Interfaith events have always represented a paradox to me - yet, I find myself attending more and more of them. On one hand - these events do give an opportunity to bridge religious gaps. Conversely, the tenor of the events sometimes tend to be too sugary sweet - and representatives from all faiths have been guilty of toning out the other side while smiling, only to tune in when their religious group weighs in. Even though you enter the events with the best of intentions, only to walk away asking yourself - "Have I really accomplished anything today"?
Last Tuesday, I was one of two Muslim representatives at an event hosted by the Arizona Interfaith Movement - entitled "Texts of Terror". The purpose of the event was to highlight verses within the 3 major monotheistic scriptures (Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and Quran) that contain violent imagery and have possibly been used to justify violent acts. The title was a red flag to me - when I received the invitation to attend, I knew this was going to be a lightning rod event.
A few days before the event took place - we received word that the already controversial subject matter had just added a new wrinkle - an infamous local pseudo scholar named Carl Goldberg would be attending the event with the hopes of stirring up the crowd and turning the dialog into the debate. This just added to my hesitance, but I knew I would have to pull through.
Imam Anas Hlayhel and I both sit on the board of CAIR-AZ, and we have attended multiple events held by the Arizona Interfaith Movement as representatives for the Muslim community. Usually, the attendance is relatively sparse - but on this day, we were told we would be walking into a capacity crowd at the Arizona Jewish Heritage Center. As we walk toward the entrance, a familiar face greets us - the director of the Heritage Center. "Hey guys, I just want to let you know that we have a weird crowd today, so I apologize in advance for anyone who may say offensive things to you." As the two Muslims walk into the room - I felt like the scene in Gladiator when Russell Crowe and Djimon Honsou were first thrown into the arena, waiting for the carnage to begin. At first glance, it was hard to tell who was friendly and who was there in the hopes of seeing the Emperor give the "thumbs down" signal to us. I have never seen the Goldberg figure before, I have just read his hateful, manipulative and inaccurate discourses on my religion - Which one was he? I scanned the room looking for someone who looked like they were coming with an agenda - but it was hard to tell who was who.
Looks like we would have to wait until the lions were released...and then the Tea Party Patriots walk in. How did I know that these people were with the AZ Tea Party Patriots movement? Well one of them was wearing a pin that said "AZ Tea Party Patriots," so that sorta gave it away. You see Dr. Goldberg along with other virulently Islamophobic speakers such as Pamela Geller are extremely popular among Tea Party groups - especially here in Arizona. These groups like to get worked up and amplify violence conducted by Muslims - assigning guilt by association to the religion and all its adherents due to the acts of a few. Here are just a few links to the events they put on:
As the event commenced, it became clear that the organizers wanted nothing to do with the Tea-Partiers and their self-described "expert on Islam." The organizer (Dr. Paul Eppinger) set the ground rules from the beginning - this event was for our selected clergy to cover the topic of violence in holy scriptures. This was not going to turn into a debate or an opportunity to bash a religion - basically an Islam-bashing fest. He also stated that each audience member was only allowed to ask one question - and no speeches or diatribes were going to be accepted. It is then, we saw Goldberg and the other Tea-Partiers look at each other, scrambling for a backup plan.
When it came to the program itself - each clergy member did a great job of covering and giving an explanation of so-called "violent" verses in their scriptures, while providing the historical and social context. For example, the rabbi read from the book of Deuteronomy - where the believers are instructed to wipe out the 7 nations: the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites.
Next, the Methodist pastor/scholar covered material from the Book of Revelations - where many of the verses that appeal to fighting refer to "The Beast" - which in historical context represented the Romans. Finally, the imam read from Surah 9 (al-Tawbah) which many extremists misuse to justify acts of violence - and which many Islamophobes misuse to label Islam as inherently violent. All three clergy presented great cases as to why their faiths' respective verses should not be taken out of context, while highlighting recent cases of violence done in the name of almost every faith - and some in the crowd seemed to agree. But what were Goldberg and the Tea Party doing while the actual program was taking place?
After their wings got clipped with the one-question limit, the provocateurs in the crowd were scrambling for a solution. This was going to be Dr. Goldberg's big moment - he brought a binder full of material, and had a list of questions that he was ready to shout out. What was he going to do next? He started coaching the people sitting next to him and the Tea Partiers on what questions to ask during the Q&A portion. As the Q&A started, the "expert on Islam" jumped out of his seat in anticipation to be the first questioner. This is where the wheels started to fall off - as Goldberg accused the imam of being apologetic and obscuring information, while praising the pastor and the rabbi for being so honest. "I now have a comment if you will allow me" said Goldberg
The moderator of the session shut him down -and Goldberg's time was up. He now went to other audience members to try and coach them on what questions to ask. There was a poor old guy sitting next to Goldberg - (I sat directly behind them) and Dr. Carl was kept pointing to the piece of paper in his hand on what question to ask. The elderly man wasn't very quick on the uptake, so it took about 5 minutes for him to get properly coached by the anti-Islam polemicist. In the meantime, our Tea Partiers shouted out questions on how all Muslims want "Sharia Law," and screaming out cases of where Muslims have done bad things.
The interfaith event was officially sideways.
In the dozen inter-religious events I have attended in the last few years, this was the first time we have encountered hostility - and boy did it come strong. Thankfully, we only had to endure about 10 minutes of wild-eyed, out-of-context, unhinged questions - although it seemed like it lasted an hour. The members of the clergy did a great job of extending their answers - sort of like the 4-corners offense in basketball lingo. The event came to a close and the Dr. Eppinger thanked everything for coming.
At this point, I didn't know if I would have to play the role of secret service agent, and exit - stage left. Would this be the moment where the crowd joins up with Goldberg's crew and starts screaming "Go back to where you came from"? But a funny thing happened - instead of being taunted with jeers, chants and madness - we were greeted by hugs, handshakes and gestures of goodwill streamed from the majority of the crowd. The Tea Party reps were still looking for a confrontation after the event was over, but their hostility was completely overshadowed by the warmth and compassion from the rest of the attendees. As the angry Tea Party lady peered in the distance, the rabbi asked us - "You have time to go to lunch?" We obliged the rabbi on his offer, much to the chagrin of our counterparts.
For the hour and a half that we sat in the auditorium, the question "what are we doing here?" kept resonating in my mind. It was impossible to shake the feeling that we were on the road to accomplishing nothing but increasing our anxiety levels. But as we are taught in our faith, if you approach a potentially negative situation with the best of intentions - there is always a positive that will arise from it. Thankfully, the ensuing lunch with the rabbi opened up such positive avenues. After leaving the tension of the previous environment, it was great to just sit down and have meaningful dialogue with another member of the faith-based community. In this brief but meaningful conversation, we were able to discuss myths and misconceptions about our respective faiths along with the organizations that we represent.
More importantly, we all reached the conclusion that while interfaith events are great and have their place, the more important work will be "hands-on" and educating our communities on a grassroots level. As many activists and clergy who have participated in interfaith events have said before, we shouldn't be trained to just "tolerate" each other. Its time to transcend those lines and advance the conversation past the uncomfortable smiles, selective hearing, and simply going back to business as usual after the event is over. Thankfully, with the relationships we forged on this day, there is definitely hope for a greater and more meaningful level of participation in the future. And while the detractors attempted to steer this event off the tracks, they actually helped strengthen the bond between faith leaders, and ensure that we will work together to defeat the forces of hate and intolerance.