US Muslims Open Interfaith Doors

As numbers grow, they work to build bridges, correct misconceptions

'INTERFAITH" in America has long meant "Protestant, Catholic, Jewish."

But now, many Muslims are knocking for admission on America's interfaith door.

Across the United States, a swirl of Muslim interfaith activity is under way that was not evident even five years ago. Spurred by a desire to correct what they see as distortions of Islam stemming from the 1991 Gulf war and the World Trade Center bombing in New York, many Muslims are joining theological dialogues, social action groups, and media discussions with representatives of mainstream Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish faiths.

American Muslims, who number roughly 4 million, have often been excluded from religious dialogues; but as they prepare to observe Ramadan, a yearly fast, which begins Monday, they are also marking significant progress in breaking into previously closed religious circles.

"There was a real turn after the Gulf war," says John Borelli of the National Council of Catholic Bishops in Washington. "Christians, Muslims, and Jews started to pray together and started to build up some trust."

"They are getting established," says Jay Rock of the National Council of Churches in New York. "They are institutionalizing their relationship with others."

Signs of greater Muslim participation abound:

*At a yearly "feast of sacrifice" at a Los Angeles mosque, a priest, a rabbi, and an Islamic scholar discuss Abraham the patriarch - a Biblical figure all three faiths revere.

*In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a local Muslim scholar was voted the vice president of the county interreligious council last year.

*In Dallas, the Islamic Association and the Greater Dallas Community of Churches signed public statements condemning the Oklahoma City bombing.

*Muslim clerics have initiated ongoing, formal theological dialogues about concepts of God and salvation with Jews and Roman Catholics in Boston, Los Angeles, Detriot, New York, Washington, and Chicago. Meetings with Protestants have tended to be at a more grassroots level, with Muslims establishing relationships with local churches.

Muslims cut a wide swath in their interfaith work. In foreign-policy areas of particular concern, such as Bosnia and the Middle East, Muslims have tended to work with liberal church groups. But they join with conservatives on traditional moral issues like gambling and premarital sex. A prominent Los Angeles mosque, for example, recently held a symposium on sexual morals with local Catholics.

Moreover, two years ago, the first Muslim was sworn into the Army chaplaincy - a step long regarded by mainstream denominations as indicative of a faith's acceptance. Other Muslims are currently completing their theological training and will soon serve as chaplains in both the Air Force and Navy.

"We are participating because it is healthy to understand each other," says Doud Assad, head of the New York Muslim World League.

The Muslim push, which has leveled out somewhat as US Muslims focus on internal issues, comes at a time when many US religious leaders are focusing on religious pluralism.

The National Council of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, for example, recently renamed itself the "National Council" in acknowledgement of its Muslim members. Muslims participated in all aspects of the 100th anniversary of the 1893 Chicago World Parliament of Religion, a landmark meeting of world faiths.

Interfaith activity has not been an easy step for some Muslims, who have had to battle a powerful isolationist streak in the Muslim community.

One Muslim interfaith pioneer, Los Angeles physician Hassan Hathout, remembers that when he first proposed joining the Southern California Interreligious Council in the mid-1970s, some fellow mosque members "thought I was going overboard."

Today, Dr. Hathout is the president of the council. Further, Hathout estimates he has visited 40 US cities in the past five years, helping Muslims learn how to interact with other faiths. "I concentrate on how important it is to be a part of the main fabric of America," he says.

A mosque in Amherst, Mass., started to form bridges in its community by holding an open house for members of other faiths. "It was a way to show our neighbors there isn't any secret or anything mysterious about us," says one Amherst member.

Rabbi Alfred Wolf of Los Angeles remembers visiting a mosque in the mid-1970s and being fearful of the reception. But, he says, "I was received with respect." Today, says Mr. Wolf, "I go in and out of mosques all the time. The Muslims are as much a part of the religious scene in L.A. as the Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic congregations are.''

Not all interfaith groups have embraced Muslims. In several cases in the Midwest, new interfaith groups were formed when Muslims were not allowed into existing ones. A Muslim council in New York is considering suing WABC-TV for not giving a Muslim a permanent seat at the table during its Sunday "Religion on the Line'' program.

Yet Muslims are finding some reciprocal fellowship.

Last fall, the Jewish Anti-Defamation League offered a pamphlet to Muslims on protecting synagogues - to help protect mosques that have been attacked. In Chicago, a coalition of seminaries is offering programs in the study of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations.

Also, as Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said points out, Christians like himself, particularly from the Arab world, are increasingly coming to the defense of US Muslims who are demonized or persecuted. And in the past year, leaders of both African-American and immigrant Muslims have been forming a single council, known as the Shoura, which they hope will help with outreach.

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