“Are you Yaser Tabbara?” the man on the other end of the phone wanted to know.
Tabbara, the executive director of the Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, barely eked out a “yes,” before the unnamed man continued.
“I want to ask you,” he demanded, “why are you Muslims killing us?
“Why are you bombing us?” he went on, never pausing for a reply. “Why are you terrorizing?”
“I finally asked him,” Tabbara recalled about a week after the phone call, “Sir, are you going to let me respond?”
The answer was quick:
Then, a dial tone.
The exchange didn’t come as a shock for Tabbara, who says his office receives dozens of pieces of hate mail each week.
Particularly at times of war, it isn’t unusual for different religions to clash, both on the battlefield and back home. But people of many religious faiths say today’s tension isn’t limited to the differences between Muslims and Christians.
When a member of the Church of Christ, Scientist wrote a letter to the Daily Herald recently, another man responded that the writer should read a book that characterizes Christian Science and such faiths as Islam, Mormonism and Buddhism as cults.
The Christian Scientist writer, Phil Davis of Algonquin, said the response to his letter was disheartening.
The Church of Christ, Scientist has been trying to teach more people about its beliefs in recent years, he said, in hopes of dispelling myths that the church is a cult or that its members will be excommunicated if they go to a doctor.
“There’s just a lot of misunderstanding out there,” he said.
And that misunderstanding extends beyond lesser-known faiths.
Just last month, the Chicago chapter of the American Jewish Committee thanked the Chicago Presbytery for responding to a “disturbing” vote by the national church. Among other things, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church had voted in June to divest church funds from multinational corporations whose business in Israel is “directly or indirectly” hurting innocent people.
The actions were viewed by many area Jews as “a betrayal of an enduring friendship” between the two religions, according to a letter the Chicago Presbytery sent to representatives of Chicago’s Jewish community.
“In all of this, our neighbors and colleagues in the Jewish community have shared with us their outrage, their pain, their alarm,” the Revs. John McFayden and Robert Reynolds wrote.
Some misunderstandings lead to broader community tensions. When members of the Sikh Religious Society held a parade in Palatine this summer, some residents called village hall to complain “Iranians” were walking through town.
Such conflicts shouldn’t come as a surprise, said Gillian Sorenson, a senior adviser to the United Nations Foundation.
History shows religion is the stated reason for many wars, including modern-day violence in the Middle East, Northern Ireland and the fighting between India and Pakistan.
“The world is cursed with an abundance of intolerance and hate,” she said.
“Some have wondered whether religion is, in fact, the enemy of peace.”
Sorenson spoke recently at Northwestern University in Evanston during one of 30 town hall meetings held across the United States to discuss U.S.-Islamic relations. The meetings were prompted by the federal 9/11 Commission’s report, which encouraged more dialogue between Muslims and people of other faiths in the United States.
Sorenson was joined at the podium by Danielle Lemack, a Chicago attorney whose mother died Sept. 11, 2001, on American Airlines Flight 11.
Now the vice president of the group Families of September 11, Lemack said even a few people can “make a difference” if they are willing to take the time to get to know and understand one another.
“There is this misunderstanding. There is this hatred for Americans. And Americans have a misunderstanding of Muslims as well,” she said.
“Everyone can make a difference.”
The need for such understanding is possibly stronger now than ever, Lemack said.
One in four Americans holds anti-Muslim views, according to a poll released earlier this month by the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Poll respondents agreed with stereotypes such as “Muslims teach their children to hate” and “Muslims value life less than other people.”
“American Muslims are getting the very un-American message of You are not welcome here,’?” Tabbara said.
Many religious groups, however, have heeded the call for more understanding.
The Church of Christ, Scientist in Barrington has been an active member of that community’s ministerial association for more than 10 years, Davis said. The Schaumburg stake of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which includes nine area congregations, also has a member in the area’s interfaith council, said stake President Wilford Wagner.
Sukhchain Singh, dean of the Sikh Religious Society, said he believes those interfaith gatherings have helped improve understanding since the attacks of Sept. 11. So much so, he said he wasn’t bothered even by the confusion over the Sikh parade.
Singh believes the problems occurred because a Sikh emblem and an Iranian emblem both feature a circle with two swords. After the incident, he said, the village and the religious society took steps to explain the event and the similarities between the emblems.
“Our misunderstanding led to a better understanding,” Singh said.
On Thursday, Niagara Foundation, a Mount Prospect-based Muslim group formed to increase interfaith understanding, will hold its second-annual Interfaith dinner in Chicago. Speakers will include Jews, Muslims, Catholics and several religious scholars.
Those are the types of gatherings that please Tabbara, despite the angry letters and phone calls.
“I’m hopeful,” he said. “I’m hopeful, because I am doubtless that the message of our beautiful faith will shine through from generations of Muslims, particularly in the West, and hopefully, we’ll see a more understanding relationship between our two worlds.”
Tolerance: One in four Americans holds anti-Muslim views
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