Neighbors: Christians and Muslims Building Community (Deanna Ferree Womack) - A Review
NEIGHBORS: Christians and Muslims Building Community. By Deanna Ferree Womack. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020. Xii + 192 pages.
If you're a Christian, what do you know, how do you feel, what is your thinking, when it comes to Islam as a religion? As you consider these questions and formulate an answer, where do you get your information about Islam and about Muslims as people who happen to follow a different religion from you? Do you know any Muslims? If you do know Muslims, do you consider them to be friends?
When I was growing up, as far as I can remember, I didn't have any personal encounters with Muslims. Muslims were foreign, different, maybe even scary. My views were mostly formed by TV shows and movies. As a sports fan, I knew about Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, but I thought of them as athletes, not as Muslims. I must confess that for the most part, my views of Muslims were based on stereotypes. I wasn't alone. What was true then is still true for many today. In fact, many American Christians view Muslims through the lens of 9-11 or ISIS. Although the number of Muslims in the United States is growing, there are still large numbers of American Christians have had little or no contact with a Muslim. Unfortunately, that leads to misunderstandings and fear based on stereotypes. It is believed by significant numbers of American Christians that Muslims are dangerous. They're seen by many as terrorists trying to infiltrate our country.
Over the last two decades, I have developed some deep friendships with Muslims. I know them as human beings who have the same hopes and dreams for themselves and their families as I do for mine. I’ve learned a lot about Islam, though there is still much to learn. Nevertheless, I'm grateful for my friends who have taught me much about Islam but also about friendship and hospitality and grace. Islam, like Christianity, is not monolithic.
If we're to build relationships with persons who profess a faith different from our own, we will need to have some understanding of that faith. We need good resources that can help us prepare for these encounters. Deanna Ferree Womack offers us one such resource in her book Neighbors. Womack is a Presbyterian minister and assistant professor of history of religion and multifaith relations at Emory University. She has created a thoughtful, informative, fact-based, book that can be used by congregations who wish to understand Islam as a religion and concerning its place in the United States. It is designed to help Christians work toward building relationships and friendships with Muslims. While this book focuses on the Christian-Muslim relationship, I believe the principles that are defined here can help us prepare for other interfaith encounters. The guidance she offers here about understanding history, culture, and religious beliefs and practices will work just as well in preparation for encounters with Hindus and Buddhists, but you’ll have to go elsewhere to get specific information about those faith traditions.
I appreciate the fact that Womack makes a distinction between the terms interfaith/interreligious and multi-faith. Interfaith or interreligious speaks to relationships between faith/religious communities. This can, for example, involve interfaith dialog. However, here in the United States, we live in a multifaith society. Christians may be the majority religion, but it is not the only religion present in the United States. And, as has been well documented the percentage of Christians within the population is shrinking. That leads to fear on the part of some, but if we take Womack up on her invitation, we can move toward a very different attitude. That attitude is represented here, when it comes to interfaith dialogue, as moving toward the creation of positive "relationships through face-to-face interaction" (p. 3). While book knowledge is helpful, the goal of the book is to move Christians toward face-to-face encounters.
Womack divides the book into three parts. Part 1 is composed of three chapters focusing on "when our neighbors have a different religion." Chapter 1 offers an overview of religious diversity in the United States, which takes us beyond the Muslim-Christian focus for a moment. Chapter 2 suggests that "God calls us to engage with our Muslim neighbors." She asks us to consider that if we’re called to be Christ's witnesses, how might we go about this? Part of this conversation has to do with recognizing and dealing with our fears toward others and our perceived lack of understanding. Chapter 3 focuses on changing our minds about other religions. Here she wants to move us from the old model of confrontation to collaboration. That requires doing some historical work and then discovering what they believe and practice. With regard to Muslim-Christian interaction, she invites us to consider both our differences and commonalities. Concerning Islam, since both are considered to be Abrahamic religions, we must ask the question as to whether we worship the same God. While it’s important to stress commonalities, true progress requires us to consider our differences as well. That’s what makes interfaith dialogue interesting and productive.
If Part 1 lays the foundation, Part 2 starts to build on these foundations so we can begin to encounter each other as Christians and Muslims. There is a chapter in this section on Christian life in the Islamic Middle East. It may surprise some, but Christians are living in the Middle East. While things have gotten increasingly difficult for Middle Eastern in the past several decades, Christians and Muslims have been living together in the region for centuries. There is another chapter (chapter 5) that takes us on a tour of the "deep roots of Islam in America." It's good to remember that Islam has been present here since the earliest days of colonization, with the majority of early Muslims coming to North America as slaves from West Africa. Their religion was suppressed, but it was present. Thus, there is a long history of Islam within the African-American community. Beyond the African-American community, immigrants began coming to the United States from Syria early in the twentieth century. Since 1965, with changes in immigration laws, Muslims from around the world began to move here. They have come from India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Indonesia, Somalia, and many other nations. Part 2 of the book closes with a chapter on the state of Islam in the United States at this moment. Among the points she makes in this chapter, concerns Islam’s growing presence in our cultural life, as seen in the section of the chapter discussing the Muslim character of Ms. Marvel. Perhaps you will find this as illuminating as did I. The important thing here is to understand that Islam, like Christianity, isn't monolithic. There are different branches of Islam that have emerged in different cultural contexts. For instance, some women wear the hijab and others don't. This is only one possible difference within the community!
Everything that Womack presents in parts 1 and 2 lead to the practical focus of Part 3. In this section titled "From Neighborly Commitment to Working Together," we put everything we’ve learned into action. So, in Chapter 7, which is titled "Opening Our Ears to Muslim Neighbors," focuses on getting to know our neighbors. This begins with changing our minds about our neighbors, about getting the facts straight, about addressing biases and assumptions. Chapter 8 focuses on "Cultivating Interfaith Awareness." In this chapter, she lays out the foundations of dialogue. She notes that one model is confrontation, but it is polarizing and doesn’t move us toward understanding. Instead, she suggests we look at collaboration, even as we explore differences. At the same time, we may discover that we share a world view. These are more productive models that can help lead to interfaith sympathy. Another way of putting this is to begin moving from a mono-religious mindset to an interreligious mindset. This requires moving from a position of denial/avoidance, through defense/confrontation, to minimization of difference (collaboration/sympathy). Then we can move more productively to acceptance of differences and building empathy, and then perhaps toward adaptation (empathy) where we can move naturally in more than one religious context. This might involve participating in the religious services of another religion, such as Friday prayers. The final stage is integration, which involves becoming an interreligious self. This last stage is difficult to get to as it essentially involves developing religious hybridity, a state that might not work for many if not most of us. Nevertheless, the goal is to live within the zone running from minimization of differences (a foundation) to integration, which according to Womack is the "zone of positive engagement." The final chapter in this section is titled “Resources for Building Community." In this chapter, Womack offers the readers a series of next steps that focus on building relationships. She offers examples of dialogue initiatives along with a series of dos and don'ts (that's always helpful). She addresses common questions such as what happens if you get something wrong. The key is to prepare beforehand so you’re less likely to make a mistake, but if you get something wrong, be sure to apologize! In my own experience, Muslims are very gracious when we make mistakes. There is a list of recommended readings and a list of organizations that offer opportunities for interfaith and Muslim-Christian engagement. While it's not a complete list, it’s a starting point.
Neighbors concludes with an afterword written by Roshan Iqbal, a Pakistani-American Muslim woman, who serves as professor of Islamic studies at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta. Iqbal provides a helpful concluding word to the book. While Womack writes as a Christian to Christians, it is helpful to hear a Muslim perspective as well. In this afterword, Iqbal addresses the idea of "Orientalism," an ideology Edward Said identified years ago that tends to view Islam and the Middle East through a particular Western bias. She reminds us that not all brown people are the same. Besides encouraging us to move beyond our biases and stereotypes, Iqbal suggests a couple of practical experiences to us. First, if possible, she encourages Christians to participate in an iftar dinner if invited during Ramadan. I heartily agree with her on that recommendation. She also encourages Christians to attend Friday prayers. Doing these two things will give Christians a better sense of what Muslims are up to! As for the Iftar dinners, they can be especially great opportunities to build relationships with Muslims. As I write this review it is Ramadan, and normally I would participate in several such dinners, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic all such experiences are unavailable, I will miss them along with the opportunity to gather with friends.
In addition to what has been previously listed, I can note that the book offers a helpful glossary of Arabic terms as well as a timeline of early Islam and Islamic empires. Both of which should prove helpful. There is also is a study guide that can be used by congregations to prepare for engaging in the kinds of experiences recommended throughout the book.
Neighbors is the kind of book congregations and individual Christians need to read so we can begin to create fruitful engagement with people of other faith traditions. While intellectual understanding is an important first step; if at all possible, the goal should be building relationships across religious lines. Since I believe strongly in this task and have been engaging in it for the better part of the past two decades, I can say that Deanna Womack’s Neighbors will be of great assistance in this project. In our day, as Islamophobia, and fear of other religious communities, is on the rise, we have important work to do, and resources like this enhance our ability to achieve this goal.