North American constituency is "as much unrelated to them as any people living in this country."
The other panelists made brief remarks, followed by questions from the audience. Instructive tensions arose when the discussion focused on the relationship between American Muslims and American Jews, where world historical events come to roost in complex and contradictory ways.
Rabbi Levitt pointed out that beyond shared roots in Abrahamic traditions, Judaism and Islam share the fact of being practical religions. In other words, while Christians typically place faith (i.e., acceptance of Christ as Lord and Savior) at the core of their beliefs, for Jews and Muslims what is central is practical adherence to strictures or laws — for Jews halacha, and for Muslims sharia. The manner of interpreting these strictures varies widely within both Judaism and Islam, but in either case observance trumps belief. Banning Sharia law thus amounts to an injunction against the very fact of being Muslim, and as Levitt points out, sets a precedent easily transferable to Judaism as well. Moreover, as event moderator Irwin Venick pointed out later, American Jews share with Muslims an immigrant experience and minority identity that creates natural affinities of interest.
But then there's Israel. When the issue was raised by an anonymous audience member — questions were collected on note cards — a degree of discomfort arose that had been largely absent. Levitt argued that many in the Muslim world simply refuse to accept the existence of a Jewish state on what they consider to be Muslim land. He further pointed out that in some Muslim countries, even the vile and thoroughly discredited Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an early 20th century anti-Semitic smear job, is still being treated as a credible document. In fact, there are no small number of similarities between the incendiary claims of the Protocols and charges now being leveled against Muslims and Sharia, both rooted in paranoid fantasies of global conspiracy.
Syeed had already signaled an embrace of American pluralism, which includes rejecting anti-Semitism. Indeed, he offered hopes that the Muslim experience in America could change opinion and ease conflict abroad. Still, Levitt concluded pointedly: "It is important here in America to understand that not all Muslims are anti-Semitic, but there are some Jews who believe that [all Muslims are anti-Semitic] and they have reasons to believe that."
This tension — between social and religious affinity at home and a global conflict largely centered on the question of Israel — divides many in the American Jewish community. Avi Poster, one of the event organizers, admits to his own ambivalence, noting that his sister lives in Israel and he fears for her safety as a result of the Palestinian conflict. Many American Muslims, of course, similarly have relatives in Gaza and the West Bank and feel strong emotions about the Middle East.
No church event can eradicate these bedeviling issues. But Poster and the other organizers remain committed to the importance of dialogue. As Levitt said afterward, "You look at the people there and the faces, and there were a lot of people there that would not ordinarily be in the same room — and that should be counted as success."