By Dr. Natana J. DeLong-Bas
Over the weekend, protestors gathered at Lowe’s Home Improvement stores, criticising the US retail chain’s recent decision to pull its advertisements from a show on the television station TLC, “All-American Muslim”. Lowe’s decision came following complaints by the Florida Family Association – a conservative evangelical Christian group that aims to “educate people on what they can do to defend, protect and promote traditional, biblical values” – that the show was “propaganda”. The group also said “that [it] riskily hides the Islamic agenda’s clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values.”
“All-American Muslim” is a reality television show, portraying five Muslim Arab American families in Dearborn, Michigan. The purpose of the program is to provide viewers with a window into what life is like for Muslims of Arab descent living in the United States today. Because it shows real life situations, the show sometimes includes incidents of discrimination and how the families choose to handle it.
As a theology professor focusing on both Islam and Christianity, I am often asked to comment on faith-related issues. My investigation into the episodes and blogs about the show found these families engaged in planning weddings and getting married, facing the challenges of raising a family, recognising that being a dad means putting the welfare and needs of your children ahead of your own, coaching high school football and reflecting on motherhood as God’s greatest gift.
I personally found none of this to be offensive, dangerous or propagandistic. In fact, I was under the impression that this focus on the family was supposed to be the heart of traditional American liberties and values.
So what is the problem?
The problem seems to be ignorance about who Muslims are and what they believe. Despite efforts since 9/11 to educate the American public about Islam and Muslims, there remains a lack of accurate information and understanding that sadly often leads to deeply felt fear, hatred, prejudice, bigotry and ultimately, discrimination.
Remaining silent in the face of prejudice and hatred means becoming complicit with those forces. Just as we demand that Muslims speak out against those committing acts of terrorism and extremism in the name of Islam, so Christians must also speak out against those preaching hatred, bigotry and ignorance in the name of Christianity.
As an American, I believe that we have an obligation to uphold the responsibilities that come with the freedom of speech – responsibility to ensure that our words are not used to harm others, whether physically or emotionally; responsibility to use our words to convey accurate information rather than to perpetuate negative stereotypes; and responsibility to use our words to build, rather than tear down, communities and each other.
As a Christian, particularly in light of the coming Christmas season, I want to use my free speech to clarify that Muslims and Christians believe in many of the same values – the centrality of family, concern for social justice and the importance of faith in God. Although Muslims and Christians do not agree on whether Jesus is God’s Son, Muslims nevertheless hold Jesus in high esteem as one of God’s prophets and messengers who brought to humanity the gift of God’s revelation through the Gospels.
The Qur’an teaches that Jesus is “a word from God” (3:45) and “a spirit from God” (4:171), conceived and born of the Virgin Mary (3:47 and 19:16-23), who has been taught “the Scripture and wisdom, and the Torah and the Gospel” by God (3:48). The Qur’an also reminds us that Jesus comes to “heal him who was born blind and the leper,” to “raise the dead” (3:49 and 5:110) and to “confirm that which was before [him] of the Torah” (3: 50). These teachings parallel much of what Christians believe about Jesus, offering us common ground as we enter into the Christmas season – a season of hope, fellowship and, most of all, peace on earth.
Our common faith, whether Muslim or Christian, commands us to love God and each other. It is my prayer that more Christians and Muslims will use this latest incident to reach out to each other and recognise how much we share in common through the power of that love, rather than allowing fear to continue to divide and conquer us.
Dr. Natana J. DeLong-Bas is Editor-in-Chief of The [Oxford] Encyclopedia of Islam and Women and author of Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad. She teaches comparative theology at Boston College.