By Tina Snell, Staff Writer
The Franciscan Sisters in Little Falls hosted a presentation by the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN) Tuesday evening. The event was prompted by the appearance in 2013 of Brigitte Gabriel, who spoke at the Little Falls Community High School.
The evening, advertised as a community dialogue on tolerance and the fear of Islam, presented Saly Abd Alla, Jaylani Hussein and Father Virgil Petermeier as speakers. The moderator was the Director of the Center for Learning Services and Social Change Kevin LaNave.
The evening opened with a story about St. Francis going to Egypt to meet with a sultan. While it is not known why he went, it is speculated he wanted to convert the man to Christianity. During dialogue, St. Francis learned the two had a lot in common. He came away stronger in his faith and with more respect for the Muslims.
LaNave said the purpose of the event was to learn about each other and build relationships through mutual respect. It was not about conversion.
The first speaker, Abd Alla, CAIR-MN’s civil rights director, spoke about those in U.S. history who have been persecuted. They included Native Americans, Huguenots, Catholics, Quakers, Baptists, Mormons, Jews, Atheists and Muslims.
“Anti-Catholic sentiment began before the inception of the U.S.,” said Abd Alla, a Muslim from Egypt. “It was brought to Jamestown in 1607. Catholics were excluded from politics and were questioned about their loyalty to the U.S. The sentiment peaked in the 19th Century with an influx of Irish-Catholics, resulting in the Bible Riots in Philadelphia. Even the Klu Klux Klan targeted the Catholics.”
Abd Alla said that Catholics were compelled to show their loyalty to the country up until the 1960s.
During the Civil War, Abd Alla said that Gen. U.S. Grant ordered the expulsion of all Jews from his military district of Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi, in a campaign against a black market in cotton which he thought was being run by Jews. The order was revoked by Pres. Abraham Lincoln.
“The Jews were denied refugee status in the U.S. during World War II and were turned back to Nazi Germany,” she said. “A 1938 poll said people thought the Jews were greedy, pushy and dishonest.”
Before Sept. 11, Muslims were a part of the community, Abd Alla said. After that, they were the enemy. Yet, those living as neighbors had not changed.
Abd Alla equated the hate as McCarthyism: making accusations of disloyalty, subversion or treason without proper regard of evidence.
The consequences of these actions were the same for all ethnic or religious groups who have been persecuted. They included hate rhetoric, political exclusion, questioning loyalty, opposition to houses of worship, employment discrimination, denying public accommodations and organized discrimination.
CAIR-MN’s Outreach and Advocacy Director Jaylani Hussein, also a Muslim, spoke to the hundred or so people at St. Francis about what being a Muslim is all about. He said there are five pillars to the Islam faith:
•Declaring there is no God but God and Mohammed was the last messenger;
•Praying five times a day;
•Making a pilgrimage to Mecca.
The Muslim’s core belief is believing in one god, angels, the scriptures, the prophets, life after death and Judgement Day.
“We are not all that different,” said Hussein. “I know this is a country where we can have discussions and dialogue.”
Hussein, from Somalia, said that when someone who has no knowledge of Islam hears a story, true or not, they will believe it because they have no basis not to.
“Sept. 11 is the one thing many people know about Muslims,” he said. “Sept. 11 was a shock, but the aftermath more so. A wave of people came selling fear and the wrong picture of Islam. It was very dangerous. Sept. 11 should not define Christians and Muslims.”
The last speaker was Father Virgil Petermeier, a Crosier priest. He lived for many years in Indonesia, a country with the largest population of Muslims in the world.
Petermeier said that both Christians and Muslims were committed to listening and participating in dialogue which addressed the difficulties due to race and religious struggles.
“Islam is not about killing Christians,” he said. “The president of Indonesia, a Muslim, said that if someone comes to him and says that he wants to kill Christians, he said that person does not know his Koran.
“Muslims are not all about killing. I cringe when I hear that,” said Petermeier. “I lived like a brother with these people. There are bad Muslims and bad Christians. We cannot (continue to) focus on them.”
One question asked was why are their special rights for Muslims.
Abd Alla said that part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (Title VII) states that each person with religious beliefs must be accommodated by the employer unless it’s a hardship on that employer. That originated from a Christian belief case of not working on Sundays.
“If one accommodates a Christian, it must do the same for a Muslim,” she said.
When asked about the absence of educating women in the Muslim world, Abd Alla said that the Islam religion says to seek knowledge, but with 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, there are many cultures and histories to contend with.
“There are different countries, different tribes, different cultures,” said Petermeier.
“All we see is violence. How can we be tolerant,” asked another person.
Petermeier said there are violent people in every culture. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with the religion.
“Religion is not the cause of the violence, it’s the violent people,” he said.
When asked how the Muslims will influence the U.S. in 30 years, Abd Alla said Muslims have been in the U.S. for 100s of years.
“Just because they were just recently noticed doesn’t mean things will change all of a sudden,” she said.
Petermeier said that Islam is all about surrendering to God. When asked what the world would look like if there was no religion, he said that if people forget about God, they will forget about life.
“Too many people use religion to do their bad work,” said Hussein. “They understand the power of the cloak and we have to reveal that. It is not religion, but a crime against humanity.”
The group parted by saying Muslims and Christians need to come together and stop the violence. They need to keep people in check.
“By returning to our moral compasses, we can change society together, to be the best it can be,” said Hussein.