Al-Hewar Center Presents:
Building Bridges of Understanding
Between Islam and America
by Alexander Kronemer

Al-Hewar Center in metropolitan Washington, D.C., hosted a conversation on May 6, 1998, with Mr. Alexander Kronemer, a frequent writer and lecturer on religion and Islamic civilization.  Mr. Kronemer spoke about “Building Bridges Between Islam and America.”  The event was moderated by Alma Abdul-Hadi Jadallah.

In his discussion, Kronemer said that there will always be differences between the cultural ethos of Islam and America, and that is why it is necessary to build bridges of understanding. The main difference, he said, isn’t really about religion (i.e. Christianity vs. Islam), but rather stems from America’s “secular humanist” tradition, which gives America a more materialistic outlook, whereas God and things of God are very much a part of the Islamic tradition.

However, there are also many important values that Islam and America share, he said.  For example, both Islam and the secular humanist tradition emphasize equality, both have an emphasis, in their own ways, on individualism and the importance of individual responsibility, both base existence and society on a concept of laws and have a great respect for the law, and both have a great respect for life. Yet there remains a gulf between the two.

From an American point of view, the main reason for this gulf is the perception that the above values are not part of the Islamic tradition.  For example, there is a perception that Islam is about terrorism and fanaticism and has no respect for life.  Because of their cultural tradition, many Americans have a deep fear of fanaticism in religion.  In fact many Christian conservatives point out that there is a great deal of bias in the media against any form of religious piety, not just Islamic. Religious people are often portrayed in movies and on television as being crazy.   So when an event such as a suicide bombing occurs, it plays into the notion that Islam is a religion of fanatics.

These things tend to block the ability of Americans to consider Islam objectively or to believe that it has anything to offer. In fact, certain people have made a career out of being hostile to Islam and building on these fears and negative images. That is a gulf that needs to be bridged with understanding, stressed Kronemer, who added that this gulf is being bridged in many ways.  He gave as an example an article about the Hajj he submitted three years ago to the Religion News Service which sends articles to 80 or 90 newspapers all over America.  The individual papers then decide whether or not they wish to publish the articles. Of those 80 or 90 papers, only one, The San Jose Mercury News, ran Kronemer’s article.  The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times took small paragraphs of it; The Washington Post took only one sentence. By contrast, this year, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, over 400 newspaper articles were written about the Hajj. 

This interest was sparked, to a large part, by CNN which provided live coverage of the Hajj this year.  CNN had originally planned to cover only two days, but they received such a large response from people – non-Muslims – interested in seeing more, that they decided to cover the entire pilgrimage.  Additionally, last year’s ABC News Night Line’s special about the Hajj featuring American Muslim Michael Wolfe has become the single most requested video in Night Line’s history. This all shows that a lot has changed in three years in terms of people paying attention to and wanting to learn more about Islam, said Kronemer.

One of the reasons this is happening is due to demographic shifts. Many more Muslims live in this country today than even ten or fifteen years ago, due mainly to immigration. But more importantly, said Kronemer, those Muslims are becoming more outward and more vocal in their religion.  People know now that they have Muslim co-workers and Muslim neighbors, and they can see that Muslims have the same values and family structures as do they.

One of the things that really surprises Americans is how similar Islam is to the Jewish and Christian traditions. Kronemer described an exercise he does in his workshops in which he presents a series of scriptural passages and asks the audience to guess which holy book they are from.  They are always surprised to hear the scriptures from the Koran that sound like they came from the New or Old Testament.   Up to that point, many had no idea that Islam is a tradition very similar to theirs.  Kronemer said that, especially when he speaks to a larger Christian audience, he points out that very much in the same way that Christians consider the Old Testament to be part of their story, Muslims look at the Old Testament and the Christian stories as part of theirs, and that “Allah” is not the name of the Muslim God, but rather simply means “The God” shortened for “The God of Abraham.”  Just that little piece of information makes people see Islam in a whole new light.

Media coverage is also beginning to change; there is more coverage of Islamic issues now, and the coverage is a lot more positive.  This can be explained by understanding how the media works, said Kronemer, who said that it is important to debunk “The Myth” of a Jewish-controlled media, as it is disempowering and makes the community feel that there is no hope of changing the situation.  Kronemer insisted that there is no conspiracy to control the media, but added that that doesn’t mean there aren’t biases, because there are.  But those biases, he said, are due largely to ignorance and misunderstanding. 

He explained that journalists are expected to cover stories whether they understand them or not. They don’t have a lot of time to learn about the subject in great depth, so they end up writing stories based on what they think they know, or on what they believe to be true, and in many cases, biases get perpetuated.  This is often the case with Islam, which is very misunderstood and misinterpreted in the West.

Another problem is that religion is not frequently covered in Western media, and, therefore, reporters, again, often do not know a lot about the subject. Our job, then, said Kronemer, is to educate the media and be more proactive in contacting them and giving them the right information.  He noted that a couple of organizations are doing a very good job of contacting the media and explaining religious days and beliefs and giving them some story ideas.

The story of how the CNN coverage of the Hajj came about is very interesting.  It was the idea of a Christian who was stationed in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, during the Gulf War in 1990. He had to stay after the war ended and happened to be there when the first pilgrims starting arriving for that year’s Hajj.  He thought that it was an incredible story that should be made known.  Since 1990, he has worked with both CNN and the Saudi Arabian government to try to get the story covered.  It took that long to get the two of them together to make it happen, but it finally happened.  And CNN has said that it definitely plans to cover the Hajj again next year, said Kronemer.

The very tragic bombing of the Oklahoma government building and the crash of TWA Flight 800 saddened everybody, but was particularly hard on our community, because the immediate general reaction was that it had to be somehow Arab/Muslim related. A lot of Americans, including the media, were embarrassed to have jumped the gun, said Kronemer, who pointed out that the Ted Koppel-Night Line coverage of the Hajj last year came directly out of Night Line’s coverage of the plane crash which included mention of a mysterious Arabic fax and comments by an “expert” who said that the crash had all the earmarks of a Hamas attack etc., which all turned out to be untrue, of course. When it was all over, Night Line felt that it owed the Islamic faith a fair hearing and it was given.  Those tragic events made many Americans finally realize that Islam is not behind every bad thing that happens.

Kronemer then shared his thoughts about what will go across the bridge of understanding once it is built – in both directions.  He noted that the Islamic community in the United States is coming into its own, especially within the last decade, and its history is very similar to that of the Catholics in this country.  As Catholic immigrants had children, the phenomenon of “American Catholicism” grew.  Kronemer believes that there will be something called “American Islam” in the next decade or so as immigrants have children who become fully American and Muslim.  Just as American Catholicism has had a big impact on the world Catholic community, so will American Islam have a big impact on the World Muslim community. 

One of the things that American Islam will add to the world Muslim community, he said, is the very well-honed critical tradition that exists in American intellectual life. Whereas critical thought was so much a part of the Islamic tradition in its earlier history, there has been very little in the last few hundred years; but Kronemer believes that American Islam will contribute to a renaissance of Islamic thinking and Islamic philosophy.

He also believes that American Islam will be a very spiritual, as opposed to ritualistic, form of the religion.  By their nature, he said, Americans are spiritual more than they are formally religious. Many American converts to Islam have some association with Sufism, which is the very spiritual aspect of Islam. That is what appeals to Americans, and it is a way to get them interested in Islam, he said. Focusing on the spiritual aspects of the religion, encourages Americans to ask questions and want to know more.  

Finally, said Kronemer, America will always be a liberalizing influence, and its liberal way of interpreting and seeing things will be a contribution to the intellectual and theological life of Islam. 

As for the benefits to America, Kronemer said that there will be more “cultural Muslims” as Islam is normalized in the minds of many Americans, and as Muslims feel more accepted in this country.  In a hostile environment, the only people who self-identify deeply with their minority ideas, belief or faith are the most observant ones.  The people who are not so observant tend to want to assimilate more into the host culture.  That was very much the case in Jewish history before the reform movements.  There were Jews who were very observant, and the rest who didn’t really want to be Jewish at all – they changed their names, changed their faith, etc.  But when there came a place in Jewish life for “cultural Jews,” not necessarily observant Jews, and that was made to be something that was okay, then a lot of people flowed back into the Jewish community. The Jewish community has amassed so much political power in America because of cultural Jews, not so much because of religious Jews, observed Kronemer, who said he believes the same thing will happen with the Muslim community in the future. More and more people consider themselves Muslims, but they may not pray five times a day or fast, but they hold certain Islamic concepts deep within them, and they’re interested in organizing and in promoting the faith, and in politically and culturally organizing.

Kronemer also stated his hope that, even as Buddhist and Hindu terms and concepts have entered into and enriched American culture – Karma, vegetarianism, reincarnation, yoga, etc. – the rich Islamic tradition will also have a very positive influence on American life.  There are so many positive things for Americans to gain from the spiritual and civilizational insights of Islam that will be a great benefit to this society, he said, and those are some of the things he sees traveling across the bridge of understanding as it is built.

Copyright 1998, Al-Hewar Magazine

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