The 6 million or so Muslims living in the United States have become very aware since 9/11 of how little their neighbors know about their religion and culture. The leader of one small community of 10,000 Muslims is taking a leading role in promoting cross-cultural understanding.
"The country wants to be re-assured that a community that is part of them [the Muslim-American community] does not identify with those people who use its name to promote their own political violent agenda," says Imam Aslam Abdullah of the Islamic Society of Nevada. The former vice president of the American Islamic College in Chicago holds several degrees in Islamic studies. For the past 25 years, he's been speaking and participating in non-violent movements in England and India. Like other Muslim leaders across the United States, he's begun an outreach effort to the larger community: a three-day course exploring what Islam has to say about non-violence.
Topics include how Islamic prophets applied the concept of non-violence throughout history… were some prophetic movements historically violent… and is the present-day violence justified from a religious perspective? In exploring those questions, Imam Abdullah relies on scholarly works about the religion… and the Koran itself.
"There are some 37 verses of the Koran that basically refer to war or fighting," he says then cites an example that has been misinterpreted: "'fight them until the evil is done away with and the word of Allah becomes supreme.' Imam Abdullah says, "What is basically being misinterpreted by others is that this verse incites Muslims to fight against Christians and Jews." Like many religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism, he says Islam preaches non-violence. "They are religions of peace. Yet despite that 1.6 million people are killed every year."
Some two-dozen Muslims and non-Muslims attended Mr. Abdullah's course this past weekend in Las Vegas. On the first day Mr. Abdullah covered the history of religious violence, then offered counter-arguments to critics of Islam's approach. The second day's lecture dealt with the roots of non-violence in all religions and a look at Muslims practicing non-violence. On the final day, he covered Islamic political movements that have turned violent such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and al Qaida.
Attendee Glen Bruno says he thinks Islam is too aggressive and came to the class to hear how Muslims would like to change the world. "My feeling is that they are trying to expand their religion in any way that they can, and this is just part of their effort," he said.
Roberta Sabbath she was reassured by the lecture that is Islam is not a religion of violence. "There is a very broad intellectual picture that we can see Islam through, other than this media clip that we are used to," she said. "Islam is a religion of peace, it is the people who come to it who are the radicals."
It's those radicals engaging in religious war that drew Warren Gardner to the course. "I am looking forward to [learning about] the Jihadist movement, of course, because that is what is happening around us," he said. "I am interested in hearing what the Muslim community is doing about that, because obviously their basic beliefs are not along that line. What are they doing about it? That would be a question I would ask of my own church, if they were involved in something like that… what are they doing about that?
Imam Aslam Abdullah is presenting his three-day course in response to the violent Islamic movements making headlines around the world. He's presenting the same material before a larger audience of religious leaders at an inter-faith conference in Las Vegas this weekend. And he's used contacts across the nation to set up similar lectures in Detroit; Atlanta; Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Fresno, California later this year. The goals are to reaffirm Islam's rejection of violence, reassure communities that the religion promotes non-violence and prepare a team of young people who can counter those within the Islamic community who advocate violence for social change.