This is a guest post written by Herb Silverman. He’s the President of the Secular Coalition for America.
After the Paris and San Bernardino terrorist attacks, followed by Donald Trump‘s inflammatory speech on the aircraft carrier Yorktown near my home in Charleston, South Carolina, my wife Sharon and I wanted to do something to counter some of the unfair anti-Muslim sentiment in our state and country. So we made an appointment to stop at the local mosque and say how pleased we are to live in the same community with Muslims.
Waiting to greet us were the imam and three other leaders, and they appreciated our taking the time to stop by. I mentioned that atheists are also sometimes demonized, and it’s important for those of all faiths and none to find common ground and work together.
They agreed, but the imam asked, “How can you not believe in God?”
Sharon had wisely recommended that I not talk about religion during this visit, so I said, “That would be a long discussion, but the bottom line is that I see no evidence for any gods.” I didn’t respond when the imam told me there is evidence everywhere.
As we were leaving, they all invited us to return for a “Meet Your Muslim Neighbor” open house on the following Saturday, an invitation we happily accepted. The main speaker at the event was Imam Eesaa Wood. He introduced himself as a “redneck” from North Carolina who had converted to Islam after 25 years as a Protestant. Imam Wood is a polished and friendly speaker who specializes in community outreach presentations.
Wood thanked the audience for its willingness to learn about Islam from a Muslim and not from people hostile to Muslims. He told us that Islam means “surrender to God” and jihad means “to struggle.” Islam is a religion of peace, he said, with violence a last resort only if Muslims are attacked. Even then, if the other party is inclined to peace, Muslims must also be peaceful. He added that we shouldn’t believe what mainstream media says about Muslims. We don’t hear that thousands of Muslims openly condemn ISIS, or that Muslims offer free medical service without regard to race, color, or creed.
Imam Wood wanted to make Islam sound like a reasonable addition to the other monotheistic religions. Not only do Muslims believe in the Quran, he said, they also believe everything in the Old and New Testaments. Muhammad is the final prophet, but Muslim prophets include Adam, Noah, Moses, Jesus, and all prophets in Judaism and Christianity. Wood said that a Muslim is anyone who believes in the one true God, and that Christians who believe that Jesus is the messiah can still go to Heaven. He added that there is no compulsion in Islam. People are free to leave at any time.
Imam Wood gave the same answer to all questions about atrocities committed by Muslims: “They aren’t true Muslims.” And he also had the same response to violent-sounding quotes in the Qur’an, like killing infidels: “That passage is taken out of context. We study and understand the whole Quran based on how Muhammad lived it.”
Here are some Muslim beliefs I had never before heard: Each of us has two personal angels, one recording our good deeds and the other our bad deeds. The two lists are read on the Day of Judgment, and then our punishment or reward is up to God’s mercy. And to make a point that Christians shouldn’t hold all Muslims responsible for the misguided actions of a few, he said that Muslims today don’t hold all Christians responsible for the “undeniable fact” that Christian Crusaders regularly killed and ate Muslim babies. When an audience member asked the local imam about the Muslim position on gays, he said that being gay is wrong and there are no gay Muslims.
Afterwards, I said to Imam Wood, “Almost no Jews believe literally in the Old Testament, and most Christians don’t believe literally in the New Testament. What percentage of Muslims doesn’t believe literally in the Qur’an?” He said that not believing literally would be grounds for excommunication. When I asked about the death penalty for blasphemy in some Muslim countries in the Mideast, he said there are no Muslim countries there. There are dictators who are kept in power by their Secular Humanist allies. When I asked for the name of a Secular Humanist in Saudi Arabia, he couldn’t come up with a name.
Recently, Dutch pranksters disguised a copy of the Bible as the Qur’an, and read provocative quotes to passersby. The pranksters asked them if such beliefs were consistent with Western norms and values. The people queried thought the quotes from the Qur’an were ridiculous, unbelievable, and oppressive. And the respondents developed even less respect for Muslims until learning how they had been pranked.
I take it as a positive about Jews and Christians that they either don’t know or don’t care about some of the ridiculous passages in their ancient scriptures. Since all the “holy” books contain horrible passages, I hope one day to see Muslims openly disavow the kind of passages in the Qur’an that most Jews and Christians reject in their own holy books.
The hundred or so Muslims and non-Muslims at the Central Mosque of Charleston open house were uniformly friendly. Our mayor-elect John Tecklenburg was there and spoke warmly about the obligation for our “Holy City” (Charleston’s nickname) to extend tolerance to those of every faith and none. All in all, it was a nice counter to the bad news that seems to dominate the media.
The event ended with a terrific buffet. I consider myself a “gastronomic Jew” because I still enjoy the Jewish food of my childhood. The buffet at the mosque has also turned me into a “gastronomic Muslim.”