Speaking as a Religious Minority in Mormon Country

July 2018


Author Linda K. Wertheimer and Imam Ossama Bahloul, resident scholar of the Islamic Center of Nashville, chat during a break at the Religious Freedom Annual Review conference in Provo, Utah. BYU Photo

Greetings, new and old Faith Ed subscribers,

A tiny sliver of my book, Faith Ed, came to life a little bit during the recent Religious Freedom Annual Review conference at Brigham Young University when I met Ossama Bahloul. He’s now a scholar at a Nashville mosque, but previously he was the imam of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro in Tennessee.
Ossama gained renown for grace under pressure as the Murfreesboro mosque faced a bomb threat, fires at its construction site, and lawsuits in 2010 and 2011 simply because it wanted to build a larger place of worship.Ossama was featured in a CNN documentary in 2011 called, “Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door.” I watched it with a class of sixth-graders at Wellesley Middle School in suburban Boston while reporting for a chapter in my book. Their teacher, Jonathan Rabinowitz, used the documentary to teach many lessons, including how stereotypes of Muslims were fueling such hate in America. He asked the students to take on different roles for discussion. He wanted some to defend the case made by mosque opponents, but student after student refused such a role. The mosque opponents demonized Muslims to make their case. Students all believed that the Muslim community had the right – and the religious freedom – to build the mosque. The mosque would win in the courts, and the center opened in 2012.
Ossama, who had come to the United States from Egypt in 2004 to serve as an imam at a Texas mosque, showed incredible calm and also sadness as he played back vile voice mails from opponents for a CNN reporter during the CNN special. “I don’t like the term, ‘Go back home.’ We are American, and everyone has to realize this,” he told CNN.
At the Utah conference, sponsored by the law school’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies, Ossama was even-voiced and passionate when he talked about his experiences, both with me during informal chats and with two other panelists during breakout sessions. He did not see anger as the solution. He, like I, saw education and exposure to religious minorities as part of the way to break through to those so ignorant that they think every Muslim is a terrorist.
Pictured: Daniel C. Peterson, a Brigham Young University professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic, panel moderator; Sahar Aziz; Haroon Azar; and Ossama Bahloul at the Religious Freedom Law Review at BYU. – BYU Photo

At one of his breakout sessions, titled, “Religious Freedom Issues Facing American Muslims,” Ossama was a co-panelist alongside Sahar Aziz, a law professor at Rutgers University, and Haroon Azar, the program director of UCLA’s Burkle Center for International Relations’ initiative on security and religious freedom. Rather than giving speeches, Ossama and his co-panelists said they just wanted the audience, most of whom were Mormon, to ask whatever they wanted. What struck me was the easy way in which the panelists and attendees conversed with each other, even though it was clear some of the attendees knew next to nothing about Islam. The panelists corrected misconceptions with facts, including one attendee’s notion that all Muslims were Arabic when the majority actually live in Indonesia.

So many problems occur because of fear and ignorance. So many of us live in bubbles, religious and racial in nature. I have had attendees at my talks ask, “How do I even meet a Muslim?” when I know of Muslims who live in that very community. I have had non-Jews tell me they had no idea that Jesus was not a part of the Jewish faith.
Both Sahar and Ossama later attended one of my breakout sessions on teaching about religion, where the attendees, at my urging, decided how they might handle a controversy over a guest speaker on Islam in Hillsborough County schools in Tampa, FL.
Gary B. Doxey, the associate director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies, at BYU’s law school introduces me before my talk.

Our stories were different, and yet Ossama, Sahar, Haroon and I had a commonality in our experiences. We all were religious minorities in America. Each of us had dealt with being stereotyped or maligned because we were not Christian and because those around us knew so little about our faiths. We knew too of incidents that had affected Muslims, Jews and other religious minorities in our own communities or nearby towns. We have to educate not only adults, but children about the world religions and the pain that stereotypes and hate symbols can cause. Ideally, that education is in place long before there is an incident, like the discovery of a swastika at a school or bullying of Muslims at their lockers.

It was no surprise that religious minorities at the conference were drawn to each other. We all noticed when some of the keynote speakers spoke as if we were all Mormons or Christians.

But in this setting, there was no reason to complain about feeling a sense of exclusion on rare occasion.The conference organizers made a significant effort to include religious minorities as speakers. Our voices were heard. Our differences were recognized and respected in a way that could serve as a model for others.
Pictured: Presenters from the conference with BYU hosts on tours of Mormon sites in Salt Lake City. BYU Photo
As I wrote in a post for Beacon Press’s newsletter, speaking in Utah gave me glimmers of hope. Hearing the stories of Ossama, Sahar and Haroon also reminded me of just how far America needs to go to increase religious literacy and combat the hate creeping into far too many corners of our society.
In Other News:
Interview on BYU Radio’s Top of Mind with Julie Rose: Julie Rose, the host of Top of Mind, interviewed me for a segment on her Monday-Friday talk show.
New York Times article on efforts to reach under-served Asian American college students: Unrelated to Faith Ed, I did a story about a community college program trying to reach more under-served Asians, particularly those from southeast Asian countries like Cambodia and Vietnam. You can read the piece here.
Interview on Classical Ideas Podcast: Many thanks to Gregory Soden, a high school religion teacher, for interviewing me on his podcast. The podcast aired in April, in between newsletters for me, so here’s a link to the interview. Greg’s own story is fascinating, and he was featured in a newspaper article about the creation of his podcast, something he did while juggling a full-time job as a teacher.
Reminder: You Can Now Listen to Faith Ed

The book came out in audio in February.

Interested in having me speak at your house of worship, school, or for other organization? Contact me at linda@lindakwertheimer.com for information on speaking fees, the type of talks, workshops I can do.
As always, thank you for reading.
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