(ATLANTA, GA, 7/5/16) – The Georgia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-GA) today met with Dr. Gerald Harris, a Baptist leader who previously argued that Islam was not a religion, at the Islamic Community Center of Atlanta.
On June 7th, Dr. Harris published an article in The Christian Index arguing that constitutionally-protected freedom of religion should be denied to American Muslims, presumably including the 5,000 American Muslims who serve in the armed forces as well as cultural icons like the late athlete and humanitarian Muhammad Ali.
CAIR-GA responded by inviting him to visit a mosque, observe an Islam 101 presentation, and ask questions of his Muslim neighbors. Here’s what happened next:
Countering Islamophobia With Outreach Instead of Outrage
By Edward Ahmed Mitchell
When public figures make offensive, bigoted or otherwise controversial remarks about their fellow Americans, the outrage is as swift as it is predictable.
The media highlights the impolite comments. The targeted group takes offense. Their leaders then condemn the remarks and demand an apology.
But none of that happened after Dr. Gerald Harris, the Baptist editor of The Christian Index and a vocal supporter of Georgia’s vetoed Religious Liberty bill, published an article attacking Islam on June 7.
Among other things, Dr. Harris cited Islamophobic conspiracy theories to suggest that freedom of religion should not apply to American Muslims, presumably including everyone from the children of Muhammad Ali to the 5,000 American Muslims who serve in the U.S. military.
As the leader of the Georgia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-GA), which counters both hate speech and hate crimes, I could have publicly criticized Dr. Harris’ remarks or written my own article rebutting his claims one-by-one.
But my Islamic faith called for a different response—a better response.
“The good deed and the evil deed cannot be equal,” says the Quran (41:34), which Muslims consider God’s final revelation to mankind. “Repel evil with something better, and then the person with whom you had enmity will become like a close friend.”
The Quran (29:46) also warns Muslims to avoid rudely debating their Christian and Jewish brethren:
“And do not argue with the People of the Book except in a way that is best, unless it be with those of them who act unjustly, and say (to them): ‘We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you. Our God and your God is One, and to Him do we submit.’”
With those teachings in mind, CAIR-GA invited Dr. Harris to visit a mosque, observe an Islam 101 presentation, and engage in dialogue with his American Muslim neighbors.
Dr. Harris graciously accepted our invitation. He attended an interfaith open house at the Islamic Community Center of Atlanta on Tuesday, July 5, along with other members of the Baptist church.
After explaining who Muslims are, what Muslims believe, and what Muslims practice, I opened the floor to questions. Nothing was off-limits. I promised our guests that they could ask about anything and everything, from God to jihad to Sharia.
If you expected fireworks to erupt when they took me up on that offer, you would have been sorely disappointed.
We spent nearly two hours engaging in a frank but friendly dialogue, highlighting our similarities, acknowledging our differences, and addressing anti-Muslim conspiracy theories, without exchanging so much as a sharp look, much less a hostile word.
We only raised our voices when we laughed.
Although our nation often seems divided across the battlefields of race, religion and politics, my dialogue with Dr. Harris served as a hopeful reminder that Americans can bridge such gaps if we “repel evil with something better.”
Granted, this strategy does not apply to every situation. When an anti-Muslim bigot showed up outside a Georgia mosque with a gun last month and called for “war” against Islam, Georgia Muslims did not call for dialogue. We called for his arrest.
But generally speaking, Americans can, should, and must be able to disagree without being disagreeable. Indeed, we need not share the same beliefs as our neighbors in order to recognize our common values, for those values—particularly the Golden Rule—can form the basis of mutual respect and cooperation going forward.
To that end, Dr. Harris and I ended our dialogue by agreeing to work together in the future. Dr. Harris has also published a new editorial in The Christian Index recounting his visit to the mosque and revealing that he now considers me a friend. I share the sentiment.
Our unexpected friendship highlights a lesson that all Americans should remember whenever we hear comments that offend us.
Sometimes, outreach works better than outrage.