Common forefathers, four millennia of shared history and three faiths embraced by billions – and yet no end of discord. How do individual Muslims, Jews and Christians move beyond the fear, suspicion and hatred that have marked their encounters through generations?
The beginning of an answer lies in understanding the common trunk from which the religions have branched, argued three speakers in a public dialogue hosted by Justin-Siena High School on Wednesday night. By looking deeper into each faith, they told an audience at Siena Hall, the faithful can see not only their shared ancestors and history, but a commonality of ideals that can sow unity and ward off bigotry if only believers allow it.
For Ameena Jandali – who shared the stage with Rabbi Lee Bycel of Congregation Beth Shalom and Father Gordon Kalil of St. Helena Catholic Church – the opportunity to introduce Napans to the common foundation of faiths was a chance to start cutting through an encrusting intolerance and fear from outsiders.
“For American Muslims, I think there is a fear of being judged, a fear of not knowing how to answer a question people might ask you,” said Jandali, co-founder of the Islamic Networks Group, a San Jose nonprofit devoted to interfaith education about the religion.
“As the new kids on the block, you’ve had that sense that you don’t quite fit in, and you ask yourself how are you going to welcome people into your houses of worship – or go to their houses of worship – and preserve your identity and beliefs and not be treated as ‘the other.’”
Titled “Unlocking the Treasure of Abraham” after the man revered in each of the faiths as one of God’s earliest holy men, the question-and-answer forum with more than 120 spectators brought together speakers from the Christian, Jewish and Islamic religions. The dialogue was part of a school program that also included student discussions in Justin-Siena’s world religion classes in the days leading to the event.
“Our hope was to help students to seek the truth for themselves, so they could really go to the source and talk to the people who are educated in those faiths,” said Georgine Clarke, the school’s chairwoman of religious studies and a program organizer.
In an atmosphere of ignorance and often virulent anti-Muslim sentiment, such education is more vital than ever, according to the forum’s Jewish and Christian panelists.
“The greatest challenge, I find, is that we know so little about Islam,” Bycel told the audience. “We seem reluctant to learn them; we have xenophobia, and we need to find ways to bring this together. I think it’s through teaching, action and doing things together where people get to know each other.”
“If we don’t understand what the Muslims are worshiping, the commonality we have – that it is this same God manifested differently nationally, culturally – we don’t really do interfaith work,” said Kalil, who previously led St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Napa.
Sharing passages from the Torah, Bible and Quran, each speaker laid out a landscape with numerous markers of faith shared by them all – of Abraham (Ibrahim in Arabic) making a covenant to worship only one God, of the Lord’s favor toward his descendants Ishmael, Isaac and Jacob; of the teachings of Moses and Jesus – even of the Virgin Mary.
“She’s really the highest role model for Muslim men and women,” said Jandali. “I think that knowledge is sometimes shocking to people; they have no idea that Mary or Jesus have any role in Islam. Just knowing that is a step forward to feeling that common bond. Having a powerful woman as a religious figure is also very important for women of any religion, taking life lessons from what she represents.”
Even centuries of common ground, however, are easily obscured by anti-Muslim backlash – which has only intensified in the last year after the San Bernardino attack and promises by the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to cut off immigration from majority-Muslim nations.
Tamping down such mistrust begins not only by coming together but also by working together to put charity in action, Jandali’s peers told their audience.
“People share food together or take a break together as volunteers and get to know their neighbor,” said Kalil. “All three of our religions have that same belief, that we have to love God above all else and love our neighbor as ourselves. That’s where we need to know who each other is in the eyes of faith.”
Bycel turned his thoughts to an earlier struggle – the mid-20th century civil rights movement, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for faith to lead, not follow, the push for justice.
“I think of Martin Luther King’s letter from the Birmingham jail, where he asks a question for all of you: Has religion become the headlight or the taillight of society?” he said. “To be very candid, I think religion has become the taillight, because we live in a culture that has often become vulgar and obscene and filled with bigotry, with statements that are harsh and destroy this world.
“A religion that is the headlight says ‘That’s not acceptable, children. That’s not how we talk about the world, about men and women created in the image of God.’ I think when we work together, great things happen. We can change this world, and we learn so much about each other.”