Faith is often strong, but the ties between faiths are often weak.
Last Tuesday, several Protestant ministers and Triangle Muslims came to The News & Observer editorial office to talk about their efforts to strengthen the tenuous and threatened connections between Muslims, Christians, Jews and those of other beliefs.
On Wednesday, heavily armed, masked shooters burst into a holiday gathering of county health workers in San Bernardino, leaving 14 dead and 21 wounded. The suspects, husband and wife, later were killed in a shootout with police. As new information unmasked the shooters, they were identified as Muslims who supported the terror of the Islamic State.
And with that, the shooting wounded another victim – interfaith understanding.
Shakil Ahmed, the head of the Islamic Association of Cary, said local Muslims dreaded another mass shooting tied to Islam. “Almost everybody I have come across when they heard something happened in California, they were praying, ‘Please God, do not let it be a Muslim,’ ” he said.
Ahmed said many Muslims are worried about a backlash. Hate begets violence, he said, and those who stoke emotions around the shootings risk more episodes by extremists on both sides. “Unless we speak against hatred, some of these people who are on the edge will do crazy things,” he said.
GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump isn’t taking that advice. He appeared Friday night at Dorton Arena on the State Fairgrounds, where he continued to appeal to fears about refugees, terrorists and the Islamic State. Of the mostly Muslim refugees from Syria’s civil war, he said, “We don’t want these people coming to the United States. If they do, and I win, they’re going back.”
By Saturday, the understanding the ministers and Muslims had discussed on Tuesday seemed shredded by fear and anger. I called one of the Muslims who attended the meeting, Volkan Ozdemir, leader of the Divan Center and Institute of Islamic and Turkish Studies in Cary. He stressed that Muslims condemn violence, especially in the name of Islam.
“It makes us heartbroken when innocent people get killed or hurt and it makes us feel even worse when people say they do it in the name of our religion,” he said. “This is completely unacceptable. It is important that we are completely against these kinds of acts.”
Yet the shooting’s association with Islam weighs on Ozdemir. “It gives me kind of a guilt feeling, even though I am not responsible,” he said. But it also gives him resolve to improve relationships with non-Muslims. “It gives me more motivation to reach out to other people and let them know that this is not what our religion teaches, and we are part of this society, and we can all live in peace in this society,” he said.
One of the ministers from the meeting, the Rev. Ed McLeod, pastor at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Raleigh, said the Islamic link to the California shootings was a setback. “We’re hoping people won’t paint with broad brush,” he said. “I feel for the folks in the Divan Center. I’m sure they feel that with every two steps of progress they get pushed back three steps. But it’s not going to stop them from doing the best they can in difficult circumstances.”
McLeod thinks the San Bernardino massacre will make it harder to promote acceptance and understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims. But he said the interfaith group will still do that hard work. However, he’s not expecting help from candidates like Trump.
“I don't think we can count on politicians to call us to our best selves,” he said. “I think politicians want us to be afraid and then promise to be the solution.”
A native of North Carolina who grew up in Virginia, McLeod said he is “a typical white, Southern guy” who previously had little contact with Muslims or knowledge about Islam. That began to change when the Rev. Art Ross, now a retired pastor of Raleigh’s White Memorial Presbyterian Church, launched an interfaith initiative with the Divan Center shortly after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. McLeod joined in several years ago. Since then, McLeod has brought his church elders to the Divan Center and Turkish Muslims have visited his church.
Now that caring effort could be unwound by anger. McLeod said Christians must not let that happen. A backlash against Muslims is also a challenge for Christians, he said.
“The Christian attitude is to welcome the stranger,” he said. “It’s hard work. It calls us to take another look at people that the culture has already made up its mind about. That’s probably our oldest teaching.”
So the interfaith effort will go on, a reaching across that’s now more important than ever.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@ newsobserver.com