Islam is a religion founded on tolerance, but extremism in some parts of the world and the tendency to turn complex issues into sound bites has created a lot of myths and misconceptions about the world’s second largest religion, said medical and religious professor Dr. Faheem Younus last Sunday afternoon. He was speaking to about 30 people, who had gathered at the Owings Mills branch of the Baltimore County Public Library to discuss Islam at a talk hosted by the Baltimore Jewish Cultural Chavurah.
The talk was led by Younus, a clinical associate professor of medicine at the University of Maryland and former national youth president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA. He has lectured on “Islam: Fact and Fiction” and “Islam in the News” at campuses across the country.
“1.6 billion Muslims are not a monolith,” said Younus. “Everybody should have a right to define themselves.”
This concept of being able to define oneself has been a major force in Younus’ life. When he was 24 years old, he left his native Pakistan for the United States because of the religious persecution his Ahmadiyya Muslim sect was experiencing. After Sept. 11, 2001, he found himself faced with a lot of the same generalizing and suspicion he had fled from in Pakistan.
The Ahmadiyya sect is founded on the belief that the Messiah came in the form of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who lived from 1835 to 1908. Ahmadiyya Muslims believe that Ahmad was sent by God to end religious war, and revive morality, peace and justice. The sect denounces terrorism and instead calls for intellectual “jihad of the pen” in order to defend their religion. They also advocate the separation of religion and government.
While there are many different sects and patterns of belief in Islam, Younus said, the Quran itself does not promote many of the things that mainstream society has come to associate with Islam.
“Things are taken out of context,” said Younus, in response to a question about the Quran’s instruction to kill nonbelievers.
When he hears of violent acts committed by Muslims, Younus told the group, he feels a sense of betrayal. Just as Jews would object to being lumped together with disgraced and convicted financier Bernard Madoff or Christians would resent being referred to as one with people who bomb abortion clinics, he and the members of his sect staunchly reject any association with extremist violence.
“Extremism is a virus,” Younus said, comparing it to a tumor that, left untreated, grows. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, he said, believes it is the vaccine for that virus.
When an audience member asked Younus what he believes the right path for Islam to follow is in order to avoid allowing the sickness to spread, he replied “doing this.”
So much propaganda aimed at attacking the other side exists in both Muslim countries and Western countries, Younus said, that the best way to combat it is to spread truth and understanding across religious divides.
In 15 years of hosting BJCC meetings, co-presidents Bob Jacobson and Fred Pincus said Sunday’s discussion was the first time they had hosted a talk that focused solely on Islam.
“There is so much misinformation out there about Islam,” said Pincus, adding that he was pleased with how receptive those who attended the lecture were to Younus’ responses to their questions. “It’s the kind of dialogue that should happen.”
Attendee Charlotte Gelter-Warfield said she doesn’t come to many of the meetings hosted by the BJCC, but she made it a point to come to this one.
“The more information you have, the better it is,” she said of inter-religious understanding. “If you just keep talking, you’ll find more common ground.”
“It’s a question of seeking to understand,” noted Silvia Golombek, who is on the BJCC’s planning committee. “There will be areas we agree on and areas we disagree on, but we have to be open to listening to each other.”
Heather Norris is a JT staff reporter — firstname.lastname@example.org