Beyond Islamophobia: Building Bridges With Our Muslim Neighbors

Beyond Islamophobia: Building Bridges With Our Muslim Neighbors

Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, there has been an increase in Islamophobia (fear of Muslims) in the United States.  We must remember that the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful and want to live in harmony with those around them.  Especially as we prepare to welcome thousands of Afghan refugees into our area, let us welcome them by showing hospitality and love, and let’s have a spirit of openness and curiosity instead of suspicion and judgment.  

Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage: Romans 12:9-18; 1 Peter 3:15


September 11, 2001 is one of those days when you remember exactly where you were and what you were doing when you heard the news that the planes hijacked by radical Islamic extremists crashed into the twin towers in New York City.

We were living in Phoenix at the time and I was at home getting ready to go to work at Trinity Mennonite Church.  Like many people, I didn’t end up going into the office and stayed home glued to the TV, watching the events of that terrible day unfold—

Yesterday, many of us probably watched a lot of TV of the 20th anniversary memorial services and interviews with family members reflecting on that day.

One of the results of Nine eleven 2001 was the creation of the Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, which screens every passenger in every US city before they can board an airplane.

Another result of September 11, 2021 was the decision by the United States to start a war in Afghanistan otherwise known as “the war on terror”.

As we all know, that war lasted 20 years and just ended recently with the withdrawl of all the remaining military personnel.

A third result of the events of 9/11 is what I want to focus on this morning, and that’s an increase in what’s known as “Islamophobia”, which is a fear of Muslims, people who follow the Islamic faith.

Fear of “the other” has been with us since the beginning of time.  And so fear of Muslims by people who aren’t Muslim has been around for a long time.

But after the events of 9/11, there was a significant increase in that fear, what’s known as “Islamophobia”, which led to an in increase in scapegoating, vilifying, and acts of violence against Muslims or people perceived to be Muslims.

One example: Ten days after 9/11, a man named Mark Stroman charged into a convenience store in Dallas, Texas.  Rais Bhuiyan, who was from Bangladesh, was working at the cash register that day.

Stroman pointed a shotgun at Bhuiyan’s head, and sprayed his face with pellets.  Bhuiyan ended up surviving, but has permanent physical and emotional trauma from the shooting.

Stroman also shot and killed two other people that he perceived to be Muslim in the Dallas area, all acts of what he called “revenge” for 9/11.

Also, as a result of 9/11, there were fires set to mosques in various places and other acts of violence directed toward Muslims.  Remember the shooting at the Tree of Life Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh a few years ago that killed 11 people?

The shooter was partly motivated to target a synagogue because some synagogues like that one were involved in helping settle Muslim refugees in the United States.

Now I want to mention that Muslims aren’t the only religious group suffering persecution in our world today.  There are Christians in many countries in the world that are persecuted for their faith.

There are an estimated 10-12,000 Christian in Afghanistan who maybe had some limited freedoms during the presence of the US Military during the past 20 years, but now that they are gone, and the Taliban has taken over the country,

Christians are having to go more underground than before, and there are stories coming out of Afghanistan where the Taliban is going door to door looking for Christians, even checking cell phones to see if people have a Bible downloaded onto their phone.

Christians are being threatened and arrested, sometimes even killed, in Afghanistan.  And persecution of Christians and other religious minority groups is happening in different parts of the world as well. They need our prayers and efforts to work for religious freedom.

Here in our city of Fairfax, VA, Christians live among Muslims and other religious groups.  Many of you probably already have coworkers, neighbors and friends who are Muslim.

And now as we anticipate the arrival of potentially thousands of Afghan refugees in this area, most of who are Muslim,

We need to prepare ourselves to welcome them, to show them hospitality, and build relationships with them.  I’m excited about our commitment to adopt an Afghan family, and I hope that all of us—adults and children alike–we all will have the opportunity to get to know them, hear their stories, and support them as they face the difficult challenges of recovering from trauma and rebuilding their lives in a country and a culture that is new and foreign to them.

I hope that whatever fears we might have about Muslims will disappear, and I also hope that as we build friendships and model positive relationships with Muslims, that Christians and others around us who are Islamophobic will have a change of heart and see Muslims as people to be loved instead of being feared.

In Islam as well as every religion and every political party there are extremist groups, but they don’t represent the vast majority of Muslims in the world, who desire to live in peace and harmony with their neighbors.

I recently found out about an organization called Peacemakers Confessing Christ International, or PCCI.  The group came about because of the vision and efforts of Mennonite mission worker David Shenk, who lived in East Africa for most of his life, first while his parents served with Eastern Mennonite Missions, and then through his own mission work in Kenya and Somalia, a work focused on building bridges of friendship and understanding with Muslims.

PCCI’s website says that we envision communities of Jesus the Messiah’s followers who, by abiding in Him and embodying who He is, cultivate peaceful relations with their Muslim neighbors and bear witness to God’s ministry of reconciliation in Jesus the Messiah. 

PCCI’s mission is to build a network equipping Christians around the world for life-giving relationships with Muslims through hospitality, dialogue, witness, and peacemaking.  The diagram on the cover of the bulletin shows this 4-pronged approach.

Right now I want to show a 7-minute video that’s on their website which gives the “why” behind PCCI, and their work of addressing Islamophobia through building relationships between Christians and Muslims in the US and around the world.

This video features a guy named Jonathan Bornman, who is based in Lancaster, PA, and is serving with Eastern Mennonite Missions.

I really like the work that PCCI is doing and their vision for Christians to build relationships with Muslims through hospitality, peacemaking, dialogue and witness.  I’d love to see us here at DRPC have this kind of approach as well.

I want to encourage you to approach Muslims and other people who are different from you with openness and curiosity instead of suspicion and judgment.

There’s a couple of other resources that I’ve recently discovered on Christian-Muslim relations that I want to briefly tell you about this morning before I close.

First, this past Thursday I participated in an online interview with the author of this book that just came out, Islamophobia: What Christians Should Know and Do About Anti-Muslim Discrimination. 

The author is a woman named Jordan Denari Duffner.  She’s a Roman Catholic who is pursuing a doctorate in theology and religious studies at Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.

Duffner said in the interview that Christians have a moral duty to address Islamophobia, just like we have a moral duty to address other moral issues.

She has had a lot of experience in her young life building relationships with Muslims, and previously wrote a book called “Finding Jesus Among Muslims”.  She said in the interview,

“Learning more about Islam has led me back to my Catholicism in a new way.  Building relationships with Muslims has not only helped cure me of my anti-Muslim ways of thinking, but it has helped me gain a better sense of my own faith.”

Isn’t it true that when we allow ourselves to be exposed to other ways of seeing the world that it helps us to see more clearly how we see the world and challenge us to grow in new ways?

This has been my experience from living in countries outside of the US—I could see things in my American culture that I was blind to until I left the United States and immersed myself in another country and culture.

For example, living in South America helped me to see how individualistic North American culture is, compared to the emphasis on community and interdependence I experienced in South America.

I’m sure that some of you have had these same kinds of experiences as well, right?

The second resource I recently discovered is in the same vein as Duffner’s.   It’s called “Pillars: How Muslim Friends Led Me Closer to Jesus” by Rachel Pieh Jones.

The book is a very personal and vulnerable story of Jones and her family living in Somalia and now Djibouti.

The book is organized around the five pillars of Islam, how Jones learned more about them as she has lived in majority Muslim countries, and how building friendships with her Muslim neighbors has helped her understand and appreciate certain things about the Islamic faith.

Islam is one of the 3 Abrahamic faiths that affirm the Old Testament, along with Christianity and Judaism.

The five pillars of Islam are: 1) There is no god but God  2) Prayer, specifically 5 set times a day where you stop to pray and face toward Mecca  3) Almsgiving, or acts of charity toward those who are less fortunate  4) Fasting, for example during the season of Ramadan, and the fifth pillar is making a Pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in your life.

Rubbing shoulders with Muslims has also helped Jones understand her own Christian faith in a new way, challenging her to become a better Christian.

For example in the section on prayer, Jones wrestles with her own understanding and practice of prayer: (p. 86) What is prayer, anyway?  Why do I pray?  What do I expect from prayer, and why have I always been so bad at it?  What if prayer isn’t what I thought it was?

One other question that Jones raises in her book is something that I think that all of us might face:  She asks, “Could I learn to respect the faith of Muslims without compromising my own?”

I have found this book so honest and so personal and so timely that I want to encourage anyone who can to read it and take part in a book discussion of it.  There’s an announcement in the bulletin about it, and I hope that you seriously consider reading it with me.

I’d like to set a date about a month from now to have the discussion, probably over Zoom like we’ve been doing with previous book studies during the pandemic.  So let me know by next Sunday the 19th if you want to participate in this and also if you’d like us to provide a copy of the book to you.

I want to close with just one brief story.  Every year on Holy Thursday, or Maundy Thursday as we call it, Christians wash each other’s feet as a symbol of Jesus’ call to servanthood.

This practice also takes place at the Vatican, where the Pope has traditionally washed the feet of other priests.  But in 2016, Pope Francis chose to wash the feet of a variety of common people.

Some of those people whose feet he washed that day were Muslim refugees.  Pope Francis modeled with his actions an attitude of servanthood and hospitality toward people who many other people look down upon.

The Pope’s actions are a reminder to us to love not only with words but with our actions.  It’s an image I’d like us to keep in mind as we reach out to show hospitality through concrete acts of service to our Muslim neighbors.

May God give us the strength and the compassion to live this out in the weeks and months ahead as we welcome Afghan refugees into our community and country.  AMEN.

Question for reflection:  In your relationships with Muslims and people of other faiths, what have you learned?  How have you been challenged and blessed?