Following the inaugural Shoulder to Shoulder Seminarian Interfaith Seminar at the ISNA Annual Convention in August, 2014, participants of the Seminar published opinion pieces and blogs in local and national outlets to disseminate more widely what they learned through this experience. Aaron Neff, a Seminary student at Princeton Theological Seminary, published his piece in the Buffalo News on November 16, 2014.
Another Voice: Reach out to Muslims before forming an opinion
By Aaron Neff
America has a sad history of vilifying recent immigrant groups and others who are considered outsiders. Anyone who has studied the history of our country is familiar with the fear and hatred that has been exhibited at various times towards Catholics, Jews, East Asians, Italians and a host of other demographic groups.
It is easy to forget this, as most of these groups are now part of our melting pot of a society. We say that those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it, and I think that is true.
I grew up in a culture that celebrated most aspects of my Christian faith and considered them to be “normal.” I learned to disregard (at best) and fear (at worst) that which existed outside my experience. Often this applied particularly to Islam.
I was taught, implicitly and explicitly, to believe that Islam was a dangerous and inherently violent religion. I was taught to believe that I had little in common with Muslims. But that was before I actually met a Muslim.
ISIS continues to make headlines because of gruesome publicized beheadings and other war crimes. Many Americans are afraid that the hateful beliefs and actions of ISIS are representative of the beliefs and actions of the majority of the world’s Muslims, many of whom live right here in America.
I understand these fears, because I held many of these same fears myself. Yet, like me (until recently), most non-Muslim Americans have never had more than a passing interaction with a Muslim. A study published by the Public Religion Research Institute in 2011 indicates that 68 percent of Americans say they seldom or never interact with Muslims; 57 percent say they know little about Islam; and 29 percent say they know nothing about Islam.
One thing that has been true of every Muslim I have met is their unequivocal condemnation of ISIS as a group of criminals who violate the most important principals of Islam and of human decency.
Aaron Neff, a Western New York resident, is a student at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, N.J.