By Emily Mitchell
More than 125 people filled the Islamic Center of Burlington on Sunday afternoon, January 8, for “Responding to Intolerance,” an interfaith panel featuring religious leaders from four local faith communities.
State Representative Ken Gordon served as moderator, with panelists Rabbi Susan Abramson from Temple Shalom Emeth in Burlington; Bishop Jared Koyle of the Billerica Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormon); Imam Shakeel Rahman Miah of the Islamic Center of Burlington; and The Reverend Christopher Wendell of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bedford. Sparked by discussions within the Bedford Interfaith Clergy Association, as well as conversations with Rabbi Abramson in connection with her cable-access television show, “Spiritually Speaking,” the panel aimed to highlight commonalities among area faith communities and strengthen the ties of friendship and support across religious lines.
Rep. Gordon began the panel discussion by asking each faith leader to share basic information, as well as myths and misconceptions, about his or her faith community. A common refrain from the panelists was an emphasis on the range of orthodoxy within a single religion: what Reform Jews believe, for example, is not necessarily what Orthodox Jews believe, though they share basic doctrine and practices.
Rep. Gordon followed up with two questions specific to the forum’s main topic, asking panelists first to describe their faiths’ experiences of oppression, either as victim or perpetrator, and later to explain how their faith teaches them to respond to incidents of oppression when they are a target or a witness. Imam Miah emphasized that Islam is a religion of peace, citing several examples from the Prophet Muhammad’s life where he met violence with nonviolence and showed respect to people who wished harm to him and his followers. Rev. Wendell spoke of recent violence against Christians in Pakistan, reminding the audience that, though Christianity has been seen as the “default” religion in the West, there are parts of the world where Christianity is a minority religion, and its adherents at risk of persecution. Rev. Wendell also discussed some of the ways Christians have been perpetrators of violence to others in the name of faith, citing the Crusades in the Middle Ages and instances of anti-Semitism and indifference to the Holocaust as some of Christianity’s most shameful acts of oppression. Bishop Koyle shared the early history of the Latter-Day Saints, when Mormons were regularly faced with state-sponsored violence, including Missouri Executive Order 44 of 1838, also known as the “Extermination Order,” which stated that “Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State.” All four panelists agreed that their faith traditions call them to be peaceful and compassionate, with some version of the “Golden Rule,” “love your neighbor as yourself,” prominent in each doctrine.
In keeping with the traditions of the Islamic center, men and women sat in separate sections of the room during the forum, and women were asked to cover their heads before entering. Guests were also invited to witness a traditional Muslim prayer service, observed about halfway through the program. Imam Miah later explained the meaning of the prayers offered during the service, including “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is great.”
Audience members were encouraged to submit their own questions to the panelists, which Rep. Gordon collected and sorted into categories. The most popular category concerned the role of women in each faith tradition, particularly as clergy and leaders. Imam Miah explained how the Prophet Muhammad counted both men and women among his early companions, and touched briefly on the intent of the hijab, or traditional head covering, that many Muslim women wear. Bishop Koyle explained the parallel forms of leadership within the LDS church, with men serving as elders and bishops, while women lead the Relief Society and Young Women’s groups. Rabbi Abramson and Rev. Wendell noted that women have been ordained as religious leaders in their denominations only in the last forty years or so, with Massachusetts having the distinction of electing the first woman bishop in the Episcopal Church, The Right Rev. Barbara C. Harris.Some denominations of Judaism and Christianity do not ordain women.
Audience members also asked about recent acts of intolerance amid the current political climate. Rabbi Abramson gave a brief overview of anti-Semitic incidents in Bedford and surrounding towns in recent years. Imam Miah described several recent incidents of violence against Muslims in the name of so-called patriotism, noting, “We need to stop pretending that kicking people out [of the country] is an American value.”
“The most important aspect of the evening, even more than the information which was disseminated,” Rabbi Abramson remarked,“was the feeling people had by just being there. The clear majority had never been in a mosque before. There was a wonderful feeling of camaraderie among the panelists. The members of the Islamic Center made everyone feel welcome and comfortable. I could watch the wheels turning on people’s faces. It was a transformative experience for many.in terms of their understanding and connection to the Muslim community, and for Muslims to the Christian and Jewish community.”
Rev. Wendell noted similarly, “I was especially grateful to see such a diverse and engaged audience. The questions that came forward were thoughtful and at times challenging, inviting us to clarify each tradition’s commitments to equality and pluralism and to honestly examine the times when our traditions don’t live up to those beliefs. It was clear that both clergy and congregants from all four communities share a theological and practical commitment to standing in solidarity with anyone who is victimized or targeted for their identity. Voicing that commitment publicly was an important witness for interfaith unity in a time when many are feeling marginalized.”
Following the forum, guests were invited to stay and mingle. Members of the Islamic Center provided a traditional chicken and rice dish to share or take home.