How Do We Treat Our Guests?

I received an email this morning quoting the following letter, written by Fatma Al-Lawati, PhD., a distinguished scholar who is also a Muslim woman. She is a Fulbright scholar at the University of Virginia, and is committed to Muslim/Christian interfaith work. She recently experienced just how willing some Christians are to discriminate against Muslims. I think every contemplative Christian needs to read this as a grim reminder of just how easy it is for Christians to mistreat practitioners of other faiths. May God help all of us to treat those who differ from ourselves with kindness, respect, and in a manner consistent with the love of neighbor to which we are called.

Dear Dr. Lindsay Sadler, Jr.,

Senior Pastor

I feel obligated to write to you given your position of Senior Pastor at the Baptist Church in Charlottesville, about my recent and unforgettable very first visit to your Church. Regretfully, visiting the First Baptist Church was the worst experience I have ever faced or imagined facing at a place of worship in my entire life.

On Saturday May 1st, 2010, I visited the First Baptist Church on 735 Park Street after hearing about a presentation by an Egyptian-American woman who converted to Christianity from Islam. As part of my Muslim/Christian interfaith group, I decided to attend in order to share my experience to the group. I was particularly interested since I am a Muslim and have not encountered many such converts.

The presenter described her harsh upbringing in a family without a father; her mother let her at the age of 13. Later in life, she was abused by her husband. I felt sorry for her and sympathized with her experience. However, then she blamed her misery in the past on her old religion that she did not practice; she concluded that Islam promotes abusing women. She went on to verbally attack my prophet Mohammed (s) and the prophet of Muslims worldwide under the watch of some of the Church’s leadership and congregation.

This came as a real shock to me! I did not expect that at a place of worship, a presenter would blatantly attack the principles and figures of another religion. I thought that when one presents on a holy altar, she would do so with honesty and integrity rather than twisting truths to spread hate and fear. I assumed your Church would try to reach people through love instead of demonizing the religion of 1.6 billion Muslims, world’s second largest and fastest growing, at a time when mutual understanding and acceptance is of utter importance.

What is the logic behind inviting such a speaker whose sole aim is to stir people’s emotions against another religion? Is it the intention of your church to arouse the hatred of your congregation towards Islam and Muslims? I requested a chance to say a few words after the questions and answers period and after the congregation prayed for the speaker. I wanted to introduce the audience to the true concepts of Islam and introduce them to my experience as a Muslim woman, and share how Islam portrays Mary and Jesus. However, before I could say much, the speaker ordered the microphone be disconnected. Why did a visiting speaker command authority in your Church?

I started my small discourse by thanking everybody for receive me among them. Them, I told them who I am: I am the daughter of a man who has five daughters and one son: all with college degrees, including: a Ph.D., M.S., and M.D. I come from a middle class family with a loving mother and a wise father who instilled faith in us and the love of education as commanded by Islam. I have five successful children, two daughters who will be receiving degrees in Medicine and Chemical engineering this year. I never felt abused neither as a daughter nor as a wife. I felt respected, loved and endowed with the freedom to pursue my dreams. I am here in the United States as a Fulbright scholar from a country in the Middle East, Oman. I never felt discriminated against as a female by my government or culture. I have a loving husband who helped me finish my education and a Ph.D., in spite of my early marriage which was my very own choice. I have the freedom to learn and earn.

However, I could not continue to speak because the microphone was disconnected per the speaker’s order. She interrupted and asked me to answer her question by saying either “yes” or “no” or she would disconnect the microphone. I refused by saying “there is no black and white”. She asked me again, “Can you become a Christian? Yes or no?”

I said: “I will not choose to be a Christian because I already believe in Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad, may peace be upon them. I already believe in Jesus as a prophet.” And your Church disconnected the microphone. They came and got the microphone from me and an old man escorted me out, while yelling horrible words at me. It was such an unbelievable experience, where, despite hearing talk about the LOVE of Jesus numerous times, I did not see any evidence of love.

I must say I feel bad for your congregation who I hope were not deceived by the speaker’s words: presenting domestic violence as Islamic violence. She is a product of an unhealthy family and was unable to distinguish between her own experience as an abused child and later an abused adult, and her rights as a woman in Islam. The rights Islam entitles women and men are the basis used to establish the Human Rights code in the UN.

It is frustrating to see people holding double standards. When a problem arises in the Middle East or the Arab world, Islam is the culprit. A similar problem in the United States is viewed as domestic abuse. In the Arab world, whatever happens is the fault of Islam. In the West where the many forms of domestic abuse present from a father abusing his daughter, an unfaithful president, even bishops and priests abusing children, and church scandals, yet the cause of all of these are not attributed to religion. However, when an ordinary person such as your speaker is abused in a Muslim county, Islam is to blame! I reject blaming of either Islam or Christianity because these are divine religions that strictly reproach all evil.

I send you this letter in the hopes you would take steps to stop hatred from emanating from your Church and instead carry the message of peace and love as revealed by Jesus. I hope your Church will build bridges of love with the religiously diverse Charlottesville community and reach out to those of different beliefs in a peaceful way. I would be glad to have the opportunity to speak at your Church and introduce the true concepts of Islam that enrich my life.

Finally I want to point you to a quote from the Quran that narrates the story of Jesus. I hope it will serve as a good first step to emphasize the similarities between Islam and Christianity in their shared love and respect for Mary and Jesus in the hope of promoting peace and understanding.

He spoke: Lo! I am the slave of Allah. He hath given me the Scripture and hath appointed me a Prophet, (30) And hath made me blessed wheresoever I may be, and hath enjoined upon me prayer and almsgiving so long as I remain alive, (31)And (hath made me) dutiful toward her who bore me, and hath not made me arrogant, unblest. (32) Peace on me the day I was born, and the day I die, and the day I shall be raised alive! (33) Such was Jesus, son of Mary: (this is) a statement of the truth concerning which they doubt (34) It befitteth not (the Majesty of) Allah that He should take unto Himself a son. Glory be to Him! When He decreeth a thing, He saith unto it only: Be! and it is. (35). (Qura’n, 16-19)

Thank you and peace be upon you,
Fatma Al-Lawati, PhD.
Fulbright Scholar,
University of Virginia

While I received this letter from a friend via email, I looked around online to make sure it is legitimate. It is. Dr. Fatma Al-Lawati is a real person and is indeed a distinguished scholar. Her letter can be found at various locations on the Internet, including a full reprint of it on the Muslim Observer website, at this link: This is real, and it just happened two months ago. May we all learn to be more compassionate and to treat one another with dignity and respect.

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • brazenbird

    Happy 4th of July to everyone. Thank you for reminding us the way of freedom by sharing this letter.

  • Mike Gastin

    I don’t doubt the hostility that this woman encountered. I do wonder about her expectations. Is it realistic for her to expect the opportunity to present an alternative/opposing view at the end of a talk? This was not a debate. It was a talk given by a speaker with seemingly a Q&A after. Regardless of her credentials, it’s just not the done thing to present your own talk if you’re not on the agenda. Otherwise, I’d give a rebuttal after most of the sermons I’ve endured over the years.

    Also, I’d say the letter writer’s credentials do not make her the typical Muslim. It is a massive religion with many many experiences, all of which are legitimate as far as experiences go. Many women do not experience a liberal culture under Islam. It sounds as if many do. Is one a lie? I doubt it.

  • Carl McColman

    I don’t know if it was realistic or not for her to expect the opportunity to share her experience, but I would hope that in a forum where dialogue from the audience is invited (which already sets it apart from a sermon), the speaker would have the grace to allow alternative viewpoints to be expressed. Of course, we don’t know the whole story (I’ve written to FBC to ask if they have anything to say about this, and when I hear back from them, I’ll post their reply). To me, the power of Dr. Fatma Al-Lawati’s message is not in whatever happened on May 1, but in her assertion that Christians have a double standard: we blame the problems of the middle east on Islam, but don’t see our own problems are religiously motivated. I think she’s right. Islam is not the enemy: terrorism and fundamentalism is. We need to be careful in considering whether women who suffer in the middle east are suffering because of Islam or because of other socioeconomic factors (including religious fundamentalism, which is oppressive no matter which religion is involved). Now, we can argue whether fundamentalism is more prevalent among Muslims than Christians, but A) I don’t know enough to know if that is true or not, B) even if it is, so what? Fundamentalism has to do with more than just creed, it’s enmeshed in a variety of social and economic factors. It occurs to me that I probably have more in common with a non-fundamentalist Muslim than with a fundamentalist Christian. We all might be wise to ponder this carefully, and then educate ourselves about those whose culture and beliefs are different from our own.

  • Mike Gastin

    Carl, I understand your point. I’m only commenting on the letter writer’s expectations. She communicated a lot of frustration, disappointment and disbelief. I think it’s possible/likely that she overstepped her role in this setting. If that’s the case, then she experienced what anyone would have in that situation. Muslim, Christian, Jew and atheist would have been shut down. I’m confident that would have happened in a progressive, orthodox, fundamentalist or any other setting if the social contract was broken.

    I’ll be interested to see heat the church responds with, if they do at all.

  • Carl McColman

    She mentions that she is involved in Christian/Muslim interfaith work. I imagine she has had an entirely different experience of interfaith-friendly Christians than what she experienced that night at the Baptist Church. Since she’s not an American or from a culturally-Christian country, I think we can assume she was a bit naïve about just how hostile some Christians can be. Hence the vehemence of her dismay: “If some Christians are so positive in their dealing with Muslims, why can’t they all be?!?”

    So, I agree with you that her unrealistic expectations contributed to her reaction. But I find naïveté much easier to forgive than religious bigotry.

  • Br. Stefan

    We all have such work to do. Deep , inner work, for sure. It seems that the fundamental task for all of us is to learn basic human respect , kindness and hospitality. May it be so.

  • Mike Gastin

    Carl, naïveté certainly is easier than bigotry to forgive. Intellectual arrogance can be another hard one to let slip by without comment. Since we are only hearing one side of the story it’s hard to know just what happened that evening, right? Again, it’ll be interesting to hear how the church responds. Criticizing churches and Christians can be like shooting fish in a barrel, as they can be so out of integrity with Christ and his kingdom.

  • PrickliestPear

    The experience this woman had was unfortunate, but I agree with Mike, it was unrealistic for a Muslim woman to expect to be given a hearing in a Southern Baptist church, particularly when she was not asked to speak, and doesn’t even appear to have been invited to attend. Does she imagine a Christian would be received differently in a fundamentalist mosque?

    • Carl McColman

      Well, I have no idea what she expected. But I do know what I expect of my Christian brothers and sisters: that we all treat our guests as Christ (as per the Rule of St. Benedict). Just because we already have a sense that fundamentalists won’t do that does not make their behavior any less regrettable. They remain, after all, our brothers and sisters in Christ, and their behavior reflects on the entire Body.

  • PrickliestPear

    “…their behavior reflects on the entire Body.”

    That’s a good point.

  • Peggy

    Unfortunately the news story of the Iranian/Turkish woman who has been sentenced to death by stoning for alleged adultery colors Western and American perceptions of Islam as a barbaric and atavistic religion which has no place in the modern world. The Sharia law is just as rigid in it’s application as the Israel Laws of the Deuteronomist period. Supposedly our American concepts of individuality and freedom are based on the Judaic-Christian understanding of those laws. Therefore Americans are supposedly superior to the practioners of Islam because we have better laws–true laws. It makes it easier to discriminate and hate. Yes, this professor was naive! I still wonder why some people who are so intelligent can be so…uninformed. I suppose her other Christian friends have enlightened her since this unfortunate incident.

  • Joe

    Peggy writes: “The Sharia law is just as rigid in it’s [sic.] application as the Israel Laws of the Deuteronomist period. ”
    This is incoherent, for several reasons:
    1. Laws are applied by people; therefore one can only assert that particular people choose or do not choose to construct their understanding of a situation according to a particular rigidity or non-rigidity. The law does not apply itself, and so cannot be said to be inherently rigid in application.
    2. Iran is a special case as a Shi’a state with a particular modernist construction of law and a theocratic power structure to impose it. What Iranians do cannot be generalized to other Muslims.
    3. There is really no such thing as “Sharia law” in the way Westerners talk about it. This is a convenient Western fiction, contrived to sell newspapers and leverage political hysteria. I have never heard a real Islamic scholar (and I know more than a few) use this expression, for many reasons. On the other hand, salafist Muslims, who watch CNN and, amazingly, seem to believe it, have taken to using this fictitious term. The rest of us should not.
    Being supportive non-Muslim friends of Muslims requires good data as well as a good heart. It is hard to know the facts about Islamic societies that would be needed to bring coherence into these conflicts. Nor should non-Muslims be expected to. But non-Muslims should be faithful to their own beliefs. And this is, rightfully and no, not naively, is what Dr. al-Lawati seemed to be demanding of that church.
    Here’s a different way for us all to be kindly, mutually supportive across lines of sect, and it is beautifully, normatively Islamic: Courtesy. The way of Islam is the way of courtesy. Dr. al-Lawati was not naive; she was rude. She had no business fact-checking speakers in Baptist churches. And the congregation that hosted the speaker was monstrously rude (and un-Christian) towards her.
    Mevlânâ Rumi writes about courtesy as the way of the heart:
    “We should seek from God the favor of [behaving with] (spiritual) courtesy and respect, (since) the rude person is excluded from the grace of the Lord.
    “The rude person doesn’t keep himself in (a state of) affliction alone, but sets fire to all the regions (of the world).
    ” By means of (spiritual) courtesy and respect, the Heavens became full of light, and by means of (such) respect the angels became innocent and pure.
    “(But) the sun became eclipsed because of insolence. (And) because of rashness, an (angel such as) Azazeel was turned away from the gate [to the angelic realm].”

  • Zafar ul Islam

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    Zafar Ul Islam

  • Salim Akhtar

    Well well, its blogs like these that the true colours of people can be seen. Why do the Muslims forget that they are in the midst of “Islam Bashing”and should take the “ignorance by majority of the people who do not understand Islam, on the chin!
    I being a muslim, blame it on the terrorist streak that has come up in the last decade, before that only the Jews worried about the Muslims & now…… have to watch your own shaddow!!

  • John Ian

    I attended services last Sunday at this church, First Baptist in Charlottesville and was told by Pastor Sadler during his sermon that we Christians are persecuted here. By whom, I wondered. It didn’t take long for him to elaborate by quoting an ‘authority’ he admires telling muslims they “worship a false faith, by a false prophet to a false god.”
    It does not surprise me that this congregation then applauded. I would like to say I won’t be returning but I will if only to confirm that this church has a decidedly anti-interfaith agenda.