Rick Warren, the founder and senior pastor of Saddleback Church, spoke recently at the 2009 ISNA Convention in Washington, DC. He arrived at the convention center and made his way across the registration and information booths, up two flights of escalators and then again across the numerous exhibitors’ booths just outside of the auditorium where he was to speak. Several ISNA executives were with him, but he was able to pass by most convention attendees without any fanfare.
Given that the ISNA convention is a racially diverse gathering the sight of a white man in a summer suit was hardly noteworthy on its face, but given what his presence at ISNA means, perhaps a little more fanfare was in order. Rick Warren’s willingness to reach out to Muslims is a bold step towards greater inter-religious dialogue in the United States. Warren’s gesture at ISNA, as with the MPAC convention last year, represents a marked departure from the “Islam is evil” message delivered by other Evangelical Christian leaders like Franklin Graham.
After all, several reputable national studies after 9/11 have shown that Evangelical Christians hold very unfavorable opinions of Islam and of Muslims. Right after 9/11 a Pew poll found that 62 percent of Evangelical Christians believe that their faith is very different from Islam and a 2003 Beliefnet/Ethics and Public Policy survey found that 77 percent of Evangelical Christian leaders had an unfavorable view of Islam.
Warren is obviously part of that very small minority of Evangelical Christian leaders who does not have an unfavorable view of Islam and who does not think his faith is that much different from Islam. That is why he is willing and able to come to speak sincerely to large Muslim audiences. It is good for American religious pluralism that Rick Warren and the national American-Muslim leadership have found one another.
This relationship and the ensuing dialogue are important because they help pave the way for grassroots dialogue between their faith communities. The grassroots inter-religious dialogue is where great gains in understanding and bridge-building can be made. Understanding and relationships between American-Muslims and Christians are vital to sustaining America’s tradition of religious pluralism.
Protestant and Catholic churches have significant experience in ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue and have clergy and lay leadership with training and experience to carryout the outreach and dialogue with American-Muslims. They have been doing similar outreach and dialogue with the American-Jewish community for quite some time already.
Still, there is a lot of work to be done in the American-Muslim community in order to capitalize on opportunities such as those presented by Warren and by other Christian denominations in America. Presently American-Muslims are ill-equipped to engage in inter-religious dialogue commensurate with the needs of the times.
In the metropolitan Chicago region, which is home to approximately 400,000 American-Muslims, there is a lot of inter-religious activity taking place but it is often held back by a lack of qualified participants. The Catholics, the United Methodists and the Presbyterians are regularly represented by clergy while doctors and other professionals represent the American-Muslim community in meetings and in dialogue. The Christian community brings full-time clergy committed to inter-religious dialogue while the sincere and committed American-Muslims are volunteers juggling careers and families and almost never have formal religious training in Islam that is comparable to their Christian counterparts.
Even for those who understand this distinction there remain several outstanding challenges. As leaders they must convince their co-religionists that inter-religious dialogue is valuable in creating a safe and permanent place for Islam in America. Furthermore, American-Muslims involved in inter-religious dialogue must be at least as well-grounded in Islam as their Christian partners are in Christianity in order to make inter-religious dialogue meaningful. The purpose of seeking dialogue is to learn and in these times most Americans already have a lot of information about Islam, some of which is authentic and a lot which is not.
In order to bring more American-Muslims into inter-religious dialogue it will help to frame the work in the context of Islamic teachings based on Quran and Sunnah. There is ample support for inter-religious dialogue (as distinct from proselytizing) in the Quran and Sunnah, but again, those already active in this work must be able to articulate this basis to their co-religionists. Too often, and ultimately to the detriment of real inter-religious understanding, American-Muslims view it as public relations.
Dialogue is more than speaking to one another. But dialogue can also be in the form of concerted action. Looking again at the metropolitan Chicago region, there are several relationships with Christian churches where the relationship between the leadership is well established. Their meetings are very cordial and the discourse is engaging and lively, but over many years the dialogue has remained verbal and has stayed among the small group of leaders from each faith community.
Inter-religious dialogue can and should be, at the opportune time, elevated into action for the common good. The shared values in promoting justice and equality and in alleviating suffering and bringing fairness into the law and in to the economy are all fertile grounds for united action between faith communities in America. Christians are already working with one another and with Jewish communities on issues of common good. American-Muslim leaders in the inter-religious arena should make united action on issues of common good a priority as well.
Rick Warren’s engagement with American-Muslims is significant in that it comes from a particular denomination that has also fostered a lot of negativity towards Islam and also because he is a Christian leader with a national platform. His willingness to engage with American-Muslims is not unique though. There are many in the Christian clergy and lay leadership who are open to and even eager to engage in inter-religious dialogue with American-Muslims.
For their part, American-Muslims have to make up a lot of ground in a very short time to seize the goodwill that is being extended to them. There is no telling what the mood and outlook of Americans will be if, before enough bridges are built and enough relationships are cemented between faiths, there should be another heinous terror attack by Al Qaeda.
Junaid M. Afeef is the Executive Director of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago and can be reached at junaid.afeef[at]gmail.com.