Guest Post by Lamia Harkati, student at Henry Ford Community College, Dearborn, Michigan, USA
Last weekend, hundreds of people gathered to attend the annual Arab festival in our city of Dearborn, Michigan. As a mixed environment of Muslims and Christians, the festival has become a platform for some heated religious dialogue, as well as a magnet to Christian missionaries around the country. Some of these groups come with a twisted agenda, shouting crude remarks and creating provocative scenes to exploit the reactions of teenagers and kids for purposes of propaganda. Other Christian groups come only to make repetitive and baseless assertions, usually on loudspeakers to be sure to shut out any attempted responses from the Muslim audience. Being a hectic and inflammatory environment, the festival has unfortunately been ignored by Muslims as an opportunity for Dawah, and this leaves the claims of these missionaries unanswered. However, being the youth of the biggest Muslim inhabited town of the U.S, we felt it was important to attend the festival this year and engage the Christians in a peaceful manner, to show that Islam does welcome questions and criticism and that debate is a tradition of our Prophet (saaws). We felt it was important not to let the actions of some Christian extremists ruin the experience for the many people who traveled long ways to learn not just about the culture of the Arabs, but about the religion most of them follow as well.
So we gathered as a group of young Muslim students, and dispersed throughout the festival to hand out literature given to us by the MDI, addressing specific missionary allegations that were being spread around. For each pamphlet the missionaries gave out, we would give the Islamic refutation to allow the audience to examine both sides of the evidence for themselves. While we completely respect the Christians’ right to present their criticism, it is our right to present the Muslim response as well. We felt intimidated at first, not knowing what to expect when we went face-to-face with these missionary groups. The festival is so notorious for the verbal fights and arguments that break out between Muslims and Christians, many feel distrusting and hesitant to engage in any type of religious dialogue with the Christians, especially since some groups seek to purposely provoke juvenile reactions from Muslims.
Christian group ‘preaches the love of Jesus’ by putting a pig’s head on a stick and waving it in front of Muslims at the festival
A Muslim woman distributes MDI supplied counter-missionary leaflets next to a Christian Missionary team (one of whom, oddly, is wearing an Arab head dress)
A group of Muslim students and volunteers set-up a leaflet distribution area
A brave Muslim woman giving out MDI leaflets, takes on the UK-based Christian Missionary and public speaker, Jay Smith, who made a surprise appearance at the festival in the USA
It’s unfortunate that lack of tolerance and understanding has caused us to create barriers and close down opportunities to hear each other out. We found it important to change the approach of dialogue, rather than let fear of offense prevent us from discussing the subjects that matter to us as Muslims and Christians the most.
In hopes of changing the public’s attitude toward religious discussion at the festival, we aimed to initiate calm and constructive debates, and the best way to do this was in the beautiful manner of our Prophet (saaws). Many people falsely believe that the objective of debate is to put the other person down, but once we all understood that listening to others and learning from them was essential before enlightening and educating them, discussions at the festival were less confrontational and more enjoyable. Ill feelings vanished as bitter arguments turned into spiritual sessions, where even if we did not always agree, we at least left with a better understanding of each other’s perspective. We were thankful to meet Christian missionaries who were open-minded and appreciative of the true spirit of debate as well. In a refreshing turn of events, people crowded to listen in when discussions were finally two-sided and civil. Suddenly, more Muslims and Christians were encouraged to join in on discussions when walls of hostility began to come down. When other Muslims at the festival saw what we were doing they finally felt the confidence to embrace criticism for the sake of argument and propagate Islam, be it a single verse. Some sheikhs from the local mosques who heard about our efforts kindly brought us books and other Islamic literature to add to the pamphlets we were already handing out. We were eventually given our own tent at the festival to set up our literature and use as a post to answer questions and engage Christians in religious discourse.
Aside from the debates that were taking place, many Christians approached us to ask questions and learn about Islam. We had the pleasure and blessing to meet some very interesting, worldly people during our experience. We found many Christians were interested in Islam because they were fascinated by the commonalities between the two faiths. One Christian woman who greeted us wearing an Islamic veil commented on how she felt Muslim women embodied Biblical values better than most Christian women. One man we met shared all the same understandings as Muslims in regards to the nature of Jesus and the concept of Tawheed (Oneness of God), but called himself a Christian. It is because of Islam that over 1.6 billion people around the world love Jesus and call to his teachings and message. It was a pleasant surprise to meet some of these Christians who identified closely with Islamic values, and we were happy to be able to answer their questions and teach them more about Islam.
To follow up our experience at the festival, two formal debates were organized between experienced Muslim and Christian debaters, the Christian being a prominent missionary who has infamously attended the festival each year. The first debate was set up at a local Church on the true message of Jesus. The second was in the heart of Dearborn, on the Prophet Muhammad as a role model to society. Both debates had a wonderful turnout and were a great way to conclude our long weekend of interfaith dialogue. The discussions that take place after debates are sometimes the best and most beneficial part. Following the debate at Dearborn, was a deep, one-to-one conversation with the Christian speaker that lasted longer than the debate itself. What began as intellectual jousting of philosophical concepts ended in a Bible and Qur’an study session, each of us benefiting mutually just by being in the presence of someone with a conflicting view.
We are thankful to Allah for everyone we met this past week and are grateful for the insight we were given to Christian misconceptions about Islam, many of which we didn’t even know existed. Though our discourse may sometimes get heated and emotional, this is only because of the passion we have for the things that are nearest to our hearts. As young Muslims still building our experiences in Dawah, we’ve learned that everyone has justification for what they believe, even if that justification may be flawed. But before we can point them to a way that is better, we must be open to understand the way they come from first.
Muslim Debate Initiative:
The team at MDI would like to thank Sister Lamia, Brother Abdelhelim, and the rest of the volunteers for their great work building bridges, understanding and promoting balanced debate between the Muslim and Christian communities. We also would like to thank the Harvest Bible Church for their gracious hospitality in allowing us to host an event on their premises.
To download copies of the MDI leaflets, answering specifically the missionary leaflets handed out at the Arab festival, please click here to download: