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Interfaith Leaders Call For Tough Stand Against Religious Extremists

By Stephen Kaufman, Washington File Staff Writer

Washington—Moderate Muslim, Jewish and Christian representatives called upon their co-religionists and the adherents of all three Abrahamic faiths to stand up to religious extremism and to educate each other, the media and government officials about how those faiths promote teachings of peaceful coexistence.

The representatives, a panel of clergy and laypeople from the Islamic, Jewish, Protestant and Catholic communities, met on June 13 at the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee's (ADC) annual conference in Crystal City, Virginia, to discuss the role of religious faith in the aftermath of the September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the 2003 conflict in Iraq, and the ongoing crisis between Israelis and Palestinians.

Imam Yahya Hendi, from the Georgetown University Islamic Center, decried religious extremism that is used to justify violence, saying, "Sadly, in the name of peace, peace is murdered."

He argued that it was very important for believers to confront the extremists in their midst and tell them "no more in my name."

"My challenge to my colleagues on the panel here, my challenge to each and every one of you: Are you willing to say 'no more in my name?'" asked Hendi. "Muslims must not allow Osama bin Laden and like minded people to speak on behalf of Islam because they don't, and they must not be allowed to do so. Jews must not allow the State of Israel to become the representative of the Torah, the Tanach, ... and Christians must not allow this war in Iraq to become a war in the name of Christ as some may see it," he said.

Hendi said that justice "should be the goal of every one of us." If he felt he had to stand up to a fellow Muslim and tell him that his interpretation of faith or faith-based action was wrong, "I have to do it," he said.

Cherie Brown, co-founder of the Jewish Alliance For Justice and Peace, echoed the imam's challenge, saying it "is absolutely essential that we put our voices out, that we need to say what the religions that we love and cherish truly teach ... [and] we need to be willing to have the courage to take on our own communities and to look for what we believe to be the genuine crystals of faith of our communities."

Each representative voiced frustration over the fact that often the most extreme voices are presented in the mass media as representatives of their respective faiths, seeking to give religious justification for such things as suicide bombings by Muslims, Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, and conservative Christian support for Israeli hard-line policies.

Reverend Stan Deboe, Justice and Peace Director for the Catholic Conference of Major Superiors of Men's Institutes, said that during the recent military conflict in Iraq, moderate religious voices, such as the National Council of Churches, were speaking out against military action, and were virtually silenced by the media.

"They were there, but the media wouldn't publish it, and in fact when the media would do something, they would say that American church leaders are out of step with the people in their pew and they should shut up," said DeBoe.

He accused the Bush administration of listening to the views of more extremist Christians, while marginalizing and neglecting faith communities that spoke out against the war and ignoring their repeated requests to meet personally with the president.

But alongside their frustration with government officials and the media, the panelists strongly urged their co-religionists to empathize with each other through their own faith traditions and to learn how to see different faiths through the eyes of those who practice them.

Imam Hendi said teachers and educators "can change the world more than tanks can." He said he wanted to learn about Judaism, "not as portrayed or spoken about or preached by Muslims, but as spoken in synagogues," and called upon Christians and Jews to learn "not the Islam of Fox News, CNN, NBC, or CBS, but the Islam that is preached in the Holy Qur'an."

This understanding of Islam, said Hendi, "teaches me that when a bomb goes off in a synagogue in Tunisia, I consider that a bomb is going off in a mosque in Mecca. And when a man carries a bomb and bombs a church in Islamabad, he is bombing, for me, the Kaaba," and he called upon others to feel the same empathy when Muslims are targeted.

At the same time, he said his answer to extremist Christian leaders who had publicly denounced the Islamic faith is, "you continue to hate, we will continue to love. You continue to throw stones upon us; we will continue to throw roses upon you. That is my faith and that is what it teaches me to do."

Cherie Brown, who described herself as a Jewish peace activist, founded her organization, the Jewish Alliance For Justice and Peace, specifically to fight racism and prejudice. Reminiscing about her early years, she related that she confronted a rabbi at her religious school who told her class that Arabs were the enemies of the Jewish people.

"I was sent home with a note that my parents should teach me to not talk back to the rabbi," she said. "I don't think I learned that lesson because I've been talking back ever since!"

She advised activists to organize events where victims of discrimination can speak out about their experiences and bring home the message of how destructive racism and hatred can be.

"You change people's minds, you change their hearts," she said, "and what changes hearts is when they can hear a personal story, particularly when that story is emotional."

Brown said many U.S. Jews were outraged by media, criminal and legal assaults against Arabs since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and wanted to find ways not only to stand in solidarity, but also to confront the anti-Palestinian rhetoric emanating from parts of the Jewish community, which she said is a "violation of our faith and our Judaism."

Brown said her organization was inviting Muslims who had experienced discrimination to speak publicly on college campuses. "When hundreds of students and faculty administrators hear those stories, it opens up something that all of the learning and reading can't open up," said Brown.

Reverend DeBoe said that, for his part, the September 11 attacks had created "a new world of understanding" for him, as he suddenly felt vulnerable and could empathize with others such as refugees and the homeless. He said that people were now living in "the world of September 12," in which barriers of misunderstanding had been removed and replaced by "new solidarity that all of us could experience."

"I believe that peace really involves crossing the divide of September 11 to step into the world of September 12, to take the risk of creating a world that is different, ... to be able to look and say, they're not against us, they're with us. And they're not just with us, we're here together."

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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