By Paul Findley
Twenty years ago the plight of Muslims in America was so serious, it led me to a weeklong international conference on Western images of Islam. It was held in Penang, Malaysia, half way around the world.
Leading the conference was Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, one of the founders of the Just World Trust (now known as the International Movement for a Just World(JUST) a non-governmental organization based in Penang. Although confined to a wheelchair, Muzaffar is a powerful speaker and leader. Born into a Hindu family in Malaysia, he converted to Islam.
Forty-two delegates attended. One of the six from the United States was the eminent Jewish Professor Richard Falk of Princeton University, long a champion of Arab human rights. The other 36 included Buddhists, Christians and Muslims from a dozen different countries.
Each morning delegates gathered in a large room where long tables were organized horseshoe-like against three walls. All delegates sat with backs to the wall, an arrangement that encouraged easy eye contact among all of them. Vigorous discussions continued all day, with a break for lunch. We were called on, one at a time, by Muzaffar for comment or to pass. Passing was rare. Discussion over various aspects of Islam continued in less formality after supper.
All agreed that Islamophobia was a fast developing cancer arising mainly from misinformation and ignorance, a disease that threatens everyone, not just Muslims.
On the final day, each participant was asked to state what he or she will do on returning home to help correct anti-Muslim bias. I promised to compose a brief statement that would be useful to U.S. Muslims in acquainting their neighbors with the truth about Islam.
Back home, I enlisted experts in Islam, Christianity and Judaism to help compose the statement. We sought text devoid of confrontational language. We wished it to be concise, clear, and fair, using words that deal calmly and truthfully with each topic. We were not attempting to win new adherents to Islam. We were simply truth-seekers. Working together for about a month, we completed A Friendly Note from Your Muslim Neighbor.
The text has passed the rigorous test of time. Over eight years, I distributed several hundred copies personally. Almost all encounters prompted civil discussion. At least 15,000 copies were distributed.
I divided most of the next five years between warning audiences about false images of Islam and writing a book about U.S. Muslims, titled Silent No More. The book featured Muslim men and women prominent in business, education, science, government and sports–and the important role of Muslims in American history. It detailed successful entry of Muslims into mainstream U.S. politics. The book includes the Friendly note.. as an appendix. Sales exceeded 60,000.
Much more needs to be done. These are days of great stress and pain for Muslims, including those who live in relative peace in Middle America. While several sects of Muslims live here peaceably with each other, they suffer pain at news of terrible violence between such groups in warring Middle East. Sunnis and Shias seem bent on killing each other. I sensed none of that hostility when I first visited the Middle East 25 years ago.
These days, media giants in the West misreport hateful acts as “Islamist.” Commentators often misspeak by wrongly using the words ‘Islamic’ and ‘Muslim’. These word choices leave the false impression they are approved by recognized Islamic authorities.
True Islam deplores violence, extremism, suicide and killing of innocent people. Nevertheless, Isis, the major radical group in Middle East conflict, wrongly labels itself Islamic while beheading scores of innocent people at a time.
On 9/11, a small group of professed Muslims were charged with sending 3,000 innocent people to their death in crushed commercial airliners and destroyed Manhattan skyscrapers. False images of Islam suddenly spread like a torrential flood. They have kept law-abiding Muslims heavily on the defensive ever since. Recent polls suggest that more than one-half of our citizens are caught in the snares of Islamophobia.
It is time to fight back with the truth about Islam.. Take the offensive.
Written 20 years ago, the Friendly note. now seems composed precisely for today’s stormy trials. If ever there is a perfect time for the public to be introduced to it, it is now. It consists of two printed pages. Reading time about six to eight minutes.
I cannot conceive of a better New Year’s gift than the delivery of the two-page Friendly Note… to every household in America. Let’s get started.
A Friendly Note from Your Muslim Neighbor.
Muslims have much in common with Christians and Jews.
Muslims, like Christians and Jews, worship the One God, creator of the universes. Allah is the Arabic word for God.
Muslims, like Christians and Jews, consider themselves spiritual descendants of Abraham.
Muslims, like Christians and Jews, pledge themselves to prayer, peace with justice, harmony, cooperation, compassion, charity, family responsibility, tolerance toward people of other faith traditions, and respect for the environment.
All three faiths have spread worldwide. Because of geographic dispersal, within each faith exist several sects with slightly different interpretations of politics, family, dress and social life.
We Muslims want you to know that:
Islam and democracy are compatible and complementary. Both rest on accountability, consultation, open discussion, delegation and consensus. The opening words of the U.S. Declaration of Independence express deeply felt Islamic sentiments.
Muslims honor Biblical prophets, accord special esteem to Jesus and his mother, the Virgin Mary, and recognize as sacred the scriptures revealed to Moses and Jesus, namely the Torah and the New Testament. Muslims are united in Islam, which means submission and peace. Submitting to the will of God and doing good define piety. The Quran is the final divine revelation, providing a complete guide for human behavior. Its text was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad between A.D. 610 and 632. Though revered by Muslims as the last of God’s prophets, Muhammad is not worshiped.
Muslim women, like men, have the right to obtain an education, own property and engage in business, professions and public life. Both women and men wear modest dress out of respect for public morality. If a society oppresses women or discriminates against them, it is in spite of Islam, not because of it.
Divorce is discouraged. Procedures vary by country, but either husband or wife may petition to dissolve a marriage. Polygamy, which was widely practiced in Biblical times, is subject to precise Qur’anic restrictions and is now seldom practiced, rarely where it violates public law, as in America.
Muslims assume personal responsibility for relatives and others in need. In Islam, a woman or elderly person is almost never obliged to live alone.
Muslims are committed to rules. Sadly, some people who say they are Muslims â€” like some professed Christians and Jews â€” grossly violate these rules and the rights of others. In doing so, they do not act as Muslims. It is erroneous to call them Islamic fundamentalists, a term unknown in Islam and used mostly in false stereotyping.
Jihad has two meanings: one, non-violent struggle within oneself for a life of virtue; the other, fighting for justice, a supreme goal in Islamic teachings. Islam eulogizes moderation and abhors extremism, terrorism, fanaticism, oppression and subjugation.
Muslims are proud to be Americans. They wish to be good citizens and neighbors by practicing their commitment to tolerance, charity, work, cooperation and interfaith activities for community betterment.
(The above text was written in 1995 by former U.S. Congressional Representative Paul Findley and religion experts. He resides in Jacksonville, Illinois. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org) – Just International
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