LOS ANGELES — On Sunday, the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) hosted a panel discussion titled “Overcoming Xenophobia: Lessons from the Catholic, Mormon & Jewish Experiences.”
A Republican Mormon bishop, a liberal Jewish rabbi and a Catholic reverend discussed the challenges each of their religions faced historically in an attempt to draw parallels between their own experiences and the struggles members of the American Muslim community are facing today as a result of radical Islamic terrorism.
“We are hear to learn from the Mormon experience, the Catholic experience and the Jewish experience in combating xenophobia,” Salam Al-Marayati, president of MPAC and event moderator, told the diverse crowd that had gathered in the Iman Cultural Center. He continued, “Islamaphobia is not a Muslim problem. It’s an American problem.”
An array of Middle Eastern sweets were served with tea and watermelon for guests attending the open event.
MPAC had planned Sunday’s panel discussion months before the terrorist attacks that struck Europe, but the conversation was tailored to reflect upon the most recent tragic events.
Rev. Thomas P. Rausch, professor of Catholic theology at Loyola Marymount University, said “Islamophobia is on the rise in some parts of the world” and suggested that “anti-Islamic sentiments have surfaced in presidential politics in the United States and after the Paris massacres.” He also pointed out the surging rise of antisemitism in Europe once again by a stunning 40 percent increase since last year. Similarly, he said, “Christians today face discrimination and persecution in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan” and noted that nuns have also been raped in India.
Bishop Larry Eastland told the story of personal discrimination he faced in 2012 when he was told by a couple while dining out that “we will never vote for people like you” after his Mormon faith was revealed. He told the predominantly Muslim crowd that, as Americans, they were “under no moral obligation to defend the atrocities thousands of miles away committed by people you don’t know just because you’re of the same religion. You are not guilty by association, nor should you be treated as such.”
Rabbi Sharon Brous, a founding rabbi of IKAR, said “I love how you put the progressive Jew after the Republican firebrand. It’s perfect.” She discussed the similarities between the Jewish and Muslim communities, attempting to draw parallels between antisemitism and Islamophobia by going through a thick history of antisemitism in the United States.
Brous attempted to compare America’s refusal to admit Jews into the nation during WWII to the current Syrian refugee crisis and took a swipe at Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
“Hatred, which now for some reason in this latest [presidential] campaign, is more acceptable than it has ever been to say things out loud that are frankly extremely dangerous, I think,” Brous said.
Prior to the event, Al-Marayeti had told KPCC that he believes there are also images and perceptions coming both from within the Muslim community, as well as from other religious communities, that Muslims are not doing enough to deal with violent extremism. “But there is definitely a major problem within our houses of worship with how we view the other,” he said.
During the question and answer segment of the panel discussion, Breitbart News asked him to respond to comments made by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi this summer, who has called for a reformation within Islam in light of the rise in radicalism, which has tarnished the name of the whole.
Al-Marayeti responded saying “the problem that I have with a call for reformation from a military general for religion is just that….When religion is used for power, it becomes something that is antagonistic [and] that is a source of xenophobia because a person is trying to use religion to get power. And, to me, that’s exactly what ISIS, al Qaeda, Boko Haram, all these groups are. They’re interpretations are not even interpretations within any school of thought within Islam….It’s not even close.”
He said the issue of reform within Islam “means going back to the Islamic ethics, as opposed to looking at Islam as a dogma,” but noted his view that this has to be done at the grassroots level within civil society and “not by the governments of the Middle East [or] by whoever is running any country over there.”
And I believe that this reform will come from Islam in the West, not Islam in the East. I believe that we, as Americans, will help in creating that reform for the Muslim world. Just like Catholics in America helped reform the Catholic church. Just like reform Judaism started in America [sic] and helped in terms of dealing with world Jewry and its problems. But what I mean by reform is going back to those ethics, is finding this enlightenment that is within the Qur’an as opposed to using it to bash people, to force people into doing something they don’t want to do, this ideology of compulsion.
When asked to respond to the belief that there is an ideological conflict between the west, which has been been built on Judeo-Christian values and Islam, which comes from a different set of values, he provided the following response:
I believe that the values within Islam, the Qur’an, the Bible, the Torah are identical. Believe in one God, believe in one human family, work for mercy, compassion and justice in this world. That, in a nutshell, is what God–I believe–[was] his will in delivering the messages to our different religious groups.
Do I believe that Sharia law should replace American law? No. American law gives me what I want: Life, liberty the pursuit of happiness, which to me is Islam. If you’re saying, are we going to bring Saudi law or Pakistani law of any of those laws to America, I’ll be the first one to oppose it [and] to say this is not only a disgrace to America, it is a disgrace to Islam.
So, we have to be very vocal about that to see that these values, within America, that we all cherish are exactly the values that made, in my opinion, the Golden Age [in] Spain where Jews, Christians and Muslims were living with these same aspirations. So, reliving that here in America it is our aspiration… And yes, part of the reform that each religious group had to undertake in order to overcome xenophobia meant that they were instrumental in changing America for the better. So instead of Judeo-Christian West against Islamic East, it is an Abrahamic message or a message of humanity: To be human beings first and then go decide whichever religion you want to be. That’s the America we see.