A Quaker Path to Muslim Engagement: Lessons from a Work in Progress
A Quaker Path to Muslim Engagement: Lessons from a Work in Progress
by Nancy Milio and Curt Torell
Do we have a gaping hole in our commitment to non-violence and inclusion regarding Muslims in our community? That’s the question that a few of us at the Chapel Hill Friends Meeting in North Carolina asked ourselves several years ago. During our subsequent self-education, we found it seems easier for Quakers to work with Muslims beyond our borders through relief and advocacy efforts than to think about and work with those within, even as our Muslim-Americans neighbors become semi-excluded and diminished in both the media and some political arenas.
Building on several years of work by one of us with national and regional Quaker groups, we tried to transfer those insights and information to our local setting. How do we, in a community where Muslims were not visible, take the first steps to connect, and in doing so, learn the way forward? How do we engage our Meeting in the work?
We pursued parallel tracks with our two communities of interest: our Meeting and local Muslims, each effort requiring a tailored ground-laying strategy. We first did our homework, searching for data on Muslim organizations and people, making contact with individuals and groups. We requested meetings, visited mosques and learned about their issues of concern, enlarging our understanding of Muslims in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Triangle. We began to recognize that our Quaker testimonies, our core commitments, have much in common with Muslim beliefs.
The Local Muslim Ecology
We looked for openings for action, which soon came into view in the form of Letters to the Editor, responses and rebound responses. One of us saw a virulent Letter in response to a story about a radical Muslim website authored by an Islamist young man in NC, tarring all Muslims as radical. She felt compelled to respond and in the process met another newsprint respondent, a young Muslim woman human rights worker. The two of us eventually met for lunch, which led to lunches with her colleagues, seasoned by mutual questions and learning.
As Quakers, our message to our new interlocutors was we wanted to learn about their situation and whether we had issues of common concern on which we could work together. Being Quaker immediately became an asset: “We know about Quakers” they said, meaning we were seen as trustworthy.
We became connected to a widening network for us to explore over the ensuing months and years. This helped us understand the “ecology” of the Muslim community. We moved carefully, respectfully, never wanting to burn bridges, regardless of our reception. We worked through those we knew to meet those we wanted to know, always following up on what we agreed to do. We did not promise what we could not deliver.
We accepted invitations and offered them. Our Meeting was invited, for example, to a Middle Eastern potluck-festival-discussion for women and girls sponsored by a group from a Durham mosque that wanted to expose its females to the wider community; their Imam was quite conservative. The Carolina Friends School provided the venue. We also hosted several Sunday forums at our meetinghouse with lunches or receptions, including a woman speaking about her recent experiences of the Hajj [pilgrimage to Mecca]; another included two teen girls who spoke about their experiences wearing the hijab [head scarf] in high school. On these occasions we were careful to invite the full spectrum of Muslim groups whom we had already met, from progressive to conservative. All this evoked warm responses from our Quaker community.
We learned where the dead ends and detours were along on our path toward friendship. These we tried to see not as failures or frustrations. Rather, they taught where and how not to go, what to expect.
Our first Muslim-Quaker effort proved to be too precipitate and ambitious--trying to combine too many youth groups too fast. Though we had some doubts, we held back out of deference to our new Muslim colleagues. We learned or relearned a few rules of thumb of new undertakings: think small and simple; stay local for on-the-ground work to promote contiguity and continuity, take account of competing participant commitments, e.g. the jobs and families of volunteers, the erratic schedules of youth, and the organizational imperatives of officials. In other words, get the logistics right up front--the bane of all non-monetary, non-resourced projects.
Perhaps the most important learning on our journey went beyond the character of the organizations and personalities of leaders and their effectiveness. Over time, we discovered the range of political and religious thinking within the Muslim community, where they agreed and disagreed on specific issues, as well as the sources of tension among them. One issue is the education and orientation of Muslim youth. As a leader said: “Those who conduct youth group meetings tend to be culturally biased (i.e., maintain a traditional Islamic view0 and are distrustful of Americans in general.”
They also disagreed over whether to reach out to non-Muslims and to respond publicly to public attacks. These differences seemed to be based on their country of origin and origin of their Imams, who often bring their home-culture expectations with them. Their background also shaped their attitudes toward Muslim decision making and the role of women in their community.
All this helped us understand what was going on and find our place in it. We were able over time to tread more sure-footedly the fine line between being too intrusive and contributing supportive suggestions. This was evidenced by several requests for private discussions to act as a sounding board on contentious issues within the Muslim community.
Our Quaker Community
The other side of our bridge-building work, within our Quaker community, involved other hurdles. We smoothed the path through a long process of raising awareness, including how the forums, book reviews, library contributions, handouts on Arab and Muslim terms, checked out by one of our Muslim friends, a scholar. We also regularly reported our activities to the Meeting.
In addition we presented a discussion paper, outlining the “state of the art” among Quakers and Muslim-engagement nationally and locally, noting the principal organizations in both communities. It also spoke to the nuances between concepts of tolerance and acceptance, integration and inclusion, service and collaboration, and the importance of maintaining expectations of mutual learning.
By the end of 2008, we felt the ground had been prepared for proposing a Minute for the collective commitment of our Meeting to engage with Muslims in our locality. It turns out that our previous ground-laying work gave credibility and momentum to the Minute, such that it gained the support of our Peace and Social Concerns Committee and the assent of the Meeting. The stated goal was, “to look for and engage American Muslim secular and religious organizations with which to learn together and collaborate on issues of common interest and concern” and to set up a small ad hoc outreach committee to explore opportunities for other Meeting committees to forge linkages in the following two years. The new committee is now known as Bridging the Faith Divide, which we co-chair.
Some members, however, voiced dilemmas and discomforts which initially seemed to cast doubt on whether the Minute would be approved. One person noted that some members were already feeling burdened with responsibilities and questioned the long term demands and ‘politics’. Another said “After all, we are not a political party.” One leader wanted assurance that the Meeting would not risk its nonprofit status but once the analogy to our spirited civil rights and anti-war work was made, that qualm was calmed. Most Friends agreed with, “the importance of the work that needs to be done. Even when overwhelmed, we need to trust when we have a leading and honor it.”
In the end, only one member stood aside, saying she felt she was being forced to do something for which she was not ready (although over some months she has shown increasing interest in the work). Younger leaders readily embraced the project and took initiatives on their own, as well as our seasoned members.
The first collective move as a Meeting resulted from members’ concern about the controversial arrest of alleged Muslim terrorists. BDF drafted a letter to the press and government officials calling for due process that our meeting approved. It was quickly published by the leading state newspaper and sparked a response from a well-known Muslim chaplain and professor, which then spread by email within the Muslim community. The chaplain’s email to us read: "Alhamdulillah ! Praise be to the Lord ! I just read it….It means A LOT to many of your Muslim brothers and sisters locally and beyond…"
We also lauded Editors when they printed op-eds by our Muslim colleagues, whom we had encouraged to write on their own behalf. Soon, one paper offered a monthly column by one of the Muslim leaders with whom we work, and several other columns have since appeared.
We soon saw an opening to our goal of bringing our Quaker community closer to Muslims in the most literal sense. A core group of progressive Muslims sought a site to hold Friday (Juma’ah) midday prayers and sermon in a manner compatible with their views and lifestyle, as contrasted with conservative and distant sites. We offered our meetinghouse and facilitated the paperwork and support of the meeting, all of which was surprisingly time-consuming and complex. The weekly worship is now a success, often shared in by one or more Quakers. One of the participants chose to be married in our meetinghouse. These activities have evoked welcoming responses in the Muslim and wider community.
Some Lessons on the Journey to Engage with Muslims
In many ways, the rules of the road are those Quakers and other peace and justice advocates have long learned. They apply to working with both Quakers and Muslims.
- Do your self-education homework.
- Use a variety of education/information methods to raise awareness and prepare the ground for next steps.
- Have a vision, but start small, simple, and local.
- Get the logistics right.
- Move from the familiar to the new.
- Don’t promise what you cannot deliver.
- Always follow up.
- Dead ends and detours are another way to learn.
- Do not take sides in controversy; realize that forward movement requires taking account of the interests of all parties.
- Be transparent.
- Listen closely and hold non-public information in trust.
- Stand alongside as necessary and always be ready to support.
- Step out in front when necessary, but stand back ASAP.
- Follow the rhythm and sense of time of the community.
- Projects always take more time than our best estimates.
- Engage as many Friends as possible in as many varied ways as possible.
- Have a firm footing before taking the next step but allow for the possibility of unforeseen events that might require a leap forward.
- Above all, stay in a learning mode.
Muslims face detours and dead ends, such as a well-intentioned attempt at premature formalization of an interested but still-amorphous group of area Muslims, lack of follow-up on the part of some, endless discussions of philosophical, structural, and governance issues, and competition for group leadership.
The good news is that because of the recent airing of issues within the Muslim community, the traditionalists are taking steps to open their governance control to women and men across the community and hold open elections. The progressives are hoping this will not only bring a measure of democratic control but also unify the community and allow it to speak with one voice to the wider non-Muslim community. Emblematic of this growing resolve, the entire spectrum of groups organized the first open interfaith iftar, the breaking of the Ramadan fast, in August.
Many hurdles remain as they move toward unity of spirituality, voice, and service. We are committed to stand alongside in support and collaboration as way opens.
An excerpt of this article appears in the January 2012 issue of Sojourners Magazine at www.sojo.net