Christians and Muslims unite at Milligan College

By Stephen S. Glass
Star Staff

   Professors at Milligan College hosted a brief forum Tuesday night to dispel popular misconceptions about Islam and to "open a dialogue between Christians and Muslims" in the region.
   Taneem Aziz, a Johnson City businessman and president of the Islamic Center of Northeast Tennessee, was one of two Islamic guests invited to speak to students about misunderstandings between Christians and Muslims.
   "I think it is best to start by saying that Christians and Jews and Muslims all worship the same God, the God of Abraham and of all the prophets, peace be upon them," Aziz told the small crowd of students who gathered in Hyder Auditorium.
   Aziz began by explaining the five pillars of Islam: Belief in the supremacy of one god; belief in all of the prophets, Mohammed being the last; fasting during the lunar month of Ramadan; praying five times daily and giving 2.5 percent of all income to the poor; and making the pilgrimage to Mecca, the home city of Mohammed.
   "Having said all of that--calling them pillars--these five pillars must hold up something," said Aziz. "That something is how we should live our lives in this world. That is the struggle, or true Jihad, of Islam."
   Aziz made a point of explaining to students that Jihad, properly translated, means "struggle," not "holy war," as it is so often stated by the media.
   "Jihad is a religious struggle--the struggle to be good and to help one another, the struggle to earn that 2.5 percent and then give it away. Nowhere in the Quran will you see the words "holy" and "war" side by side. Muslims--most Muslims--know that war is not holy. Those who quote the Quran as a book of hatred quote it out of context."
   Aziz said that just as the Old Testament Israelites were often instructed by God to go to war against other nations, early Muslims, at times, had also been instructed to war against "unbelievers."
   "However, if you read one verse of the Quran, and it says to kill the unbelievers, the next verse will say to accept peace if it is offered to you," said Aziz. "War should always be a last resort.
   "It is a sign of the troubled world we live in that people everywhere are willing to twist religion into violence to meet their own political needs. This is a sad state of affairs, and it comes from ignorance.
   "Every Muslim should know that the Quran says that if you kill one innocent person, you have killed all of humanity."
   Responding to what Aziz told students, Dr. Craig Farmer, a professor of history at the college, said, "For too many centuries, the relationship between Christians and Muslims has been characterized by misunderstanding.
   "I think that for too long the conversionist model of communication--the model of, "hey, we've got some Muslims in our neighborhood, we'd better convert them"--has dominated our interaction. Tonight we are not here to convert; we're here to talk. Maybe what we're doing here tonight will be a small step in the right direction."
   Dr. Mohammad Hussein, a Johnson City neurologist who was raised in Pakistan, was the second Islamic guest to speak to students. Hussein asked his audience a difficult question: "Will killing Osama bin Laden and all of the Taliban regime bring peace and freedom from terrorism? If not, what will?"
   As an American and someone who intimately understands middle-eastern misgivings concerning Western nations--misgivings which he says date back to early interaction with the British East India Tea Company and before--Hussein said that it would take a radical change in American thinking and foreign policy to put an end to the poverty and continual warring in the middle-east that breed hatred and terrorism.
   "We must begin to think about the people in the middle-east the same way we think about people here in America. Oil should not prop up the relationship between the United States and the middle-east, because any two-bit dictator can sell oil. America needs to learn to make bridges with the Muslim masses, the common person," said Hussein. "There has been a long history of mistrust on both sides.
   "I think we should learn that there are some things that just do not work, like the embargo on Iraqi oil. 560,000 children have died in Iraq since the end of the Gulf War, and yet the embargo has not hurt Sadaam Hussein one bit. He has only grown richer. He has built 10 palaces for himself in that time."
   The men also addressed the events of September 11 and the ongoing airstrikes in Afghanistan.
   "There were 500 Muslims killed in the Trade Center bombings," said Aziz, a fact that is not often publicized. "50 Muslim medical staff were among the first to respond to the call, and 15 of them were killed when the buildings collapsed.
   "As far as my concerns about retaliation in Afghanistan, I am not concerned at all for Osama bin Laden or for the Taliban. My concern is for the people of Afghanistan."
   Aziz said he is worried that even though Americans are attempting to keep the people of Afghanistan from starving during the strikes by conducting food drops that most Afghans will be afraid to pick up the packets of food.
   "During the Afghan-Russian War, the Russians dropped booby trapped packets of food from airplanes. They will remember that, and they will not touch the packets."
   Hussein said that he had been greatly troubled by misrepresentations of Muslims in the media following the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center Towers.
   "We saw a lot of film about people dancing in the street shouting 'down with America,' but that is not all Muslims. There was very little said about Muslims who mourned this tragedy. I doubt if many people saw the film of Muslim women lighting candles outside the US embassy in Tel-Aviv."
   At the close of the forum, Dr. Phil Kenneson, a professor of religion at Milligan, said that he is thankful for knowing both Hussein and Aziz.
   "These are our Muslim neighbors," said Kenneson. "As Christians we are instructed to love our neighbors...and in order to be neighborly, you have to know something about them.
   "It's one thing to talk about Christianity and Islam as abstract concepts. It is clearly another thing to let down your guard and talk about Christians and Muslims.
   "Now when I think about Muslims, I don't have to think about that stock image of Osama bin Laden with his machine gun strapped to his shoulder; I can think about Dr. Hussein and Mr. Aziz."