This wasn't the first time that Evangelical leaders participated in the largest annual gathering of Muslims in the United States. The Islamic Society of North America Annual Convention has for many years included panel sessions, discussions, and even celebratory events on interfaith relations with religiously diverse leaders. Perhaps because of the unique relationship of the current U.S. presidential administration to Evangelical leaders, and a heightened political climate of partisan and ideological divides, this was the first ever ISNA convention to feature multiple conversations about bridging these divides and a majority Evangelical panel, live recorded for a predominantly Christian podcast audience.
Neighborly Faith is an organization that seeks to help Evangelicals become better neighbors to people of other faiths. On September 6, 2018 Neighborly Faith partnered with America Indivisible, a national organization that addresses anti-Muslim bigotry by strengthening neighborly ties, to make the case for better Muslim-Evangelical relations directly to Muslims in Houston and Evangelical podcast listeners all over the country.
The panel, titled "Reaching Persuadable Americans: Why Engaging Conservatives Matters," featured Neighborly Faith co-hosts Kevin Singer and Chris Stackaruk, Texas megachurch Pastor Bob Roberts Jr., President of Islamic Relief USA Anwar Khan, and Dalia Mogahed, Director of Research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. What was especially intriguing about the conversation were the questions and comments that audience members posed on notecards during Q&A. They provide a window into what everyday Muslim Americans are concerned about when it comes to their relationships with Evangelicals and conservatives. As we shuffled through the questions, we noticed that a couple of themes began to emerge.
Some Muslims Believe They Could Be Reaching Out More
Much to our surprise, we received several questions and comments from audience members insinuating that Muslims were as much to blame as Evangelicals for their fractured relationship. One guest wrote, "Sadly we Muslims are to blame for not reaching out to our neighbors and colleagues. Our weekends are saved to visit other Muslim families. Many of us are afraid to converse in languages other than ours, afraid to make mistakes. If it wasn't for my Jewish friend at university correcting my English, I would not have become the Muslim that I am today, coming to an English language convention."
Of course, this sentiment was not without challenge. Another audience member wrote, "I want to challenge the notion that the onus either singularly or jointly is on an oppressed person or people to get the person in power or the oppressor to accept them. The Islamophobia of White Evangelicals is a serious problem that hurts the country, that hurts Muslims and hurts White people. What does the church need to do to address its crisis? It has to be more than make friends."
Frustrations with the Media
Audience members were also concerned that the news media might be undermining their relationship with Evangelicals, and some felt that Evangelicals could be doing more to correct misinformation and curb anti-Muslim bias coming from conservative media outlets. "The misunderstandings between Muslims and Christians are mainly propagated by the media," one audience member explained. "Muslims are not well spoken of or well received by the media. Can the Christian pastors who are knowledgeable about Islam be the frontline defense of Muslims and start talking the truth about Islam and Muslims to the media?" Another question read, "How do you confront news media like Fox where talking negatively about Islam is the norm?"
One guest wondered if anti-Muslim sensationalism could be curbed with countermeasures from Evangelical allies: "My hats off to the Neighborly Faith initiative, and Pastor Bob's courageous effort. A big challenge that is behind Islamophobia is mass media and social media. Anything sensational sells. How can your initiative do something sensational/out of the box to get media/social media attention in a positive direction?"
Challenges in the Trump Era
Several audience members described changes in their relationships with Evangelicals in the last few years. "Growing up in Texas as a minority, I have always had good relations with Evangelicals," one audience member wrote, "But recently the new thought process is that it is not worth converting Muslims because of the hate, and they have no soul worth saving. What are your thoughts about this?" Another guest asked whether Evangelical Christianity is separable from "an aggressive U.S. foreign policy," adding, "I feel much of the tension starts here."
Still, audience members seemed genuinely curious about the prospect of improved relations with Evangelical Trump supporters. "What is the role (is there a role) in trying to engage Trump supporters?" one audience member asked. Another attendee even expressed sympathy for conservatives who are worried about their faith being mocked and removed from the public square, asking, "Can the shared experience of marginality be a basis for positive relationship?" This question is not necessarily a new one. Muslim thinkers have pondered over the ways that Evangelicals of the past paved the way for the Muslims of today to insert religion into public conversation and politics.
Puzzlement about Evangelical Behavior
Unsurprisingly, some of the questions and comments we received indicated a perceived contradiction between Evangelical faith commitments and Evangelical behaviors. One recalled a pastor in Florida who burns Qur'ans, perplexed that someone taught by their religion to love would do something so hateful. Another asked, "How do we reach those who identify as Evangelicals but do not practice what they preach?" One attendee admitted their confusion that someone claiming to be an expert in their religion, pastor or imam, would cite fear of being converted as a reason for withholding friendship.
Perhaps the most intriguing question that we received was one that appreciated the complexities that conservative evangelicals grapple with when considering whether to befriend Muslims. "Can you speak about the views among some Conservatives/Evangelicals that if you're friendly to Muslims, you're not a 'real conservative?' How are people like you balancing the desire to reach out, with your moral and political conservatism? Do you feel like you're being pushed to be 'less conservative'?"
Eagerness to Take Steps Forward
Though some wrestled with their doubts and negative experiences, others expressed an eagerness to take steps toward Evangelicals and asked the panelists to give them practical tips for getting started. "Please tell us steps for 'ordinary' as in, not well-informed in religion, Muslims to approach conservatives and non-Muslims," one card read. "What can Muslims (individuals, communities, etc.) do to stand up against hate?" and "How do we motivate Muslims to take the first step?" were also posed to the panel.
These themes, when taken together, suggest that American Muslims are negotiating between pessimism and optimism when considering the prospect of a shared future with American Evangelicals and political conservatives. Americans of Muslim and Evangelical faith are not monolithic and each of these communities has its fair share of bad actors. Still, the 150-plus participants who attended this event conveyed seeds of a willingness to seek forward progress if Evangelicals are willing to share the load. To that end, it is imperative that Evangelicals and Muslims realize this opportunity, to show good neighborliness through a posture of hospitality and love, and to invest their time and generosity in those who seek friendship.
Listen to the recording of the panel here.