With the U.S. Muslim population steadily rising, experts in evangelism are asserting both Christians and Muslims should first shed fear, and then work to form mutually respectful relationships as a foundation for sharing the American experience. While it is incumbent on Christians to cast fear aside and follow Jesus' call to "Love your neighbor as yourself," Muslims also have a responsibility, according to academics interviewed for this series, to take a "courageous stand" against radicals overshadowing their faith with violence.
"We're not trying to build a relationship based on theological agreement. We're building a relationship based on the need of a civil society," Bob Roberts, senior pastor of Northwood Church, located in Keller, Texas, told The Christian Post. Northwood Church has had an extensive outreach to the Muslim community for the last eight years.
Roberts' church seeks to connect with local Muslims by forming relationships around common interests, such as cooking, hunting and camping. Recently, Roberts and six other pastors partook on a hunting and camping trip with seven imams, or Islamic religious leaders.
"I think after 9/11, the whole thing about [Muslims] doing it in the name of God sort of felt like it was an attack against America and an attack against Christianity. I don't agree with that perception, but I think that's why [American Christians] have those fears," Roberts told CP.
As Al Fadi, co-author of the book The Qu'ran Dilemma, explained to CP, "Islamophobia" comes from a lack of understanding and knowledge of "the other." This lack of understanding, Al Fadi argued, breeds fear.
The term "Islamophobia," dating back to the late 1980s and early 1990s, refers to an irrational prejudice against, or fear of, Muslims. The term gained popularity after the 9/11 attacks.
"Although I agree 90 percent of all [Muslims] are just nominal, cultural Muslims that are loving people, it is only a portion who are considered to be violent Muslims. It is the ideology that teaches some of them to go as far as committing violence and terror," the former Muslim stated.
Al Fadi moved to the United States from Saudi Arabia as a devout Muslim over 20 years ago. After building a relationship with a Christian family and attending a Christian Mass, he decided to convert, dedicating his life to Jesus.
Roberts believes that Americans must remember those committing terrorist acts comprise a small minority of the world's Muslim population.
"We have irreconcilable theological differences," he affirmed. "One similarity we have is we're both expected to keep peace in the society without compromising our faith."
Through his experiences working to bridge the divide between Muslims and Christians, Roberts has found that it is the clerics, not the people, who preach violence.
"The people are ready to build relationships; the clerics are petrified they're going to lose members. As a result, they're acting out of fear," Roberts said. "I think when they do that, they have a very low estimation of their view of God."
Abdul Karim Bangura, a professor at Howard University and American University in Washington, D.C., argues that the "mega-media" is partially to blame for America's "Islamophobia," as it only portrays a snippet of the Muslim culture.
"[The mega-media] tends to focus on the bad things Muslims do because that sells, that attracts the viewers," Bangura told CP.
Bangura, a Muslim who emigrated from Sierra Leon, West Africa, to the U.S. in 1974, contends that other negative perceptions are based on stereotypes and misconceptions.
"We have a lot of people out there who are doing really good work. Unfortunately, they are not getting the media attention they deserve," Bangura lamented.
Religious leaders on both sides exacerbate the distrust, say these experts.
Florida Pastor Terry Jones made international headlines in July 2010 when he threatened to burn 200 Qurans on the 2010 anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. He deemed this controversial event "International Burn a Koran Day." Although international pressure convinced Jones not to burn the Qurans, his threat caused riots in the Middle East and Asia.
Then Jones sparked controversy a second time when he burned a Quran while inside his Gainesville church on March 20, 2011. His defilement of Islam's holy book prompted massive riots in the northern Afghanistan city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Protesters attacked the United Nations Assistance Mission, killing ten U.N. officials, according to ABC News.
As Texas Pastor Roberts argues, aggressive acts such as these create a destructive cycle of violence.
"If we still feel fear towards them and we act in fear, then it makes them feel fear towards us," Roberts noted. "When you're driven by fear, it leads to lots of negative behaviors. Whether it's more violence or over-the-top responses which make someone else go over the top, back and forth, tit-for-tat."
Al Fadi believes Muslims should try to "truly present the peaceful side of Islam in a strong way."
In what he says requires a "courageous stand," Muslims should further seek to strengthen their relationship with Christians, "trying to take a public stand against the radical, fundamentalist Muslims who apply those [violent] passages from the Quran."
"We can strategize and come up with a better solution – not by isolating the Muslim community, rather to get closer to them and work with them and really encourage the majority of peaceful Muslims to denounce the teachings," Al Fadi added.
Professor Bangura believes that forming a strong relationship between Christians and Muslims in the U.S. will take time. "It's very interesting: when [American] Muslims travel, they become the ambassadors for the United States. And they can get very defensive about the United States," Bangura told CP.
"At the end of the day, we are all here, we are Americans."
For Part One in the "Evangelicals and Muslims" series, click here.