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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Interfaith dialogue is key to combating religious extremism

Left to right: Rev. O'Neill, Rabbi
Paskind, and Imam Zia
As a resident of a diverse community, how can you promote understanding of other religions and how do you respond to hate and violence?

“We need to be open minded, and not afraid to ask questions,” suggested a Muslim woman named Fatima at a recent interfaith dialogue in Annandale. Be prepared when someone says something bigoted, such as “that is not my experience with that group,” advised a Jewish woman named Jean. It’s important “to separate politics and culture from religion,” said Sherri, also Jewish. And “make it a personal mission to overcome fear and hatred in others, advised a Muslim man named Ashraf, who added, “the more you know about another religion, the less likely you’ll have a negative view of it.”

These were some of the 100 or so participants at the session Sunday afternoon at the John Calvin Presbyterian Church on Columbia Pike. The event was part of an ongoing series spearheaded by the Fairfax County Community Interfaith Liaison Office to give people of diverse communities an opportunity to share their experiences and viewpoints.

There was lots of talk about the need for more understanding and respect of other religions and the need for more education—about one’s own—as well as other religions. But many participants agreed that one of their biggest challenges is bringing that message to the extremists within their religions.

The moderator, Maureen Fiedler, host of the “Interfaith Voices” radio show, told the audience that while the session is “a quest to understand each other. What it is not is all sweetness and light. We’re not here to say we’re really all the same. We’re not.”

The session offered some perspectives on how religious texts have been used to justify hate and violence. Context is key, agreed all three panelists, Rabbi Ita Paskind, the Very Rev. Grayce O’Neill, and Imam Zia, who were asked to explain a particularly problematic piece of scripture. As O’Neill, put it, “Words taken out of the context of their times become very, very dangerous.”

Paskind, assistant rabbi at Congregation Olam Tikvah in Fairfax, spoke about passages in the Torah that refer to the battle against the nation of Amalek. When the Israelites were famished and weary following their long trek to the promised land, Amalek cut down the stragglers in the rear. God gave the Israelites a contradictory message: “Blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”

Of all the passages in the Torah, this narrative “has the most potential for [stirring up] hatred against another group,” Paskind said. “This narrative is part of Jewish history and doesn’t apply to us today,” and “we don’t associate any modern-day nation with Amalek,” she said. One way to approach this text is to view Amalek “as the part of ourselves we most want to eradicate.”

O’Neill, of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Annandale, read a passage from the New Testament where Pilate declared himself innocent of killing Jesus Christ, and a crowd of people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!”

This passage, which “caused much hatred and violence,” was misinterpreted, O’Neill said. “Jesus was always a devout Jew,” and his earliest disciples were Jews. A conflict that was really between traditional Jews and revisionist Jews “over the ages came to be seen as a conflict between Jews and Christians,” she said, and “all Jews were thought of as enemies of Jesus.”

She cited another verse that added to the damage by suggesting that Christianity is the “one true faith.” That became a “foundation for hatred,” she said, and “the demand to convert another became a way of life.”

Zia, of the Mustafa Center in Annandale, quoted verses from the Koran that call upon Muslims “to fight in God’s cause against those who wage war against you.” He called it “very tragic” how Al Qaida and other extremist groups “use these verses to justify violence and hatred.”

He said “expansionist wars are alien to Islam.” Those wars have happened, but “they are not sanctioned by the faith.” And, he said, “while it is an obligation to tell others about your faith, Muslims are not out to convert the world.”

Fiedler suggested that we don’t have religious wars in the United States, because just about everyone has a relative of a different religion whom “we don’t believe is going to hell.”

A member of the audience objected, stating the real reason is that we have separation of church and state. He said Islam is different because it “doesn’t wish to preserve separation of church and state,” and we should be concerned about Muslims who want governments to adopt Koran-based Sharia law. That is an opinion within Islamic tradition, Zia acknowledged, but said, “it’s important to make a distinction between opinions and the Muslim religion as a whole.”

In response to Fiedler’s question about how religious leaders could promote interfaith understanding among followers who adhere to the original interpretations of the scriptures, Zia suggested eliminating extremism and terrorism by addressing poverty and oppression, “the root causes of militancy.” Paskind stressed the importance of education, and of teaching peace, starting with the youngest children.

“We must speak out against hate in our own communities,” O’Neill said. Referring to the preacher in Florida who threatened to burn the Koran and the opposition to the Park 51 project in New York, she said, some people were afraid their Christianity will be taken away. But if that is the case, “how deep is your Christianity?”

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