Steadying the Pluralist Ship in the Choppy Waters of Today’s America
By Patrick Burnett
Five days after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, and five days after hate crimes against minorities began to skyrocket, a church in Fredericksburg, Va. welcomed a Muslim speaker to the pulpit to speak for an hour and a half.
Let us unpack that sentence a bit. Donald Trump, the man behind the Muslim ban proposal, was elected president on Nov. 8. In the ten days since his election, there have been hundreds of reports of “hateful harassment or intimidation” reported to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Yet, in light of these tensions, a mere five days after the election, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, spoke to a full house from the pulpit at St George’s Episcopal Church in Fredericksburg, VA, a community which has faced great interfaith tension in recent months, on the importance of building interfaith bridges in a time of great division. And the program ended in not one, but two standing ovations.
Ahmed’s talk in Fredericksburg, first proposed in June, was a direct response to a local conflict that broke out in November 2015. The thirty-year-old Islamic Center of Fredericksburg had sought to build a new mosque to address the needs of a growing congregation. But the Spotsylvania County zoning board meeting convened to discuss the mosque’s construction plans quickly turned heated. The meeting, which took place in the days following the terrorist attacks in Paris, concluded with shouts and taunts towards the Muslim community, with one man even going on to yell, “Nobody, nobody, nobody wants your evil cult in this county.” The Islamic Center rescinded its proposal in August.
In the midst of all this tension, Ahmed received a letter from The Rev Gay Rahn of St George’s Episcopal Church in Fredericksburg this past June, requesting that he visit and speak to the community. Rahn herself has played a significant role in mending the tensions that have shaken the Fredericksburg community. In February, she was requested by the UN Office on Genocide Prevention to hold a session with the Islamic Center to discuss the impacts of the harassment, given her longstanding partnership with the Islamic Center and other houses of worships in the Fredericksburg area. But as she wrote to Ahmed: “Because of this work, we would like to ask if you would consider coming to Fredericksburg and talk with us, to share your wisdom, to help us with ways to deepen this work and to challenge us to dream big, to imagine our potential and to encourage us to not give up or give in.”
Entering Uncharted Waters via Fredericksburg
Given post-election tensions shaking the nation, Ahmed and I arrived in Fredericksburg unsure as to how the program would be received and whether someone may even try to disrupt the lecture. Just one day prior to the lecture, an Episcopal church in Silver Spring, Md. was vandalized with white supremacist hate speech directed against its largely Latino congregation. In Baltimore County, Md., an Iraqi refugee family recently found a note on their front door calling on the family to leave the country. And at our own university, American University, a swastika was found in a classroom two days prior. As the number of hate crimes towards not only Muslims, but all minority groups has skyrocketed in recent days, there was no telling what may happen during this widely advertised event in a city and nation on edge.
Our nerves were calmed immediately by the finest of Southern hospitality. The first stop of the day was to the cozy, elegant home of The Rev Deacon Ed Jones and his wife, Peggy Jones, for a private luncheon. Rev Jones, the Secretary and Chief of Staff of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, worked closely with Rahn to coordinate Ahmed’s lecture and offered to host this luncheon with his wife in Ahmed’s honor. Waiting patiently outside the Joneses’ “1770 house” despite the cool breeze of a November afternoon, Rahn received us on the curb as we drove in from DC. And this was only a hint of the warm reception to come. A small but eager gathering of community dignitaries, including a diversity affairs coordinator from the University of Mary Washington, welcomed us into the home and joined us for a three-course vegetarian luncheon, which Peggy went out of her way to prepare. An outstanding cook, Peggy confessed that she had not prepared a vegetarian meal in years, but to accommodate Ahmed, took the challenge head on and wowed everyone with her cauliflower and blue cheese soup, her couscous salad, pie from a local bakery, and her attention to every whim and need of her distinguished guests. Saying we were grateful for the hospitality would be an understatement.
The St George’s community was no less welcoming of Ahmed upon our arrival at the church for his afternoon lecture. St George’s Episcopal Church, located right in the heart of historic Fredericksburg, has long been at the crossroads of American history. The Church was George Washington’s boyhood house of worship. It served as a hospital for wounded soldiers as the bloody Battle of Fredericksburg roared. It even features a rare array of Tiffany windows - one of the great hallmarks of 19th-Century American design. Today, it is a gathering place for America’s faith communities as they grapple with how to best interact and engage with one another in this new environment. The church even prominently features a sign out front that unequivocally states, “Church is open to all with love.”
The pews were full of community members both Christian and Muslim eager to hear Ahmed’s words and guidance on how to move forward in this new chapter of history. Imams joined their congregations to listen to Ahmed’s words of wisdom. Christian community leaders gathered to learn how to best engage with their Muslim neighbors. Children from the Muslim community played in the audience as their parents gathered in friendship with one another. And both before and after his talk, Ahmed was mobbed by community members of all faiths, with young children even jumping up and down wishing to say hello to him.
Steadying the Ship in These Uncharted Waters
Following a warm introduction by Rahn, who read aloud Ahmed’s poem, “What is it that I seek?”, and Rev Jones, who referred to Matthew 5:9 - “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God” - in his remarks, Ahmed straightaway dove into the topic on every American’s mind these days: the election of Donald Trump as president. He cycled through the issues with which many are grappling these days. As America is a superpower, how will this election impact foreign affairs? What does this election mean for minority groups, who feel unsure, apprehensive, fearful and angry in the election’s aftermath? How do we answer to those with stories like that of a young Pakistani Christian woman in DC - a woman who moved to the US to escape religious persecution in Pakistan - who was harassed while walking down the street to shouts of, “Go home you [expletive] Arab”? How do we reconcile Americans of all stripes, regardless of their political affiliation?
Though America is heading into uncharted waters, Ahmed reminded the audience of one certainty: Now is a time for leadership of wisdom, compassion and courage in the frame of the Founding Fathers. Now is a time when we need visionary leaders to stand up for pluralist identity and an inclusive vision of America. Now is the time when people need to come together and confront the division, fear and uncertainty pervasive in America today.
Ahmed went on to discuss the importance of Christianity and Christian leaders to him as a Muslim throughout his life. Having been educated by Catholic priests in Pakistan and carrying “the Muslim tradition for centuries through blood,” Ahmed told of how growing up, he was told to say, “Peace be upon him,” every time he uttered Christ’s name. He told how even the Qur’an professes that Jesus Christ is the only one who can perform miracles. And he outlined how, much like Christians are commanded to love one another, Muslims are taught to consider God as beneficent and merciful. In fact, of the 99 names of God in the Qur’an, the two most frequently cited are Rahman and Rahim - the beneficent and the merciful. “If God is defining himself as compassionate and merciful, then my own faith is defining itself.”
In a time of great turmoil, many of us are looking for concrete solutions to bridge the many divides tearing apart the American fabric. Based on his own experience in the US, the UK and Pakistan, Ahmed outlined a three-step method for building interfaith bridges. Step one is to reach out in a heartfelt manner and initiate a dialogue. Make it very clear you are not coming to impose your religion on the other person, but rather that you are just coming to talk. Step two is to begin to understand other faiths and other peoples. As Ahmed said, understanding takes effort. It requires taking the time to read about the other faith and visit each other’s houses of worship. But it opens your eyes to the many commonalities and intersections you did not realize you had with the other. Step three is to foster interfaith friendships: “If you’re successful in dialogue, you’ll go to understanding, and if you’re lucky you may end up by creating genuine friendships.” As Ahmed reminded the room, one simply does not blow up one’s friends.
Not one, but two standing ovations were given in Ahmed’s honor following his lecture. In this divided community and divided country, to hear a Muslim leader give hope for all Americans irrespective of faith reminded people of the greatness of America and the American pluralist spirit. Ahmed’s words also reminded the audience that the nation is no less great today just because of the dynamics of this past election season. The positive energy was palpable.
Following the lecture, members of the Christian and the Muslim community came up with provocative, challenging and engaging questions for Ahmed. One self-described feminist asked about the role of women in Islam, to which Ahmed replied the reverence towards women in Islam is indisputable. He explained that, according to Prophet Muhammad, paradise lies at the feet of the mother. Ahmed also told of how, within Islam, women are seen as equal to men. In the early days of the faith, women were even granted the ability to divorce, inherit property and become educated - feats that were quite rare in 7th-Century Arabia.
Meanwhile, a Muslim community member expressed to Ahmed his wish that the Christian community would reach out more frequently to the Muslim community. To this, Ahmed told of how when he first moved to DC in 2001, he met Rabbi Bruce Lustig of the Washington Hebrew Congregation, DC’s largest synagogue, who then placed him in touch with Bishop John Chane of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. The three of them became fast friends and, thanks to their efforts, established an interfaith network in Greater Washington that continues to grow in strength and numbers.
Steering the Pluralist Ship Towards the Horizon
At the conclusion of his program, Ahmed told the community, “My request to you, St George’s, is to stick with programs you have initiated. You are helping a great nation at a time of great anguish for the great American people.” He went on to remind the audience, should they have any doubts as to how to respond to this new chapter in American history, “Nature abhors a vacuum.”
This is the lesson we Americans must all take to heart in the aftermath this election cycle. Our nation’s fabric has suffered many tears during the course of this vicious election cycle. Today, many of us feel great uncertainty about what is to come not only under the Trump administration, but at the hands of those who feel emboldened to express strong white nationalist sentiments. As a Catholic millennial living in DC, whose interfaith network and faith in America’s pluralist spirit has grown tremendously these past few years, my heart has admittedly been breaking over these past weeks. I am sorrowful over the hate and bigotry that is pervasive throughout our nation, and I am anxious about the years to come in ways I never expected to feel coming of age in Obama’s America.
Yet, Ahmed’s message and the spirit of the Fredericksburg community reminded me of the exuberant, hopeful spirit that keeps America going through all of its challenges and continues to light a candle in the darkness. Perhaps what we all must consider moving forward is the great saying, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” While relations between faith communities in Fredericksburg is far from perfect, community leaders at St George’s and the Fredericksburg Islamic Center are working hard to ensure that the bonds of pluralism persist in the face of great adversity. Their efforts are clearly working. While in the church, I witnessed many Muslim and Christian audience members sitting side by side, working their way towards the final step of Ahmed’s prescription for bridge building - friendship. If such bonds can form in the midst of great local political and religious tension, what is stopping us from replicating this spirit in our own communities and on the national and international level?
(The writer is Program Coordinator to Ambassador Akbar Ahmed)