By Rev. Wayne Lavender
Soon after the tragic attacks on 11 September 2001, I left the church where I had been serving as the senior pastor for 12 years, sensing a call to work for peace and justice. I travelled up and down the east coast of the United States to speak about peace, reconciliation, conflict resolution and mediation wherever I could find an audience – churches, synagogues, civic organisations, schools and clubs.
I saw the 9/11 attacks as crimes against humanity committed by a small group of politically motivated individuals who were using religion as the means to justify their actions. I sought to offer and advocate for a different response from the United States than an escalation of violence – a response more true to the predominantly peaceful texts of the Abrahamic religions. I helped create coalitions of Jewish, Christian and Muslim clerics who were opposed to the war policies being pursued by the United States and who would use their authority to promote peace.
Inevitably, in every location where I spoke, an audience member would stand up and mock my words. The anger some Americans felt towards Muslims at the time was intense. Unfortunately, they were convinced Islam was a religion filled with hatred and violence. The terrorist attacks had shocked, saddened and scared me as well – but I was convinced there was a better way to move forward than declaring war.
Fast forward a decade, and I find myself a professor at the University of Human Development in the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq – a position I accepted because of my desire to be a peacemaker. I wanted to show the people of Iraq that there were Americans who believed in conflict resolution, interfaith dialogue and coexistence. Further, I wanted to live in the Middle East and experience the culture, religion and atmosphere of a different nation. The school and region is overwhelmingly Muslim, with a few Christians and Jews living peacefully with their Muslim neighbours.
I have had the opportunity to attend worship services in the mosque, heard the beautiful call to prayer echo across the city and witnessed Muslims performing their daily prayers. I have no doubt these people know God and are passionate about living faithfully and seeking peace. Though the nation and region have suffered persecution for centuries, there is an intense yearning to build a new world where justice, freedom, democracy and peace reign.
Back in the United States, I have a good friend who teaches a high school class on world religions. Recently she shared with me that her students struggled with the topic of Islam because of the portrayal of Muslims within the US media and culture, and asked me for help.
We were able to arrange a Skype dialogue between her class in the United States and seven students from the University of Human Development here in Sulaymaniyah. Our two groups of students spoke about the relationship between Christianity and Islam, the role of women in Islam, their mutual rejection of Osama bin Laden and their desire for a peaceful future.
The American students were interested in learning more about Islam from my students, while my students were interested in learning more about Christianity from the Americans. A spirit of friendship was felt as we created a space for common ground. The time passed too quickly – we arranged for follow up conversations that have taken place via email, Facebook and Skype.
I wish I could bring those people who criticised my post-9/11 talks so voraciously a decade ago here to Sulaymaniyah. I wish I could get them on a Skype conference call with the men and women I have met here in northern Iraq. I wish I could gather them again to show them a different face of Islam than that of Osama bin Laden.
Rev. Wayne Lavender, Ph.D., is a professor at the School of Human Development in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq and the director of the Foundation 4 Orphans.