Bridging The Christian-Muslim Divide

Many religious leaders fear rising tensions over the proposed Islamic Center in Manhattan may inflame religious tensions through the U.S. Author Eliza Griswold and Fordham University's Rev. Patrick Ryan discuss how to quell tensions between Christians and Muslims.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Jennifer Ludden in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

Next weekend marks the nine-year anniversary of the attacks on 9/11, yet hostility toward Muslims in this country seems to have only grown, at least in recent weeks. Plans to build an Islamic center just blocks from New York's ground zero have sparked a backlash. There have been protests against other proposed mosques and Islamic centers across the country. Some American Muslims fear a wave of Islamaphobia.

But how much of this is really new? The conflict between Islam and Christianity goes back hundreds of years. We're going to back at that history. Relations between the two faiths is also marked by cooperation. In New York City, the Catholic Church is launching an effort to reach out to Muslims and soothe tensions.

Today, conflict and cooperation between Christianity and Islam. Later in the hour, the death of serial reading. Why read one book when you can read six? But first, Christians and Muslims. What's happening where you are?

Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We begin with Father Patrick Ryan. He's Fordham University professor of religion and society, and he joins us from NPR's New York bureau. Welcome to you, Father.

Father PATRICK RYAN (Professor of Religion and Society, Fordham University): Thank you very much.

LUDDEN: Tell us about this outreach effort in New York. What is the idea?

Father RYAN: Archbishop Dolan, who has been famous for years in his outreach to the Jewish community, has decided that now while tension is rising in a place like New York, that he has to also engage with the Muslim leadership of the city.

The Muslim population of New York City is probably between 600,000 and 700,000 at the moment, and there has been such sensitivity since 9/11 and especially over the last few months, this being an election year. And therefore, he has decided that the he has to - just as he has sit-down dialogue with Jewish leaders, he wants to do the same with Muslim leaders in the city.

LUDDEN: So meetings, just faith leaders talking. How will that play out?

Father RYAN: I think they're looking for practical solutions, especially for the education of Muslim believers on one side and Christian believers on the other side, to understand what Islam is about, to understand what Christianity is about.

LUDDEN: You know, we had so much of this after 9/11, and here it's been nine long years. But it sounds like there's still you're saying there's still not a lot of maybe knowledge.

Father RYAN: I think there's also, there's been a lot of disinformation been spread about in recent times. Especially, as I said, it's an election year, and people are trying to capitalize on this and to try to get an issue for themselves.

It seems that outside the five boroughs of New York City, there are more people who have had strong opinions about the mosque than there are within the five boroughs of the city. I think New York is a very cosmopolitan city and has become, like London, it's become totally multireligious and intercultural. So I think we're more used to the variety of faith than they would be in Idaho.

LUDDEN: Are you hearing anything about this from parishioners, and how have they received this outreach effort?

Father RYAN: Well, I'm working in a university, but I certainly, I do hear it. I help occasionally in a parish here on the west side, Holy Trinity. But I do hear people. I'm going to be giving a talk to parishioners there later this month, and I will be I have given some talks in a parish in Astoria, Immaculate Conception in Astoria this past spring.

And it was interesting. The older people, I found, were much more able to understand what I was promoting. There were some what I would call -unsuitably, given the circumstances - young Turks who are not Turks but who were proved more hostile.

LUDDEN: We want to take a wider look now, step back a minute and get a bit of the history of the relationship between these two faiths. Eliza Griswold is the author of "The Tenth Parallel," and she joins us from NPR's New York bureau, as well. Welcome to you.

Ms. ELIZA GRISWOLD (Author, "The Tenth Parallel"): Thank you.

LUDDEN: So give us a sense of the large, historic sweep of conflict between Muslim Islam and Christianity.

Ms. GRISWOLD: Well, let's start with cooperation because that's actually its longest history. Right, you know, from when the prophet Mohammed began preaching in his home town of Mecca, and he started to face opposition from his own people...

LUDDEN: This is the seventh century, right? Is that what we're talking?

Ms. GRISWOLD: This is the seventh century because it was 615 A.D., not long after he started preaching, he was in his early 40s, that he said I've got to leave my hometown. I have to leave Mecca because I'm literally going to be under fire from my own people.

He fled, along with many of his followers to a city then known as Yathrib. Now we know it as Medina, the prophet city. But he sent between a dozen and two dozen of his own followers and family members to Ethiopia, then called Abyssinia, to the court of a Christian king because he knew that this Christian king, out of their shared faith in a single god, would keep his family safe.

And so - and the way that he knew that, he sent his followers, and they went to the king, and they said: King, we also have this history. We have the Gospel of Mary, called the Chapter of Mary, Maryam, in our holy Quran. We come from the same belief system. And will you keep us safe from violence?

And the king did. And to this day, in a place called Negash in Ethiopia, there are the descendants of that same Muslims population who have been in Africa since before, actually before the faith even began to understand itself as Islam.

LUDDEN: A piece of history you don't hear much about.

Ms. GRISWOLD: Very true, very true. And, you know, just very close by, just to the west in what we see as Sudan today, Christians and Muslims have a history.

You know, just a few hundred years after the seventh century, the Muslim armies invaded. Christians successfully, in a place called Nubia, defended themselves with arrows. They were Ta Seti, they were called the People of the Bow.

And the two formed one of the oldest peace pacts we have in known history called the baqt, or the pact. And so that idea of interfaith cooperation based on mutual survival is as old as the faiths themselves.

LUDDEN: Nonetheless, there have also been tensions, and they do continue to this day. You traveled along the 10th parallel in Asia and Africa, where you write how the two faiths kind of meet, Muslim communities kind of heading south and Christians expanding their presence in some of these areas.

Nigeria was one of the countries that you visited, and just even this year, there have been continued outbreaks of violence.

Ms. GRISWOLD: Absolutely, and one of the things that I found consistently in the seven years that it took me to travel along this faith-based fault line, along the 10th parallel, just north of that equator, is that religious violence, violence committed in the name of religion, almost always has a worldly trigger: land, water, oil, political elections. And people also understand it to be true. They understand themselves to be fighting for their religion.

And people take advantage, just as Father Ryan was saying, people take advantage of that, particularly in election years, and that happens in Nigeria a lot.

So in Nigeria, Christians and Muslims meet where, basically where the end of dry land is in Africa and the beginning of sub-Saharan jungle, the Sahel. Right, that's where these two populations meet.

And there, we have seen tens of thousands killed over the past decade in Nigeria in religious violence that has a lot to do with the weakness of the Nigerian state and its failure to deliver to the needs of its own people.

And so people turn to, they turn to religion to defend themselves, and I know Father Ryan has a long history, actually 26 years I think he said, working in Africa, as well. So he's seen this as well.

LUDDEN: Father, you were in Ghana. Is that right?

Father RYAN: I was 15 years in Ghana, but I was also 11 years in Nigeria, in fact most recently from 1999 to 2005. I was in Abuja in Nigeria, which I see that Ms. Griswold characterizes as architecturally dull. I actually rather liked it.

But the it is the new federal capital. But certainly, the area she's talking about, the middle belt of the country, has had a peculiar history. Really over the last 50 years, that area, which was largely adherence of traditional religion and some Muslims, is now becoming largely Christian and Muslim, the western half of the middle belt being more Muslim, the eastern half more Christian.

But there's always intermixture. My own first experience in Nigeria was among the Uruba people in the southwest, who are perhaps 30 million in number and are more or less half Christian and half Muslim, even in the same family. These are the people I taught first when I went and taught high school in Nigeria in the mid-1960s.

And I think that has formed my approached to Islam and why I wrote my thesis eventually on Islam among the Uruba.

LUDDEN: All right, well, we also want to hear about communities in this country. You can call us or send us an email, talk@npr.org. We have Marcos(ph) on the line from Rockford, Illinois. Hi, Marcos.

MARCOS (Caller): Hello.

LUDDEN: I think you have a story of cooperation in your community. Is that right?

MARCOS: Yes. I live in Rockford, Illinois. It's kind of a medium-sized, conservative town. And about two miles from where I live, there's a church and a mosque. It was actually the first official mosque that they built in Rockford.

The Muslims used to congregate in an old school building that was right there, and now they share a parking lot, and they finally built a traditional-looking mosque, four stories high, and there were no protests whatsoever.

Both communities get along really well, and it just seemed like a very natural thing.

LUDDEN: And when was this built?

MARCOS: Actually, right now they're putting the finishing touches on it, and it's a beautiful building. It just adds to the landscape. And there's been, you know, no problem whatsoever, no tension that I've seen, not one single protest, not one single, you know, weirdo holding up a sign or anything, just a natural thing, just a community, just an integrated community that's becoming more colorful.

LUDDEN: All right, well, thanks for telling us about that.

MARCOS: Okay, thank you.

LUDDEN: Father Ryan, is that what you're aiming for in New York?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Father RYAN: Yes, I would certainly like to see that, and even at Fordham University, which is a Jesuit and Catholic university, we have a prayer space for the Muslim students.

And I teach a course every year to undergraduates on Islamic political thought, and I've always had Muslim students in it. So it's, for me, very important to live together with Muslims and to study their faith tradition and its history together.

LUDDEN: All right, we'll talk more about how to bridge the divide between Christianity and Islam in a moment. What is happening where you live? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Or drop us an email. The address is talk@npr.org. I'm Jennifer Ludden. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

LUDDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Im Jennifer Ludden.

We're talking about tensions between Christianity and Islam. Eboo Patel, one of President Obama's advisors on faith-based partnerships, put it succinctly. In the wake of the debate over the Islamic center near ground zero, he told the New York Times, quote, "I am more scared than I've ever been, more scared than I was after September 11th."

Many people share his fears, but there are also many Muslim, Christian and others who are working to bridge that divide? How is this playing out where you live? Tell us what's happening in your community. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Father Patrick Ryan, professor of religion and society at Fordham University, and Eliza Griswold. Her new book is called "The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam."

Let's go right to an audience member. We have got Bill(ph) in Mays Landing, New Jersey. Hi, Bill.

BILL (Caller): Hi.

LUDDEN: Go right ahead.

BILL: My comment is it seems to me that (technical difficulties) the Islam, Muslim community and those believers need to reach out with more tolerance towards the Christian community in that as we have in many, many, many cases, the overwhelming number of cases. And my example of a change that would be really beneficial is for the laws and tenets exercised against Christians in Saudi Arabia to change.

I lived there for five and a half years, and throughout that entire period of time, up until about five years ago I've been back in the states for about five years throughout that period of time, it was illegal in Saudi Arabia to possess a Bible. It was illegal to publicly display any cross.

LUDDEN: Eliza Griswold, you've traveled through Saudi Arabia, did you not?

Ms. GRISWOLD: No, actually, I've never traveled to Saudi Arabia.

LUDDEN: You didn't? Sorry.

Ms. GRISWOLD: No problem. But I've certainly seen, you know, extremism, most particularly in Waziristan between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where I've been several times. And I've certainly seen it on the rise, as well.

And I appreciate those comments, and, you know, we'd seen this - I think for example of Haile Selassie, Ethiopia's last emperor. And when King Faisal of Saudi Arabia asked him for the right to build a mosque in Ethiopia, he said oh, sure, you can definitely build a mosque as soon as we can build a church in Mecca. And that ended that conversation quite quickly. You know, there are...

LUDDEN: So Bill has a point.

Ms. GRISWOLD: The point that Bill is pointing to that is most important is that there are there is no single Islam. There are thousands of Islams. And the same is true within Christianity. And what I found as I did this reporting over seven years is that the most overlooked religious clashes are the clashes within religion, are the clashes between conservatives and Muslims.

We could say, like, we could say for example Wahhabis, right, those coming from Saudi Arabia, and the majority of North African Muslims who are Suffis, right. Now, these guys have a hot debate that sometimes turns violent over what it means to be a true believer, and that's certainly what we see playing out, you know, whether it's on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, or it's with the community center in Christianity: What does it mean to be a legitimate believer, and who has the right to speak for God?

LUDDEN: All right, Bill, thanks for calling. Let's hear now from Trip(ph), you're in Gainesville, Florida. How are you?

TRIP (Caller): I'm doing pretty well.

LUDDEN: And I think you're going to tell us about something planned for this weekend down there.

TRIP: Yes. There's this one church in Gainesville that's, they're doing a Quran burning on Saturday.

LUDDEN: That's to mark the 9/11 anniversary, right?

TRIP: Yes, yes. It's getting a lot of press, from what I understand.

LUDDEN: And are you a member of the church?

TRIP: No, I am not, thankfully.

LUDDEN: So I mean, being in the community there, how is it going over locally?

TRIP: It is not going over well at all. There's been very widespread protest to it. I know I haven't been living in Gainesville. I've been living in Orlando, so I don't know exactly how my church is going about it. But I would guess that most churches in the area are, you know, spreading the typical Christian message of peace and understanding.

LUDDEN: All right, well, thank you for letting us know.

TRIP: Okay.

LUDDEN: And I just want to, along those lines, read an email we got from Justin(ph), who says he lives in a small Western Kentucky town of Mayfield. Recently, a group of Muslims applied for a permit to use a building they've been in for several months as a place of worship. Initially, the zoning board approved the permit, but after pressure from local business owners and citizens, the permit was revoked.

A public hearing was held, and the permit was denied with lack of parking being cited as the reason. Hundreds of townspeople showed up to the meeting in opposition to the proposed mosque. But Justin says while none of the none of the Muslims were allowed entry into the hearing, what, he asks, can I do in such a hostile environment in this to resolve these longstanding fears of Islam?

Father Patrick Ryan, what would you say?

Father RYAN: First of all, I think we need education on the type of, different types of Muslims. And it's true that there is still forbidden to build churches in Saudi Arabia, I think the present King Abdullah is more open to inter-religious dialogue with both Jews and Christians and has visited the pope in recent months.

But also, this type of thing, burning the Quran, is the same type of nonsense that went on here in New York in the 1840s and '50s when Archbishop Hughes was the founder of Fordham University, as Saint John's College, as it was then called, told the then-mayor of New York that if they burned any churches, if the no-nothings burnt any churches in New York the way they had burned them in Philadelphia, he would not be able to restrain the Irish and that New York would be another Moscow.

LUDDEN: Well, this speaks to quite an interesting history. Catholics in this country have had their own nativism to confront. I mean, we say New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote about this just yesterday.

I mean, I was surprised to learn, he says Presidents Martin Van Buren and William McKinley faced whispering campaigns that they were secretly working with the pope - vehement anti-Catholicism at one point in time in this country.

Father RYAN: It was very vehement and right until the I mean, even the 1960 election, John Kennedy would have won much more easily if it hadn't been for the prejudice against him as a Catholic. And of course, it defeated Al Smith in '28.

LUDDEN: Do you think this history is a motivating factor for the Catholic Church to reach out to Muslims?

Father RYAN: Yes, also, though, even more importantly, the teaching of the Second Vatican Council promoting inter-religious dialogue. So I think that has been a tremendous breakthrough.

LUDDEN: But I feel like I should note now, I was just reading that just in July, the Catholic Church in New York backed out of the deal to sell a vacant convent in Staten Island to a Muslim group after local protests, and Archbishop Dolan, who's heading this reach-out effort, was on the parish board that made that decision.

Father RYAN: I don't know too much of the internal arrangements of the archdiocese. I think the choice was mainly made by the pastor there because his parishioners were up in arms.

It was a disused convent that it would have been nice to be able to sell. And now it's just sitting there disused. But it's Staten Island has many problems, as you know, in recent times. So I don't know anything about Archbishop Dolan's involvement with this.

LUDDEN: All right. Let's go to Nashville, Tennessee. Emily(ph) is on the line. Hi, Emily.

EMILY (Caller): Hi.

LUDDEN: Go right ahead.

EMILY: Oh, I was just calling you to comment to say that I think that there's a lot of cooperation between religious sects and between different religions that goes unnoticed. And I just wanted to call I guess to represent Nashville and Murfreesboro, Tennessee. I went to college in Murfreesboro, and I just recently went to a demonstration in favor of religious cooperation.

And there were people, all different kinds of people there. There were Christians. There were Muslims. There were young people. There were old people. And without that kind of religious tolerance and cooperation, none of us would be here. We wouldn't have this country.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, Emily, thanks for calling.

EMILY: Thank you.

LUDDEN: And we have an email from Joan(ph) along the same lines, in Utica, New York. She says: A Methodist church has been converted into a mosque. At a recent open house for the community, nearly 200 people came to welcome the new congregation, and former members of the Methodist church thanked the imam for saving the church. The Muslims have renovated the building and changed an eyesore into a beautiful edifice.

Eliza Griswold, it seems like stories of violence kind of are louder than these stories of people getting along.

Ms. GRISWOLD: They sure are. And I'll tell you the truth. Radicals on both sides are a whole lot more vocal than moderates. And so one of the thing that I think is increasingly important and this goes to the point of how this clash within religions is becoming more pronounced.

For a while now, I'd say, you know, beyond the past decade, possibly the past two decades, we've seen that in these religious revivalist movements that are happening both within Christianity and within Islam, the conservative voice has been increasing, and the idea that there is one and only one way to God has become more louder, if not more representative of the whole.

And so what I think is happening now, and this is a pretty hopeful sign, is that moderates on both sides have started to push back against the dominance of that voice. Because, as we know, you know, these two sides shape each other. So like when someone says something, when Qurans are burned right here in this country, in Florida, that is exactly what al Qaeda's spin doctors want because there's no faster way for them to whip up fear in followers than the threat of a perceived enemy. And that's how Islam functions for many Christian conservatives in this country, too, because if you have an enemy, guess what. You have an army behind you.

Now, one other thing I wanted to say because I think this - you know, where I've been traveling, you know, four-fifth of the world's one billion Muslims live outside of the Arab world. And this is also where about half the world's two billion Christians live.

And I had a Nigerian pastor say to me something that I have never forgotten, and it comes to mind again when Qurans are burned or when mosques are burned. He said when the west sneezes, Africa catches the cold. And what that means is, for example, there was a lot of violence in Nigeria. More people were killed in Nigeria than in any other country after the cartoon riots. I don't know if you remember this, the Dutch cartoons that they - the Danish cartoons.

LUDDEN: Right. Someone was accused of defacing the prophet Muhammad.

Ms. GRISWOLD: Exactly. And as a result of that, violence broke out between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria again, around the local election, always a world they trigger here. And there were more people killed in Nigeria than there were in any other country following that. So that's one of the weird pieces or unexpected pieces of blowback that, you know, when we have people say, what? I can say whatever I want. Well, you can, but you may be leading to the death of hundreds, if not thousands, of people very far away.

LUDDEN: Right. Let's take another call. Troy(ph) is in Platteville, Wisconsin. Is that right? Troy, can you hear me? I think we lost Troy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: Let's try...

Ms. GRISWOLD: I hope not.

LUDDEN: ...Angel(ph) in San Antonio, Texas. Hi, Angel.

ANGEL (Caller): Hi. How are you doing today?

LUDDEN: Good. Go right ahead.

ANGEL: Oh, yes. I would just want to comment about, you know, the last call - a few of the callers. Just that, you know, it's very important for the cooperation to take place, you know, wherever there is a mixture of religion for people be it, you know, Muslim, Christian to take the initiative. You know, my first experience, I lived in a complex where they had, you know, people from India, you know, Americans, Muslims and Christians.

But, you know, I realized that I was one, if not the only Christian that I knew - that knew other Muslims, that took initiative to just say hi and smile and, you know, talk to the family members. And they also took the initiative. And we ended up having a great relationship. I was invited over to their home. I went to their home and the father was - told me that in the whole nine or 12 years he had been there in the complex, he never ever had a Christian over, never invited anybody over, you know, other than his Muslim friends. And I was - I took that as an honor.

And, you know, it was just the benefit of taking the initiative to, you know, not just tolerate, you know, his religion and his family but, you know, accept it. And then, you know, it's like an ongoing process that you tolerate, you know, accept and you - and then you start to love. Even though I love my Christian faith to flourish, I still have to accept, you know, people around me and love them. But it's also the initiative, also the initiative for everybody.

LUDDEN: Thank you for that message, Angel.

ANGEL: No problem.

LUDDEN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Now, we have Troy in Platteville, Illinois.

TROY (Caller): Wisconsin.

LUDDEN: I'm sorry. They changed it. It says Illinois now. Wisconsin. How are you?

TROY: Good, good. At our local Catholic church, their new priests had come in and there's a group of several Muslim men that met in the basement on a weekly basis. And as they said, they were invited to seek worship somewhere else after the new bishops came in - or new priest came in. And they had met at our church on occasional basis. And it came up at the council meeting that - would it be okay for them to meet at our church basement on a regular basis? And the board approved it, and now that's gotten on the calendar and everybody's found out about it. People are bringing up concerns.

And, you know, we put on under the context that this is good for our community and that's part of our mission is to support community in other faith. And, you know, the comments were like, well, Christ should be coming before community and stuff. So I'm actually the council president, so I was looking for some advice from the father, bishop over there, like how to proceed with educating our church that it's - that this would be okay or do we let it - we would say the church is the people - if the majority don't want this. How do you perceive of that?

LUDDEN: Father Ryan.

Fr. RYAN: You know, here in New York, there are a lot of churches, especially here in Manhattan, when it comes to the Jewish holy days, make available their meeting rooms and so forth for overflow crowds from synagogues. I think it's a wonderful thing for that parish in Wisconsin to make space available to Muslims. And I - to give them a place, just as we do at Fordham, to worship at the mandatory times of worship. And I'm sorry to hear that somebody is reversing this now.

LUDDEN: How can they sell it, I think, is what he wants to know.

Fr. RYAN: Well, I think they have to, first of all, go back to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on the values to be found in Islam. And also to see, even with Pope Benedict over the last few years, after something of a blunder in his speech at Regensburg, he has since come back. And as something I've been writing about in recent (unintelligible) even before that, he had said some very intelligent and positive things about Islam over the last 20 years or so. So I think it's important for this type of thing to be discussed in a rational manner in the parish council and in the diocese in which it's located.

LUDDEN: All right. Troy, thanks for that call.

TROY: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Eliza Griswold, you traveled in Asia and Africa and in so many of - so much of the time, you write that - you know, religious conflict seems the byproduct of poverty and the competition for land and resources. You know, in the 45 seconds we have left now...

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: ...I'm curious if you see that applicable to the United States in any way, or is it just a different kind of debate here?

Ms. GRISWOLD: I know I absolutely see this wrestle over who speaks for God within the United States. I see it all the time. You know, my father is a religious figure, and he - when he elected an openly homosexual bishop, he had to wear a bulletproof vest under his vestments, not out of fear he'd be killed by some of the militants, but by his own people. So that's the clash within that we're and that's what's worrying.

LUDDEN: Eliza Griswold, author of "The Tenth Parallel," and Father Patrick Ryan at Fordham University. Thanks so much to both of you.

Ms. GRISWOLD: Thank you.

Fr. RYAN: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Coming up, literary multitasking. We'll talk about the fine art of poly-reading. I'm Jennifer Ludden. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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