Unlearning Islamophobia and Building Interfaith Friendships

My Friend Sheima

The first face of Islam I ever saw belonged to a smiling 11-year-old girl named Sheima, who kindly gestured for me to sit next to her on the school bus. All my excitement for the first day of middle school had instantly turned to dread as my new perm drew callous teasing instead of the compliments I had hoped for. But relief washed over me as I sat down next to this kind, reassuring soul who would soon become a best friend and sister to me.

When we first met, I knew nothing about Sheima’s religion. But as time went on, I realized that her faith had inspired her thoughtfulness in our first encounter. It’s not that she felt obligated by her religion to reach out to me. Rather, in learning from her faith the values of empathy and compassion, her natural approach to the world was one of love. Her love mirrored the love of God to which she opened herself multiple times a day in prayer and meditation, and love from and for God shaped her understanding of the world.

If everyone could be introduced to Islam as I was, through Muslims who embody the Islamic values of hospitality, compassion, tolerance, humility, generosity, and love, Islamophobia simply could not exist. Love, after all, casts out fear.

For many Muslims, the core Islamic principle of Tawheed, the Oneness of God, unites us all beyond our understanding.

Islamophobia Hurts Us All

Unfortunately, the introduction to Islam so many received was a hijacked pseudo-Islam, 180 degrees from the compassionate, feminist Islam Sheima and her family taught me.

When the planes crashed into the Twin Towers on September 11th, 2001, the gut-punch I felt had to do less with national security and more with the immediate danger I knew my Muslim friends could be in. Attacks on Muslims, and Sikhs mistaken for Muslims, rose dramatically in the US in the aftermath of 9/11 in the form of assaults, threats, insults, and subtle and blatant bigotry. My closest friends turned out to be okay, but my anxiety for them and the worldwide Muslim community continued unabated for a long time.

In addition to the concern I felt for Muslims here in the US, my heart broke for Afghanistan, Sheima’s mother’s native homeland. I knew bombs were about to fall indiscriminately in a rain of vengeance, but I could not have known then that they would continue to fall for nearly two decades. More horrifically still, Afghanistan was only the beginning. An impossible and endless war on “terror” (which can only be strengthened through war) was soon launched primarily but not exclusively in the Muslim world. Most ironically and devastatingly, even as Muslims have received the brunt of violence in tiny and enormous ways, endless war has fueled the worst possible impressions of Islam as an intolerant and violent religion.

Islamophobia did not begin on September 11th, but it has been cultivated and exacerbated and exploited ever since that devastating day and its aftermath. Yet Muslims around the world have been reaching out in dialogue, charity, and friendship not only to restore Islam’s image, but to infuse the world with the compassion and restorative justice it so desperately needs.

Love for the world, and especially for my Muslim friends, calls me to join them in their struggle to transform Islamophobia into interfaith understanding. Because Islamophobia is killing us all: miring us in mistrust, ensnaring us in endless war, and hindering interfaith community-building so necessary for our war-weary world. Interfaith dialogue and friendship, highlighting and proliferating peaceful, humanitarian interpretations of Islam, Christianity, and every other religion, would eventually dispel Islamophobia, sucking the oxygen out of the fires of vengeance and violence and paving the way to peace.

So it is in friendship that I now address the two most common Islamophobic stereotypes: (1) that Islam is a violent, intolerant religion and (2) that Islam does not respect the rights of women or the LGBTQIA community.

The Olive

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Is Islam an Inherently Violent Religion?

Islam means peace through submission to God. And God, in Islam, is addressed in every chapter of the Qur’an and at the beginning of every formal and many informal prayers, as “Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Every day, at least five times a day, Muslims affirm compassion, generosity, and forgiveness as the qualities that lead to inner serenity, harmonious relationships, and conflict resolution.

“Peace through submission to God” may sound to some as if Muslims don’t tolerate doubt or other faiths. But “peace through submission” doesn’t mean others must submit to a Muslim’s understanding of God in order for Muslims to be at peace with them. It means peace is to be found in accepting and following the mercy of God in one’s own life.

Not all Muslims are equally tolerant, but many are guided by faith in a generous God toward a generous approach to people of all religions. The Qur’an calls for just and kind treatment toward everyone regardless of faith. It states that there is no compulsion in religion, and for many, that means sincere belief in Islam encompasses religious tolerance toward non-Muslims. Islam curbs human judgment by teaching humility and emphasizing that only God fully knows the heart. As such, many sincere followers of Islam believe it an Islamic duty to respect everyone’s faith journey.

I found that to be the case among my Muslim friends not only when I converted to Islam, but when I felt called back to Christianity years later. As nervous as I was to admit that I found truth but not my deepest truth in Islam, my friends’ compassion and understanding was unwavering, and our friendship only grew stronger.

Al Qur'an

For many Muslims, the core Islamic principle of Tawheed, the Oneness of God, unites us all beyond our understanding. Throughout our different faiths, ideologies, ethnicities, and political persuasions, we are united in mutual dependence on God, each other, and creation. Therefore, even when we disagree, we are called to respect and be kind to each other. Love for the Creator not only obligates, but imbues, love for humanity and all creation.

Faithful interpretations of Islam call not only for religious tolerance, but for love and respect for people of all faiths. Rejection of offensive violence is a given within this interpretation of faith. In fact, the Qur’an only allows for defensive violence, forbidding aggression and commanding peacemaking at every opportunity. Complete pacifism is rare among people of all faith persuasions, but some Muslims, recognizing that it is impossible to wage modern warfare without killing an innocent person, reject war completely on this basis, as the Qur’an makes clear that to kill one innocent person is to kill all humankind. 

Of course, every religion has violent interpretations. But the most violent interpretations of religion thrive not when people are secure and able to care for one another, but when they are threatened and impoverished. This is why a war on terror can never eliminate terror. Twenty years of bombs, drone strikes, and night raids, driven in many cases partly by militant interpretations of Christianity, have created environments of desperation that have fueled militant interpretations of Islam in terrible cycles of violence and vengeance.

But, as I once heard an imam say, “I swear to God, I swear to God, I swear to God: love is stronger than hate.” While violent interpretations of faith catalyze cycles of violence, compassionate interpretations of faith can send ripples of healing and reconciliation throughout the world.

Islam is not inherently violent or intolerant. But none of my words can truly convey the depth of serenity and the loving presence that I have found in company of my closest Muslim friends. I know that their daily practice of Islam — the daily prayers, giving of charity, fasting in solidarity with the poor and hungry during Ramadan, the way the language itself is tailored to invoke gratitude and humility — molds them into living prayers to the most Gracious, Most Merciful God. My friendship with them has opened my heart to greater pursuit of understanding, justice, and peace. Friendships this strong and this powerful could transform a world of enmity into one of empathy.

But What About Women’s and LGBTQIA Rights?

The friends who introduced me to the compassionate, humanitarian understanding of Islam I’ve come to love were all strong, kind, brilliant women: Sheima, her three sisters, and her single mother and grandmother. Sheima’s mother is a doctor who raised her daughters to excel in their educational and vocational pursuits. So, again, my introduction to Islam was light years away from the misogynistic interpretations thrust into the media by the Taliban and other extreme organizations.

Misogyny doesn’t come from Islam, but from opportunism, ignorance, and insecurity. War and corruption are fertile ground for misogyny. Islam, as a revelation of peace and justice, actually reaffirmed rights given to women by God but forgotten by patriarchy. Islam codifies women’s rights to education, inheritance, seeking employment, choosing a marriage partner, divorcing a marriage partner, and just and compassionate treatment in all relationships.

Feminist Muslim scholar Amina Wadud convincingly argues that the Islamic principle of Taweed that unites creation under the Oneness of God affirms complete equality between genders and destroys all hierarchies. The worth and dignity of each individual is absolute under God and cannot be ranked.

Muslim woman

Wadud has taken on the most controversial verses of the Qur’an and interpreted them from a feminist perspective that is not only meticulous and devout, but follows the Prophet Muhammad’s tradition of discerning the will of God according to concern for the most vulnerable. Interpretations of Islam that place women at the mercy of men violate Islam’s most basic principles. Looking at Islam as a revelation of justice, Wadud asserts that Islam calls for equal treatment not only according to gender, but in every possible respect, including race, religion, and sexual orientation.

Wadud is one of admittedly few, but vocal, Muslim scholars seeking to challenge not only misogynistic, but also homophobic, interpretations of Islam. As with other religions, conservative interpretations of gender identity and sexuality predominate, but a growing population of Muslims argue that there are faithful interpretations of the Qur’an that affirm LGBTQIA identities. Muslims for Progressive Values and Salaam Canada are two such organizations for which LGBTQIA affirmation is a natural part of the humanitarian vision of Islam.

In my experience, I have seen some of my closest Muslim as well as Christian friends become more open to the LGBTQIA community as they have gotten to know some members. And my hope for everyone is that we all become more open to one another as we get to know each other.

One of the most hopeful events I have ever seen came in the wake of the Pulse Nightclub shooting. After a homophobic Muslim man killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in June 2016, the Amadiyya Muslim Community in my hometown held a vigil for the victims. I attended and listened as the imam denounced terrorism. Then, one by one, members of the LGBTQIA community stood, openly affirmed their gender and sexual identities, and gave testimony to their pain and sorrow.

As Muslims figuratively and literally embraced their grieving guests, for the first time I saw a mosque as a safe space for the queer community. I realized that I was witnessing an openness, a humility, and a solidarity that I never thought I would see, but which made complete sense. Members of one minority community, knowing what it is to be misunderstood, judged, persecuted, and under constant threat of violence, embraced another.

It is good to be critical of misogyny and homophobia within any religion. But it’s also crucial to recognize that there is room for welcoming, affirming interpretations of all religions, including Islam. Fear of certain interpretations of any faith shouldn’t prevent us from opening ourselves to the possibilities and potential joys of friendships with the people who profess those faiths. That road leads to othering and subconsciously diminishing the humanity of our fellow human beings, and that’s how we become callous toward each other. But when we open ourselves to hope and are willing to see the best in each other, we make space for that “best” to grow beyond what we can now imagine.

Interfaith Friendship Will Save the World

I’ve tried to refute the two most common Islamophobic stereotypes not just in a perfunctory manner, but through letting you peak into my heart, showing what my own interfaith friendships have meant to me.

I think it’s going to take this kind of open, vulnerable friendship among people of all faiths to disarm the weapons of fear that keep wars raging. Islamophobia has been a weapon of fear wielded for greed and power, hurting not only Muslims, but the whole world. All forms of bigotry and othering serve this purpose. After two decades of a war on terror which has fallen most heavily on Muslims throughout the world but has also taken its toll here at home, it’s time to see through the smokescreens of Islamophobia and militarism that cloud our vision.

Healing a world torn apart by violence will take cooperation, friendship, and faith. Let us let love transform our fears, turn our arms of war into arms of embrace, and make us one.


For Unlearning Islamophobia

At the 2016 Annual Meeting of the Colloquium on Violence & Religion (COV&R) held at the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Professor Asma Afsaruddin of Indiana University presented Islam and Violence: Debunking the Myths

For Building Interfaith Friendships

The Daughters of Abraham Women’s Interfaith Book Group was created in response to the events of September 11, 2001 by and for women of the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

To learn more about interfaith peacemaking, including how to participate in or create an interfaith partnership in your area, visit United Religions Initiative.