On Tuesday, April 29, interfaith leaders and community members gathered at the St. Francis Convent in Little Falls, Minn., for a community dialogue on "Tolerance and the Fear of Islam." The event was organized after community leaders and activists considered the negative impact a speech by an anti-Muslim speaker had in the same community last year.
Approximately one-third of the audience consisted of individuals hostile to Islam and Muslims – and they came prepared with their Islamophobic books. They handed out hate-filled flyers and started heckling, but eventually they started to listen.
CAIR-MN Brings Dialogue on Tolerance to Little Falls
CAIR-MN Civil Rights Director Saly Abd Alla presented first, when the crowd was the most hostile. She spoke about the history of religious intolerance in America and provided some much-needed context and education. The heckling gradually diminished as her presentation went on.
Then CAIR-MN Outreach Director Jaylani Hussein presented on Islam 101. His Quran recitation was one of the most beautiful things I have witnessed. I could see that, whether they wanted to admit it or not, the recitation touched some of the individuals hostile to Islam and Muslims- to the point that they were bowing their heads down. He did a great job in making connections to things community members could relate to like sports and winter weather, and showed everyone how normal Muslims are.
Lastly, Father Virgil Petermeier of the St. Cloud Muslim-Christian Dialogue spoke about his positive experiences living with Muslims in Indonesia for 36 years. He told the story of when the monastery was burned to the ground, the Muslims in their community helped rebuild it. He said how when a senior pastor fell ill, a Muslim woman doctor drove two hours while she was fasting and saved the pastor's life. He said how Muslim students attended the Catholic school and demonstrated how the local imam, Baba Haji, greeted him with both arms raised whenever he saw him. These stories were imperative in countering all the negative stories of Christian-Muslim relations some people had heard.
The Q&A was respectful and organized, thanks to the efforts of moderator Kevin LaNave, director of the Center for Learning Services and Social Change. Attendees asked real questions they have about Islam and Muslims and the panelists openly and honestly answered them.
After the event, many people stayed back. Some of the same people who had been distributing hateful flyers at the beginning of the event were now talking to us. They were asking questions.
My most memorable moment from the evening was at the very end. The host of the Little Falls Dialogue had told us that he was fielding hate calls all week. Some people were trying to intimidate him into cancelling the event. There was one call that stood out to him - it was from one of his donors. The individual said that he would withdraw his donation if this event took place. The host politely told him that he was sorry to lose the donation, but that the event would go on as scheduled. He was not going to cancel it. When the event was finished and we were all walking out together, a Muslim stopped the host and said, "You may have lost one donor for holding this event, but you gained another one,"- and handed him a personal check.
This event won't change everyone, but I saw firsthand how many people changed. Most people had never met a Muslim, let alone sat and listened to them talk for two hours. What a wonderful world this could be if everyone just listened - even if it's for two hours in a convent in Little Falls, Minnesota.
Lori Saroya is executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN). She may be contacted at [email protected].
Event sponsors included: Little Falls Partners for Peace, Brainerd Area Coalition for Peace, Building Blocks of Islam, and the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN). It was hosted by the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls at the St. Francis Convent.