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Trends and Lessons from the Stories of Mennonites and MuslimsIntroduction: As a Mennonite student at Earlham College taking the course "Peacemaking: A Muslim Perspective," I was drawn to focus a research paper on relationships between Muslims and members of historic peace churches in North America. A summer internship with the Islamic Society of North America in 2005 allowed me to learn more about the Muslim perspective on such relationships, and while my research benefits from written accounts, it draws primarily on personal interviews.
When transcribing the interviews that comprised my research, I noticed a number of significant trends and lessons that seemed to be helpful for thinking about building relationships in the context of Mennonites and Muslims. Building on the article "Relationships between Mennonites and Muslims in the United States" from "Faith, War, and Government," the points here convey many of the most salient lessons that have arisen from the interviews and related discussion. This document builds on insights briefly described in the original article, exploring them topically and in more depth.
In this era when extremists from each religion misrepresent what many people from the Muslim and Christian traditions experience as the heart of their faith, relationships that build toward a just future take on additional urgency. May we learn ever more how to live as compassionate neighbors in this broken world.
Establishing Initial Connections
Because of the vast difference in numbers between North American members of Historic Peace Churches (HPC) and North American Muslims - approximately 600,000 vs. 8 million - and the complexities of Christian denominations, it's much easier for HPCers to be aware of the necessity of building relationships with Muslims than vice versa. Therefore, it's not surprising that most relationships discussed in the interviews have been initiated by HPCers. Past experience and current analysis show the benefits to Muslims of collaborating with HPCers, and Muslims have often been enthusiastic and driven in their participation. However, given the number disparity dynamic, if relationships are to be built between HPCers and Muslims in North America, the primary responsibility for initiating the relationship will lie most with the HPCers.
Many interfaith relationships were formed and strengthened in response to the tragedy of September 11, 2001, but these relationships are difficult to maintain and many have drifted apart. How can we rejuvenate these relationships and build them in ways so that they are maintainable? One approach has been to start with informal, friendship-level gatherings like movie nights that are easy to arrange. Informal conversation can allow deeper friendships to develop so that when the time comes to act, it will be natural to invite and include our friends from other faiths.
Reviewing the stories of interaction between HPCers and Muslims in North America reveals an astonishing diversity of ways that initial connections were established. A brief survey of the interviews includes relationships that have found their origins in: a phone call to a local mosque, undergraduate institutions of historic peace churches, a secular graduate school, an attorney-client relationship, involvement in an interfaith alliance, a local social service provider, regional peace and justice groups, and the expansion of a ministerial association, just to name a few.
Suffice it to say - that while overseas experience can be an asset to Mennonites seeking to build connections - countless means of initiating contact have been found to be fruitful. Anyone with a special call to work with Muslims can be successful in taking the lead to strengthen inter-community relationships.
Cultural and Theological Assets Supporting Positive Relationships
Islam and the historic peace churches have many emphases in common, including the pursuit of justice, importance of community, resisting conformity to the world, as well as a relationship with a powerful and compassionate God. Common daily values are based on what long-time peace worker Doug Hostetter describes as the shared recognition that "people of faith will live lives that are significantly different, socially, morally and ethically, than the secular society around us."
Leading Muslims to relationships with HPC folk are admonitions in the Qur'an (the Muslim holy book) for interfaith dialogue, rich Islamic traditions of pluralism and tangible benefits from cooperation through HPC access to a variety of cultural, social, political and financial resources. Many Muslims are eager to cooperate with interested HPCers, especially those who come with openness, honesty, and a desire for friendship. Similarly, HPC people have impetus for collaboration with Muslims springing from Jesus' embrace of the marginalized, as well as the potential for increased insight and effectiveness in areas of justice, and additional allies against consumerism and worldly values.
Challenges and Misunderstandings
Since Mennonites are the primary audience of this document, this section will focus on the challenges in terms of what it may be good for Mennonites to know and how such factors might inform how they approach relationships.
Like the current societal forces in North America, the checkered history of Muslim-Christian relations often influences contemporary efforts to build friendships. Such dynamics highlight the importance of understanding the broader context into which Mennonite-Muslim relationships fit.
As mentioned in the booklet's article, uncertainty about relationships often exists on both sides - for Mennonites it can surround issues such as gender roles and the political aspects of Islam. Muslims' reservations often stem from concern about recurrence of the linked histories of Christian proselytizing and Western imperialism. Traditionally, Christians have imposed themselves on other cultures, including those of the Muslim world. Immense damage has been done to the Christian faith by the "Christian armies" which have wantonly killed Muslim civilians, often in the name of God, during the Crusades and now in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Given such dynamics, Mennonite insensitivities can place a serious damper on relationships, especially in initial encounters. Participants in Mennonite-Muslim relationships have noted a number of counterproductive behaviors and tendencies:
Building on these foundations can facilitate productive encounters that lead to the multiple meetings often necessary to establish connections person to person. Given that many Christians believe Muslims to have been brainwashed, such fostering of trust is essential so that often-sensitive topics such as gender roles, politics and evangelism may be addressed in a safer space where individuals trust one another. In this way, conscientious approaches to interfaith relations contribute to making the sometimes-challenging process worth the effort as those involved form strong, complimentary relationships.
Suggestions for Those Seeking to Build Connections
A survey of the interviews suggests that a number of topics can be particularly rewarding in discussions between Muslims and HPCers. The fact that many Muslims and historic peace church people take their scriptures seriously for guiding their faith and daily living means that lifestyle questions (How do you live ethically in the midst of mainstream society? How do you raise children? What is the role of sectarianism for faith communities in the West? To what extent do you participate in mainstream society and what parts do you avoid?) are often a productive area for conversations in the specific HPC-Muslim context.
Additionally, people from both communities have commented that a role for historic peace church people can be to help Muslims rediscover the peace traditions within their own faith. In a similar way, Muslims' interest in the traditional Amish society may help historic peace church people remember the rich tradition of simplicity and wise caution about the trappings of modernity.
In addition to becoming familiar with the fundamentals for interfaith relationships (through resources like those available via "Principles and Guidelines for Interfaith Dialogue" on the resources page), addressing a number of particular topics would be valuable for preparing Mennonites beforehand in order to interact productively with Muslims. Unique themes might include discussions of covering, Mennonite sectarianism (pros and cons), food and hospitality protocol, and mission work. Relationships that begin by discussing commonalities tend to be more successful that those that begin with theological confrontation. Discussing the history of Western imperialism could help set the stage for the necessity of openness, honesty and a desire for friendship. Practical planning should include activities based on common interests or concerns. Susan Kennel Harrison, who has coordinated many Mennonite-Muslim encounters, talks about setting up a "first date" between groups in order to reveal what deeper interactions are possible.
The research suggests that the involvement of more HPC women in relationships with Muslims can be a vital aspect in building strong, well-rounded inter-communal relationships. Kennel Harrison notes that particular opportunities have been available to her because she was a woman. While the selection of interviews for this study has not used a scientific sampling method, the numbers are striking: of the fifteen HPC people available for these interviews regarding relations with Muslims, only two were women.
The groups most successful in establishing fruitful relationships tend to take into account the resources available in their group or area: personal gifts, places of meeting or recreation, hobbies, interests, and local organizations. Community awareness in these areas helps identify appropriate points of meeting with local Muslims; the specifics will be different in every location.
Jason Shenk is a student at Earlham College ('07) with an interest in Mennonite-Muslim relations. As an intern at the Islamic Society of North America in summer 2005, he learned much about Mennonite-Muslim relationships first-hand. In the spring of 2006 he will be studying in Amman, Jordan, but may be reached at