Irfan Ahmad and Earl Kellogg
Ryan Miller
Wednesday, October 22, 2008

CHAMPAIGN-URBANA, Ill. — Not long after Sept. 11, 2001, Sadia Bekal began wearing her headscarf.

Bekal is a crop science researcher with a Ph.D. at the University of Illinois, a member of the Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center outreach committee and part of an area interfaith alliance group. While she always has been modest, she said, she intentionally covered her head with the hijab before stepping out of the house to show others her Muslim identity.

At grocery stores and farmers markets around Champaign-Urbana, Ill., the scarf drew stares and sometimes glares. It also invited questions, which was exactly what Bekal hoped for.

“People will ask questions and they will attack,” Bekal said. She invites those questions, if not the attacks, which can lead to conversations about her faith. The questions, she hopes, lead to something deeper. “There is a lot of misunderstanding of Islam. It’s very hard for Americans who haven’t known Muslims socially to be open to start studying Islam by themselves. You have to have a sustainable relationship for discussion to happen.”

For Bekal and other Muslim leaders at CIMIC, a key sustainable relationship in advancing interfaith dialogue is with First Mennonite Church of Champaign-Urbana, less than a block away.
More than two decades ago, the growing Muslim community in Champaign-Urbana built a mosque down the street from the Mennonites. The groups began connecting soon after. Those interactions increased in late 2001.

Earl Kellogg, a Mennonite who then served as associate provost for international affairs for the university, had developed a friendship with Irfan Ahmad, outreach coordinator and former president of CIMIC, a leader at the mosque and a university colleague. When Kellogg and other Mennonites noticed the overflow crowds filling the mosque parking lot during the Friday community-wide congregational prayer time, then-pastor Larry Wilson offered the church’s parking lot to the Muslims during their services.

That small gesture, reciprocated for the Mennonite Sunday services, began a long-term relationship.

“There’s a great deal of importance accorded in Islam, as given in the Qur'an and the teachings of the prophet Muhammad, on the rights of the neighbors and how to be good to them,” Ahmad said.
As neighbors, some believers even began attending each others’ services and seminars on Friday evenings and Sunday mornings.
“We began to talk about fundamentals. We we were trying to learn more about what each other’s beliefs were, given that our faith is life-giving to us,” Kellogg said. “Our Muslim friends are interested in how Christians experience God and we are sincerely interested in their wisdom and experience with God. ... My Christian faith has been strengthened, not shaken, by this relationship.”

Kellogg said in a diverse faith world, it is helpful for both Muslims and Christians to hear other "people of the book" talk about their own experiences seeking God. The groups, he said, have common understandings and faith positions; both can find ways to work together and love one another through interactions, like those held at First Mennonite and at the mosque.

Interfaith conversations led to increased personal interactions, joint fellowship meals, community dialogues, educational speaker series (see the CIMIC Web site for details), and even a trip to Turkey for some of the Mennonites, invited by their Muslim friends. Today, Kellogg said, the groups expect to relate to one another and work for peace and justice at the local level, as they believe peace should be sought internationally.

“[Mosque leaders] have done a wonderful job of reaching out to the community, not dodging the tough issues and making relationships with groups,” he said. “We believe that one can be more effective in working together by relating to people as friends and colleagues.”

The Muslim community does not limit interfaith interaction to Mennonites. They are active in seeking relationships with religious groups across the city, seeking conversations that emphasize similarities without avoiding differences.

“I believe overall we have more in common than we have differences. We just don’t realize it,” Bekal said. “From the Qur'an’s point of view, those differences are meant to be tests for us on how we interact with each other, deal with each other. … People who reject those differences and think of them as harmful or bad have failed the test.”

In Champaign-Urbana, the Christians and Muslims engaged some of their differences by meeting in small groups for shared meals.

“We begin to make friends and we begin to develop relationships. Then we can talk about the tough issues,” Kellogg said. “If you are interested in getting to know each other and effectively working together, you don’t meet someone for the first time and start with a tough question.”

For Ahmad, the presence of an intellectual community in their university area plays a major role in the success of interfaith conversations. Education, he said, helps people engage with wisdom (a Qur'anic injunction) and depth instead of settling for surface-oriented assumptions and empty rhetoric. Kellogg said the diverse educational community forces cooperation among many different groups.

Quoting from the Qur'an, Ahmad said that God created diversity. Who are we to undo it?

Bekal said successful relationships also require separating two hot-button issues—religion and politics.

“When we start mixing politics—why did you go to Iraq? Why did September 11 happen?—then the conversation becomes about who is right and who is wrong, who is evil or less evil,” she said. “Let’s leave politics aside and talk about my beliefs. Then you can decide whether my beliefs cause evil.”

Ahmad said the next step moves the Muslim and Christian groups from intellectual discussions to tangible projects, which keeps faith relevant to those outside of the mosque or church. Ahmad hopes a free medical clinic proposal from CIMIC could someday become an interfaith reality, or that other community development opportunities could be approached jointly.

Any such arrangement would require trust—trust that was evidenced when First Mennonite recently sought a new pastor. Before finalizing the call to their candidate, Janet Elaine Rasmussen, church leaders and Rasmussen first met with mosque leaders to help her understand the Muslim/Mennonite relationship and ensure that it could continue to grow under Rasmussen’s leadership. Ahmad called that a first, in his experience, and a powerful message of collaboration.

“We wouldn’t have done that if we wouldn’t have trusted them,” Kellogg said. “They wouldn’t have asked if they wouldn’t have trusted us.”

Though both groups are adamant that they avoid force-feeding their beliefs on others, both Muslims and Mennonites said their role as believers is to inform others of their faith, including the similarities that the religions possess. Kellogg, Ahmad and Bekal all indicated that they hope their faith interests others. The rest is up to God.

“If we had started out by being nice and then in the middle said, ‘OK, it’s time to start being converted. That would have changed our relationship,” Kellogg said. “We are inviting people to church. We have been invited to go to the mosque for prayers as well. If it means something, if anyone is led, then God will do the leading.”

“If you walk one step toward God, he takes multiple steps to you,” said Ahmad, quoting from the tradition of prophet Muhammad. “If you come walking, God comes running.”

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