For six weeks in late winter, a crowd gathered in a San Luis Obispo movie theater each week — not to watch the latest Hollywood blockbuster — but to learn about Islam. As far as we know, the class represented the first time in the world when churches and synagogues came together to sponsor a class on Islam.
In planning this class, the three of us —a Methodist minister, a college professor, and Muslim doctor — hoped that we were not alone in our belief that knowledge about others’ faiths betters our world and that education should not end in school or be confined to denominational walls. However, before the first session, we did not know if anyone else would show up.
The first class at the library community room drew more than 200 people, with the crowd spilling into the plaza and onto the street. The second class was moved to a movie theater, which also soon became overfilled. More than 300 remained for the duration of the six sessions. Our taste of Islam had turned into a communal feast!
From the beginning, the goal for the class was simply to understand Islam. As Professor Lloyd-Moffett has repeatedly stated, our goal is not to defend Islam, but rather to defend accuracy. There are enough interesting elements to discuss about religion without making things up or skewing the message to score rhetorical points. While it was only a “taste” of Islam, we learned much about the history and practice of the religion of nearly one in four people on the planet. However, we also learned a lot about our community in the process.
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We were reminded that there are many people on the Central Coast with open minds, who want to believe in a fundamental goodness of the human person. We did not avoid the warts of Islamic history or the challenges of interpreting the Quran, but it was balanced by equally prevalent stories of compassion, beauty and goodness within Islam, often told through the personal anecdotes of Dr.
Abdul-Cader. While a few people sought mostly to confirm their negative suspicions, most people welcomed these additional perspectives. Now, the “graduates” of this class not only notice those who cause destruction in the name of Islam, but also those who sow compassion in the name of Islam. It was a chance to be reminded that goodness lies first and foremost in the heart of the one holding a sacred text, not only in the religious words that lie within it.
We were reminded that people crave respectful and rigorous dialogue about religion. Too often, we are exposed to talking heads that offer their partisan and prejudiced positions in measured soundbites to their respective choirs, with little desire for real dialogue. Despite the fears of a few, we showed that one can talk about religions other than one’s own without proselytizing for them or denigrating them. We showed that, as a community, we can — and indeed must — have dialogues between religions whose goal is not conversion or denunciation but productive harmony. We hope that this format can continue for other misunderstood religions.
Finally, we were reminded that the community spirit of our county is still alive. People from throughout the county were drawn together by the hope of creating a better place to live through education. We encouraged people to have fun, meet their neighbors, and share their food. In turn, they relayed stories over communal popcorn and meaningful dinners with strangers. Simply gathering together sometimes provides the most enduring lessons.
The impact of this class will be known in the years to come as events in the Islamic world and our local community unfold. We hope this class has made a difference. We look to the advice of the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, who once wrote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Dr. Stephen Lloyd-Moffett is an associate professor of religious studies at Cal Poly.
The Rev. Jane Voigts is head pastor at United Methodist Church in San Luis Obispo.
Dr. Rushdi Abdul-Cader is the founder of the Alliance with Law Enforcement for the Reporting of Threats to the United States (ALERT US.)