Leader says get over fear of Muslims

Interfaith Alliance head Welton Gaddy separates reason from rhetoric in radio show.

By Bob Allen

A Baptist minister and interfaith leader says it is time for Americans to get over their fear of Islam and get on with the assimilation of Muslims into their neighborhoods.

“As a society we simply have to stop judging all Muslims by extremists and allowing extremists to manipulate Islam for their political purposes when that’s not what Islam is about,” Welton Gaddy, head of the Interfaith Alliance, said July 7 on his weekly State of Belief radio program.

Gaddy, pastor for preaching and worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, La., devoted most of the July 7 broadcast to audio clips from a daylong symposium June 28 in Washington titled “Reason vs. Rhetoric: Understanding American Muslims.”

The conference, sponsored by the Interfaith Alliance along with Our Shared Future, the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and the Newseum, featured panel discussions about religious freedom, false stereotypes of Muslims, mosque controversies and the significance of Sharia law.

Mohamed Elibiary, a Muslim organizer who lived a long time in Texas and now is an adviser for the Department of Homeland Security, said opposition to Muslims is strongest in communities where good interfaith relationships don’t already exist. When he moved to Texas, Elibiary said he followed advice from a leader in the Jewish community to “make your friends before you need them, on the first legislative day.”

“So when the Texas Baptist leadership, when the Catholic bishops, when the mainline Protestant bishops, when those conversations about, ‘What does Sharia law mean to us as a community?’ [come], then the local interfaith relations these mosques have had with these churches, some going back over 40 years, have been aggregated into a collective, accurate read of what the reality is on the ground,” he said. “Then there isn’t a possibility in Texas to overrun our community like what happened in Oklahoma, with 70 percent of the public going to vote a certain way just because some activist out of D.C. scared them.”

Elibiary said much of the fear about Islamic terrorists infiltrating American communities is misplaced.

“Yes, there are security threats out there,” he acknowledged. “Mosques are a problem if you have basically a small cabal of people that are doing one thing in public in front of the community and then behind closed doors doing something else, whether that’s recruiting youth to send them overseas in militant conflicts or funneling money to terrorist groups overseas.”

“That’s where the concern of law enforcement is, the material support and domestic radicalization,” he said. His advice to American Muslims is to make governance and finances of their mosque as transparent as possible and to feed into a regional “shura,” a multi-congregational democratic structure in the Muslim community “where they vote on everything.”

“When you show the FBI and you show the other law enforcement agencies that transparency, the law enforcement agencies will slowly come out of their trenches and test,” he said. “And when they see that the Muslim community leaders in those congregations that they try to partner with in order to advance the security of the whole society and it ends up positively, then you now have two people that worked on a joint project and are forever buddies, on a personal level. It’s not an institution thing of FBI and Mosque X. It is two people who have been working in the trenches together.”

Remziya Suleyman, director of policy and administration with the American Center for Outreach, said one of the first things she had to do after starting to work on behalf of Muslims in Tennessee was to learn to how to explain Sharia law.

“I never knew the concept of Sharia, and I’m not making this up,” she said. “It’s not something that as a Muslim you grow up with and say, ‘Oh, I’m going to go and practice Sharia today.’”

Founded in 1994 to promote religion as a positive and healing, rather than divisive, force in society, the Interfaith Alliance is a grassroots organization of 150,000 members from 75 different religious traditions.

Gaddy, a moderate leader in the Southern Baptist Convention’s inerrancy controversy in the 1980s, has held leadership positions in the Alliance of Baptists, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Baptist World Alliance.

A graduate of Union University with divinity and doctoral degrees from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Gaddy once worked at the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, now known as the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and led by Richard Land.