10/15/2001 News media contact: Linda Bloom · (646) 369-3759 · New York
NOTE: For additional coverage of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns meeting, see UMNS stories #470 and #472. Photographs are available.
By Linda Bloom*
LOS ANGELES (UMNS) - The welcome at the Islamic Center of Southern California could not have been more genuine.
From their participation in a discussion about Islam with one of the center's founders to their presence as honored observers at the regular 1 p.m. worship service, United Methodists visiting on Sept. 12 were regarded as friends.
"People of God have to work together on a continual basis if you want to change the world," Hassan Hathout told members of the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns. Hathout, an obstetrician/gynecologist by profession, is a founder of the Islamic Center.
He pointed out to the group that Islam acknowledges both Judaism and Christianity, and in fact is considered by Muslims to be a continuation of those two faiths. It also claims the same type of moral code, he added.
Muslims believe that God is the absolute, the infinite, and that prophets are the epitome of human perfection. "The Koran tells us that Jesus was genuine, that what he taught came from God," he said. The difference is that Muslims consider Jesus to be a messenger of God, but not the Son of God. "We believe in the humanity of Jesus, not the divinity of Jesus."
Hathout addressed some of the distortions of Islam that have been heard since the terrorist attacks that occurred in the United States on Sept. 11. One point was the definition of the Arabic word "jihad," which he said means "striving." It also refers to removing injustice and oppression, but to commit suicide or kill innocent people and call it "jihad" is not acceptable in Islam, he added.
"There is not holy war in Islam because no war is holy," Hathout said. Islam does allow for the concept of a just war to remove oppression, but again, he stressed, it could not involve the loss of civilian life.
Hathout noted that his opinion of the Taliban, the current government of Afghanistan, "was sealed" when he heard it was closing schools for girls. More than one Muslim delegation had gone to Afghanistan to talk to the Taliban about its oppression of women and girls because "in Islam, men and women are equal," he said.
One of his concerns following the Sept. 11 attacks is that the United States could lose some of its democratic principles. "The worst that can happen to us as Americans is to lose our way of life in an attempt to protect it," he explained.
To Hathout, America is not about geography but ideas and values, including the freedom that also is taught in the Koran. Such freedom, he added, is lacking in much of the Muslim world because of "tyrants and despots."
In an effort to further understanding, he distributed copies of his book, Reading the Muslim Mind, to commission members and spoke about their presence at the center during a brief sermon in the regular worship service that followed.
Later on Sept. 12, First United Methodist Church of Santa Monica hosted a Middle Eastern dinner for the commission, followed by a panel discussion in the sanctuary on "American Muslim Identity."
Ragaa Hathout, an Egyptian-born doctor and financial officer of the Islamic center, expressed thanks for the interest and friendship of United Methodists, and noted that one of her dreams was to see Islam more firmly established "as a part of America."
Nayyer Ali, a physician who was born in Pakistan and serves as a director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, said the Sept. 11 tragedy had one positive aspect: "People are waking up and realizing there are several million Muslims living in America who are Americans."
But the panelists were concerned about the rising wave of anti-Muslim discrimination. Nisreen Haron, a Pakistan-born artist and interior designer and Islamic center director, found it strange to be treated differently. "Suddenly, you're not part of the community anymore," she said.
Maher Hathout, a physician active at the Islamic center, believes that the American public has behaved well in general, but he expressed regret over incidents such as Arab passengers being arbitrarily ejected from airline flights. "There is no way, up to now, to redress this grievance," he added.
The panel's moderator was the Rev. Grant Hagiya, a third-generation Japanese American and a district superintendent in the United Methodist California-Pacific Annual (regional) Conference. He recalled that his parents' lives changed drastically after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. They eventually ended up in internment camps, like many Japanese Americans at the time.
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*Bloom is news director of United Methodist News Service's New York office.