When a Muslim told a story about his neighbor who said she knew he wasn’t a terrorist but that all other Muslims were, he got a chuckle from a room full of Muslims and a few rows of Baptists. When a Baptist said that both traditions needed “fanatical moderates,” another round of soft laughter was heard.
Both served as panelists at the first screening in Texas of EthicsDaily.com’s documentary, “Different Books, Common Word: Baptists and Muslims.”
The Sunday afternoon event was held at the newly constructed Turquoise Center in Houston, which houses the Institute of Interfaith Dialogue (IID). IID is a regional organization that works for goodwill and understanding between Muslims and Christians.
“I moved to Oklahoma about five months before the tragic September 11,” said Orhan Osman, executive director of IID in Oklahoma City. “I had some prejudice about Oklahomans. I was told that Oklahoma was the Bible Belt. Oklahomans are mostly Baptists and they were very conservative and they do not like Muslims at all.”
Noting the widespread perception there that all Muslims were terrorists, Osman recalled his elderly neighbor who said, “I know you are not a terrorist. But all the other Muslims are. You are the defect in the faith.”
Osman added, “I found out that I was the only one she had ever met in her life.”
Most of the audience seemed to relate with that kind of experience, an all-too-common one for members of a minority faith in a culture where the vast majority either practices Christianity or sees the nation as Christian.
Baptists were once a persecuted religious minority, said Bruce Prescott, executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, reminding attendees about the Baptist heritage of religious liberty. He said that freedom of religion is a basic human right.
Speaking about extremists in both faiths, Prescott said, “We’ve got to find a way to have some fanatical moderates in all faiths that will stand up and face them down and say this is not right.”
Another panelist, Farhana Swati, managing director and co-owner of Pak Oil in Port Arthur, Texas, said that Baptists and Muslims talk about interfaith dialogue, “but we never really act upon it. We sit down. We break bread together. We say that ‘Yes, I agree on these things.’ But we never do things together that can impact people or the community that we live in.”
One of the documentary interviewees – along with Prescott and Osman – Swati said, “More people need to get involved … Maybe now we’ll have less dialogue and more interfaith activity, work.”
A fourth panelist, Alp Aslandogan, president of IID, also underscored the importance of joint initiatives.
“Working on humanitarian projects – projects that help the local community as well as disaster victims – definitely ought to be a component of interfaith dialogue. That is an expression by action,” he said.
“Actions are louder than words,” said Swati, who told attendees that the interfaith partnership along the Texas-Louisiana border between Baptists and Muslims explored in the documentary was continuing.
She said that her nonprofit, Humanity Hope, was planning a project with Greater Saint Mary’s Missionary Baptist Church in Lake Charles and the Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Convention. Her humanitarian organization was adopting a primary school supported by Baptists that had been destroyed in the Haiti earthquake.
The Houston screening and panel discussion with the audience are another tangible step as goodwill Baptists and Muslims in America learn to walk together for the common good. Yet such events must be replicated again and again across the country.
Having aired on more than 130 ABC-TV stations, our documentary is playing a needed role in introducing new narratives into our culture about the relationships between two different faith groups. As important as these TV broadcasts are, I’m convinced that a more important vehicle for social change exists on the local level where Islamic centers and Baptist congregations get together to screen the documentary and have discussions about it. Social change takes place most effectively in communities, not by isolated individuals and formal statements.
From the very beginning, my goal for the documentary has been to provide a resource that faith communities can use to discover common ground and to work for the common good. Getting the documentary on ABC-TV stations is not an end in itself. It is a means, a tool for peacemaking.
If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world will not be at peace. If Baptists and Muslims seek greater understanding and engage in joint projects together in the United States, then we will serve humanity and model a better way forward for the rest of the world.
Peacemaking is often an abstract concept in Christian ethics. Unfortunately, it is a Christian practice that occurs too often at a cerebral level, not through direct action. We talk about peacemaking instead of working at it.
“Different Books, Common Word” helps to change that dynamic, providing a vehicle for Baptists and other Christians to foster understanding and goodwill through screenings and panel discussions.
If you want to be a peacemaker, then organize a screening in your community. Think globally; act locally.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.
To order the documentary on DVD, click here.