Editor’s Note: The author will be one of three Jesuit panelists discussing “Muslims and Christians: Where Do We Stand?” at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 19, at The Bunn Intercultural Center Auditorium, Georgetown University. Go here to register.
Al-Mustaqeem Mahmod Radhi. A name to conjure with. If you were to find yourself seated on a commercial flight next to someone with a handle like that, would you be a tad nervous? Would your anxiety increase if you were to notice him reading an Arabic text? How many Zolofts would it take to calm you down after you find out, in a conversation as casual as you can manage, that this same person in the seat next to you graduated from an Arab university with a degree in Islamic law and religious studies?
President-elect Barack Obama has vanquished the notion that the electorate was not ready to put a black man into the White House. Any optimism at this affirmation of the U.S. as the great melting pot should be tempered, however, by an awareness of the toxic role played during the campaign by the accusations that the Democratic candidate was a Muslim.
Obama’s call for change may have been effective enough to overcome one of the great lingering prejudices in U.S. public life, but other prejudices remain. Even websites that supported Obama characterized the Muslim rumors as a “slur”, as though to be a Muslim were immoral, unpatriotic, or just downright un-American.
There are 6 million Muslim Americans, and yet how many non-Muslim Americans can claim to have a Muslim friend, or a Muslim family-member? The Muslim version of the “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” moment is still a rare one in the U.S., but opinions about the nature of the Islamic religion, and the character or psychology of Muslims, flood our airwaves, newsprint and web sites. Everyone has an opinion about Islam, and yet so few know any Muslims firsthand. Straight Americans may watch Ellen DeGeneres on television and feel just a little less queasy about gay people, but who outside certain elite circles can identify, let alone identify with, Fareed Zakaria?
We are so easily able to turn Muslims into the Other, the alien whose values are diametrically opposed to our own, because we have no experience of Muslims apart from the headlines-grabbing atrocities, or the 1001 Nights visions of women in veils, and the nightmares of adulterers punished by stoning. There is a deep cavern where experience and relationship do not exist, and we pour into it our fantasies, fears, and anxieties.
For the last couple of years, my closest work collaborator, and my most trusted counselor, has been one Al-Mustaqeem Mahmod Radhi. He is a young Muslim, a graduate of Mu’tah University in Jordan, with a degree in Islamic law and sciences. Contrary to the assumptions one might make from his name and background, however, Al-Mustaqeem is not an Arab. He is an ethnic Malay, and lives in Malaysia, where, through his writings, speaking engagements, and educational activities, he works to promote greater intellectual, political, and religious freedom.
Al-Mustaqeem is a Muslim who is thoroughly grounded in his faith, and yet is fully and joyously immersed in the world. I wonder how many Muslims trained in Islamic law are also graduates of the famous Iowa International Writing Program? He has worked with the Global Ethic project initiated by Hans Küng, and is an ardent promoter of interfaith dialogue in Southeast Asia. He has also devoted his energies to exposing and combating Islamist ideologies for what they are: distortions and perversions of the faith they claim to embody and represent. The conservative Muslim religious authorities in Malaysia have felt so threatened by his advocacy for an Islam that is engaged with other cultures and faiths that, earlier this year, they successfully instigated the government to ban a book he edited, “Islam dan Pluralisme” (“Islam and Pluralism”).
Al-Mustaqeem is unusual only in respect of his intellect and talent. There are many young Muslims like him in Malaysia, and in the neighboring country of Indonesia, where there are more Muslims than live in the entire Arab world. Their concerns are our concerns: the economy, the future of their children, neighborhood crime. Their dreams are not of world domination, but of secure homes and sustainable environments.
They live alongside non-Muslims, and their interaction with them goes beyond mere passive tolerance. The largest Muslim organization in Indonesia, Nahdlatul Ulama (its membership is estimated to number 30 million), sponsored a rally last June calling for religious moderation and tolerance in the country, in response to attacks on a religious sect, the Ahmadiyya, by hardline Muslims. Muslim lawyers and activists rushed to the aid of Lina Joy, a Muslim woman whose attempt to convert to Christianity was thwarted by conservative Muslim forces in Malaysia.
One of the strands of the history of Islam and Christianity is that of mutual conflict. Neither faith has clean hands: their histories are marked by the blood spilled by their sectaries and the ruins left in the wake of their missionaries. Our histories, however, do not have the force of determinism: the past is not a template for destiny. The Montgomery Bus Boycott took place in 1955, living memory for many Americans. Now we stand on tiptoe of expectation for the swearing in of a black President.
When I look at Al-Mustaqeem, I do not see the terrorists who perpetrated the 9/11 atrocities, or the London bombers, or the Taliban. I see someone who struggles with his faith, the way that I daily wrestle with mine. I see a man whose convictions are that all of us, Muslim, Christian, atheist, share a destiny by virtue of our common humanity. As a Catholic priest, I look at him and I can say, the way I dare not say of some Catholic priests with whom I have worked and lived, that I would trust him with my life.
I look forward to the day when Muslims in the U.S. will be able to take to heart the words that George Washington wrote to those other descendants of Abraham in his letter to the congregation of Truro Synagogue: “May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
(Read moderator Ibrahim Kalin’s analysis of the dialogue.)
Aloysious Mowe, SJ, is a Woodstock International Visiting Fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University.