A week after the heinous terrorist attacks in Paris that fueled tensions between Judeo-Christians and Muslims all over Europe, a flicker of reconciliation and hope appeared right here at home. Duke University announced it would allow Islamic students to use its chapel's bell tower to amplify the Muslim call to prayer on Fridays. Unfortunately, less than 24 hours after the announcement was made, Duke reversed its decision citing unspecified security concerns.
While the threats to the university have not been publicly made available, the evangelical backlash to Duke's initial decision certainly has. The Rev. Franklin Graham (son of Rev. Billy Graham of parkway-to-the-airport fame) took his outrage to Facebook where his post calling for Duke's donors to withhold their support until the policy was reversed and stating that "followers of Islam are raping, butchering, and beheading Christians, Jews, and anyone who doesn't submit to their Sharia Islamic law" garnered more than 80,000 likes.
For Osama Idlibi, president of the Muslim American Society of Charlotte, this kind of reaction is simply due to a profound ignorance about Islam. "Franklin Graham stands against the call to prayer because he believes we pray to a different God," he said. "He doesn't understand that 'Allah' is the word for God in a different language, not a different God. Go to any Christian church in the Arab world and you'll hear them use the term 'Allah' to refer to God."
I was skeptical about Idlibi's assertion, as I had only heard the word "Allah" used in the context of the Muslim faith. So, I decided to ask my best friend, a Syrian American who happens to have been raised Catholic, about it. After double-checking with her parents, she confirmed that yes, Christians in Syria refer to God as Allah. So, just like I say the word "Dios" when I go to a church service in Spanish, Arabic people use the term "Allah" when referring to the creator of the universe.
Obviously, there are fundamental differences in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths regarding the description of God, but the basic tenets that God is one, that he is all-powerful, and that he is merciful, are present in all three religions.
Educating folk like me about Islam is one of Idlibi's priorities at the Muslim American Society. Yet, too often, that education frustratingly boils down to denouncing the acts of a radical few. "As Muslims, we are expected to condemn every single attack carried out by someone who is claiming to be a Muslim. Can you imagine if we did that for other religions? If we expected Christians to denounce every crime committed by a Christian? It would be absurd!"
For Idlibi, the actions of terrorist organizations like ISIS and al Qaeda are unequivocally un-Islamic and stand starkly in contrast to the teachings of the Quran. "I wish they would stop calling it the Islamic State," he said. "There is nothing Islamic about them."
Yet, this education campaign is often met with a powerful adversary: the media. From Fox News' assertion that there are "no-go zones" for non-Muslims in England and France to Don Lemon asking a Muslim human rights lawyer if he supports ISIS, U.S. media seems obsessed with fostering fear and mistrust of Muslims.
Idlibi experienced this first-hand on the day of Duke's announcement. "After Duke announced the new policy, CNN called me to schedule an interview. As soon as the university reversed its decision, I received a text letting me know the interview had been cancelled; they said it wasn't a story anymore. They could no longer cast Muslims in a negative light, so there was no point in talking to me."
The results of the media coverage haven't been all negative, though. Idlibi has also received calls from several local Christian clergy who want to do more to connect with Charlotte's Muslim community. He will be presenting at local churches about Islam, and there are talks of establishing an interfaith coalition that can speak out against the demonization of Muslims.
"This is so encouraging because I believe that we were created and made into all these different nations and countries and tribes so that we can get to know one and another, not to hate or spread false rumors about each other, " he said.
As a Christian, there is certainly one area in which I can find commonality with Idlibi and his life as a Muslim — the constant frustration over extremists misrepresenting my faith. And, like him, I too feel compelled to educate others about my religion. That's why I must assert that Franklin Graham's divisive and inflammatory Facebook post does not convey the spirit of Christianity.