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  • Reverend James Squire

Understanding Islam

I want to take you back to the time after 9/11 when Islam itself was under attack as well as Iraq.

The comments made in the press as well as daily conversations were brutal. Like the Bible itself the Koran, the sacred book in Islam, can be interpreted in different ways. It is called proof texting. We can see this clearly in the Arabic word, Jihad. It doesn’t mean war against our enemies. It means to have a spiritual journey to make oneself better. It can also mean to struggle against anything that obstructs the good. Islamophobia, fear of Muslims, was running rampant throughout our nation after 9/11 as it does now. Islam invites people to lead a peaceful life based in theism, justice, and purity. It is the second largest religion in the world next to Christianity.

I have not seen or heard much about Islam following the October 7th attack on Israel by Hamas. It has been seen to be irrelevant compared to the time after 9/11. A true understanding of the tenets of Islam would demonstrate that Hamas is disconnected from the values of Islam and should be seen as a movement not shared by the Muslim world. If we truly understood Islam, it could put the current crisis started by Hamas as not connected with those in Palestine. Hamas is an outlier.

We still suffer from Islamophobia since October 7. Understanding Islam could bring a different perspective to resolving this war which has been discussed in purely political terms with the absence of a religious component. We need more understanding today of the holy book of Islam which is the Koran. I would suggest that the people of the United States have no idea of the tenets of this important religion. Like antisemitism homophobia is based in ignorance and a stereotype of Muslims as crazy Arabs swinging swords at their enemy. We hold on to stereotypes so that our biases are kept alive.

I feel strongly about the need for education now to reduce the tensions that stereotypes keep alive. After 9/11 I decided to have the first ever national conference at EA. It was titled “Understanding Islam.” I recall hearing from Rutgers University when they heard that I was doing this. They sent me an email that, in essence, said be prepared for significant backlash as they had a similar conference and paid a price from alumni and people in the community.

Thanks to a terrific PR person at our school who got the word out including the local press and a good friend, Dr. Roger Allen at Penn who arranged to have world class scholars including women PH.D. students in Islamic studies at Penn to address the conference. In addition, I had Dr. Michael Sells, an expert on the Koran, to speak at the conference. He was a professor at Haverford College and later at the University of Chicago. People from all over the nation attended including a group of Black Muslims in Philadelphia. The conference began on Friday night and ended on Saturday afternoon.

I am glad that I had the warning from Rutgers. It prepared me for what was to come. Strong messages encouraged me to not hold the conference. It didn’t help that the conference was a few weeks after Easter which was part of the criticism as well. But I thought it was important to do as those present could go back to their school communities and other places and share what they learned. My mother use to call me “Johnny Bull” for being bullheaded or stubborn for if I thought something was right, it was difficult for me to back down. I didn’t realize that I had used that early childhood characteristic as part of my leadership style. Later on at EA, I was reminded of that nickname, Johnny Bull. I was interviewing a candidate for a position in our administration who sat across from me in my conference room and volunteered that “I heard about you. If I get between you and something that you think is important, you will walk right over me.” There was silence as he caught me off guard. I don’t know what he expected me to say, but I responded in a matter-of-fact fashion simply, “That’s true!” He laughed uncontrollably and did not stop even when I said, “But I am a peace-loving man.”

There was one awkward moment that I remember at the conference. Michael Sells spoke eloquently about the Koran and Islam. I had read his book on that subject. I knew that he was passionate about correcting misinformation about Islam and the Koran. There was a question from the audience. “If you think Islam and the Koran are so great, why don’t you convert to it?” He had a quick response that he found more that connected him to his expression of faith which was Christianity.

When the conference was over, I stood at the front of the auditorium and watched people leave and talked with those who came forward to offer their comments. When most people had left, the Black Muslims remained seated in the back all dressed in black. One of them came forward who was so tall that he towered over me said, “We came because we thought that there would be more stereotypes and distortions about Islam so we came to protest misinformation. Thank you for having everyone speak the truth. He shook my hand, smiled, and left.

You have heard my mantra in my blogs. We tolerate (can move forward) when we understand.

We need to get the nature of Islam back and center in this war of Hamas and Israel. Politics is needed, but religion should have a place at this table for it can help people to see that Palestinians are people too as well as the fact that there is nothing sacred or ethical about what Hamas did on that infamous day in October for religion’s root word is the Latin, ligio which means to connect. Religion means to connect to self, others, and God. That’s what has to be part of moving forward. Those connections are just as important to our Jewish brothers and sisters and could offer some common ground for peace.

Trying to bring peace to Israel and Palestine will not happen if the approach is purely diplomatic. It is important that both entities remember that each of their religious expressions are needed as well in a quest for peace. Israel and the Palestinians are informed by their historic quest for a homeland.

Both Jews and Palestinians are Semites. Semitic is rooted in the Biblical name Shem, the son of Noah, who is traditionally thought of as THE DIRECT ANCESTOR OF JEWS AND ARABS. They are blood brothers and sisters. That truth should be part of the focus of reconciliation and healing.

The religious basis of Judaism and Islam once shared can be a powerful force. That is the roadmap to a common understanding of what got us to October 7 and, through the power of God, can lead to a clearer vision of peace for both nations. We need hope that has been missing that the faith found in these two groups of semitic people can open doors to peace and prosperity from the land that they both should share. That should be the goal as good for both groups.

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