NORTH NEWTON, KAN. - Muslims and Christians from central Kansas who gathered at Bethel College Mennonite Church on March 7 were keenly aware of a world situation that seemed to highlight differences between the two faiths. A community potluck and panel discussion were the final events in a series on Muslim/Christian relations, sponsored by the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution (KIPCOR) and the Islamic Society of Wichita.
Patty Shelly, Bethel College professor of Bible and religion and co-moderator of the panel, "This week, Pope John Paul II sent a special envoy to President Bush to express his view that a war in Iraq would be 'a defeat for humanity.' That highlights the urgency of this evening's topic. We're in an uncertain, volatile moment-on the brink of war."
A recurring theme of the evening's discussion was the dilemma of whether, or how closely, religion and politics should be connected. Stephanie Mousleh of Wichita participates in the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), which works with Interfaith Ministries of Wichita to sponsor monthly interreligious dialogues on various topics. "These kinds of meetings are the best way to see the human side of Islam, rather than only what's on TV, which tends to equate 'Taliban' with 'Islam'," she said.
Nabil Seyam of Wichita, panel co-moderator, added that Western media almost invariably connects the religion of Islam with the actions of Muslims. He gave the example of "a Muslim who murdered his family" in Wichita, while the perpetrators of dozens of other homicides were never identified as "Christian."
"What was the religion of [Timothy] McVeigh or Hitler or David Koresh? Individuals perform individual acts.
"Politics can estrange us," Seyam said. "The best way to understand either Christianity or Islam is dialogue. God's intention is not for us to be all one community, all one color, but God's intention is for us to know each other. How can we know each other if we don't speak to each other?"
Assam Farhat, a Wichita cardiologist, recalled growing up in Syria with close Christian neighbors. "I loved my neighbors, I didn't 'tolerate' them, which has a negative meaning," he said. "We shouldn't aim for tolerance, but for friendship and relationship. You 'tolerate' someone you don't like."
"An exchange of ideas" through communication and interaction is a major step toward Muslims and Christians understanding each other, he said. He also warned against mixing religion and politics. "Using religion to cover a political agenda creates problems," he said. "In reality, [the conflict in the Middle East] is a political conflict. We need to isolate politics from religion."
However, Shelly said, "I believe we [as Christians and Muslims] do have to engage the political realm. We need to distinguish between religion and politics but we still need to engage.
"But I want to second, third and fourth the affirmations of the other panelists," she added. "We need to commit to building relationships." She told of contacting the Muslim Community Center in Wichita about bringing a group of Bethel students to Friday prayers. "They were so warm and welcoming. I want to publicly express gratitude for this willingness to extend hospitality."
When members of the audience were invited to bring questions to the panel, several returned to how the media exacerbates Christian-Muslim differences. Walter Busenitz of Whitewater said, "I understand that the majority of Muslims are peace-loving people and that terrorists and suicide bombers are in the minority. Why isn't there an uproar from the majority against the minority?"
Farhat answered, "You don't know if there's an uproar or not if no one reports it."
The panelists agreed that Western media tends to reinforce negative stereotypes, which make gatherings for dialogue like this one all the more important. "When prominent Christian evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson make hateful statements about Islam...this is what gets played out internationally," Shelly said. "We have to challenge Christian extremists the way we challenge Muslim extremists."
Shafiq Hasan of North Newton, recounting a letter to the editor he read about a Muslim man aiding a stranded motorist and how the aid altered the motorist's perspective, said, "Kindness and respect can do a lot to change people's thinking."