MSU is a microcosm of the world. By far, it is the largest and most diverse cultural crossroads per capita in this state. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, followers of the Native American Church of America, other spiritualists, humanists, naturalists, non-believers — we all live, work and play together on a daily basis.
But we, as a nation, are also at a tipping point and we, as a local community, can demonstrably help determine the future course of American society. According to public opinion polls, a bare majority of Americans (53 percent) reject the idea that Islamic culture and Western culture are fundamentally incompatible and conflict is inevitable, and say instead that it is possible to find common ground. A growing minority (42 percent) believe that “because Islamic religious and social traditions are intolerant and fundamentally incompatible with Western culture, violent conflict is bound to keep happening.”
Furthermore, a majority of the Arabic population in the world (54 percent) is now under 25 years of age. The U.S. has been at war in the Middle East and Central Asia (Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan) for virtually the entire lifetimes of these predominantly Muslim young people.
Two years ago, Amanda Ricker commendably wrote a Sunday feature article for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle headlined “Muslim in Montana.” All four men and women she interviewed considered the MSU/Bozeman community to be a welcoming, friendly environment that inspires their hopefulness. This speaks well of the heart, mind and soul of Bozeman.
Faisal AlSaad, a leader in the Muslim Student Association on campus, corroborated that personal experience when we talked for a couple of hours in the SUB last week. “I am a Saudi and a Muslim in my second year,” he said, “and nobody has ever insulted me because of my religious beliefs. The only time I had any nastiness directed at me on the street in Bozeman was because of my race, not my religion.”
Extremists exist among adherents of many different religions, who can now broadcast their venomous views more easily and widely than ever before. What can be done to prevent them from exhorting their sparse followers to violence and discrimination, thereby jeopardizing the religious freedom and personal security of many more peaceful, non-violent people in open society who share the same religion? Faisal answered without pause, “Take positive action in our own lives to get to know each other and embrace our common humanity. A few days ago, I attended the One Land Two Stories forum on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that was hosted by the MSU Leadership Institute and the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, featuring Drs. Amin Kazak and Shaul Gabbay. By the end of their remarks, I was moved to ask them how soon we might look forward to their next book, ‘One Country One Story.’”
Is there more to be done on campus and beyond to bolster religious freedom and promote peaceful co-existence among followers of all religions and non-believers, too? “Yes, another promising example,” Faisal said, “was the open discussion organized by the Sustained Dialogue group on campus. They took the initiative to gather concerned people to talk with one another from across the MSU-Bozeman community soon after a hurtful, misinformed and derogatory film about Islam grabbed online attention.”
“In the Muslim Student Association at MSU,” Faisal explained, “we don’t get involved in politics and government-to-government affairs. We focus exclusively on humanitarian needs and building people-to-people relationships in a spirit of mutual love, understanding and respect as human beings.” These beliefs prompted the Muslim brothers and sisters among us, during the summer of 2011, to collect hundreds of dollars in donations and deliver 40 cases of food, clothing, toys and other supplies badly needed by the Crow people on their Montana reservation in the aftermath of terrible flooding. They are also why they soon will again host fifth annual Fast-A-Thon, in conjunction with the Muslim observance of their holy month of Ramadan to raise funds for people in need locally and throughout Montana.
Before parting, I asked if there is a Muslim place of worship on campus or elsewhere in Bozeman. “The university administration has been very supportive and kindly arranged for us to use the ACE Building,” Faisal said appreciatively. “Even though there are thousands of practicing Muslims in Montana,” he noted, “there is not one traditional mosque anywhere in the state. We have written to Governor Schweitzer to enlist his support and, for more than five years, the Muslim Student Association has been working hard and raising funds within the local Muslim community to build a mosque. We are close to achieving our goal and we would like to break ground on this project, preferably in Bozeman, in the not too distant future.”
Currently, there exists a great deal of ignorance about Islam and unfounded suspicion of Muslims across our country. It’s time for Montanans to think globally and act closer to home. A solid first step toward overcoming these concerns could be for non-Muslims and Muslims, working together, to become pro-active and support the establishment of Montana’s first mosque.