Western Pa. religious leaders extend hands to Muslims

Natasha Lindstrom
| Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016, 9:00 p.m.

ISIS had just claimed credit for a deadly siege of Paris, and the Rev. David Carver felt perturbed by derogatory remarks about Muslims flaring up on national television, in the streets of Pittsburgh and in the pews of his church.

So Carver, 55, pastor of First United Presbyterian Church of Crafton Heights, reached out to leaders of a mosque in a former Presbyterian church a few miles southwest, the Attawheed Islamic Center in Carnegie: “I imagine this is probably a difficult time to be a Muslim in America,” Carver told them by email, asserting his church stood against racism and Islamophobia.

Carver got an immediate reply, and on a recent Sunday, he hosted several Muslim leaders on a tour of his Christian church. They talked about their similarities and differences.

One Muslim leader emphasized his loyalty to America before the congregation, prompting loud applause. When Carver asserted the Jesus he knows would not tolerate hatred, he recalled a Muslim visitor beside him began to weep, and said, “I never thought I would hear such words of acceptance from a Christian.”

In Western Pennsylvania and across the nation, religious leaders spanning a wide range of faiths are getting increasingly vocal and proactive in their support for the Muslim community. They're working to educate the American public about Islam and to reshape national conversations of religion, refugees and terrorism.

“There is a tendency to believe what we're fed,” Carver said, “and if fear is what's being served up, that's what we believe.”

Such efforts have proliferated after the Nov. 13 Paris attacks and the Dec. 2 mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif.

“It only takes a few well-publicized crimes to put a country on edge,” said Wade C. Rowatt, psychology professor at Baylor University in Texas.

Showing solidarity

Organizers of interfaith work say they aim to neutralize prejudice and intolerance fueled by anti-Muslim sentiment being expressed openly in high-profile conversations, from presidential candidates and sitting politicians to religious celebrities and cable TV pundits.

“If we give in to the fear, then that's a great recruiting tool for extremists,” said Salaam Bhatti, spokesman for Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA. “We cannot fall victim to that mentality.”

Efforts span formal classes, leadership training, prayer vigils, service projects, open houses and tours at places of worship and Muslim/Christian women's prayer groups discussing their similarities and differences over coffee.

“Interfaith dialogue and education are important ways to understand and gain respect for others' beliefs,” Rowatt added. “We need to keep telling inspirational stories of care, compassion and radical acceptance. Some will behave badly. Hope and peace comes from more being kind and reciprocating kindness, not hate.”

Common ground

“It's very important to know about other faiths and to be able to respect them,” said Mehdia “Sana” Tariq, who organized her first interfaith event at age 16 in Columbus, Ohio. Now Tariq is a member of Wilkinsburg's Al-Nur Mosque, which works with nearby Christian churches and schools, and invites the public to open houses.

These informal discussions point to similar traditions and methods of worship — including fasting, almsgiving and prayer — and the shared religious histories and recognition of many prophets, including Jesus.

Carver has said to fellow Presbyterians: “What would you think about a person who accepted that Jesus was born of Mary, that one ought to live a responsible life, that one ought to respect one's parents, take care of the poor, worship regularly, seek to bring to justice? This is the ideal Christian, and it can all be traced back to the Quran.”

Bhatti's “Ask a Muslim Anything” video interactions on Periscope have generated hundreds of responses — some from people espousing hateful comments, but many with genuine questions or words of encouragement.

The South Side's Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community works with the Turkish Cultural Center in Green Tree to improve emergency food programs.

On the national scale, the Al-Nur Mosque's Ahmadiyya sect is running educational efforts such as Stop the CrISIS, an international campaign to eradicate radicalization among Muslim youths. Since 2011, the 10th anniversary of 9/11, it has collected more than 30,000 units of donated blood through the Muslims for Life blood drives around the country, including in Wilkinsburg.

Its MuslimsforPeace.org website includes information on Islam and free Qurans in either printed or PDF form.

Befriending neighbors

“I've experienced it right in my own family,” said Gabe Kish, 57, of Crafton, a deacon at First United Presbyterian. He noted “only a few immediate family members know about this connection with the Islamic Center,” and he's leery about how some family, friends and co-workers might react.

Kish said he is “disturbed” by the political climate and “the way certain segments of the spectrum are fueling that fire.”

“For me, being a deacon,” Kish said, “I need to be able to step up and say, ‘Look, these folks are our neighbors.' ”

Cultivating acceptance of others requires “emotional and social awareness,” said Rowatt, who specializes in the psychology of religiousness, prejudice and deception.

“When we disagree or feel threatened, it's important to realize we may be anxious or uncertain and (need to) find healthy ways to cope,” Rowatt said. “Turning toward supportive family and friends or taking some collective deep breaths could help ease the tension.”

“It's the ignorance that causes so much fear in one's heart,” said Tahira Ahmad-Khan, whose women's group at the Wilkinsburg's mosque has been meeting with Jewish women who belong to a nearby synagogue.

Ahmad-Khan said such meetups are not just about debating or discussing religion; they're about getting to know and respect your neighbors.

“We all very casually sat around a table and had lunch together and just laughed and sort of got to know each other a little bit,” Ahmad-Khan said. “Obviously religion came up, but we talked about literally everything — politics, children, travel, mental health, the future of children. We talked about food and culture, and then we talked about how actually no religion teaches us to be unkind.

“It was just a very lovely start to hopefully a very long-lasting friendship.”

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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