Gender & Identity, Life

Larycia Hawkins is an interfaith pioneer

Her actions might be what we need to start a culture where responsible citizens actively learn about one other's faiths.

Larycia Hawkins is no stranger to headlines. In 2013, she became the first tenured African American professor at Wheaton College, a private evangelical Christian school in Illinois. Last month, she came into the spotlight when she began to wear a hijab in solidarity with Muslim women and was suspended by the institution. Now, Wheaton has moved to fire her for writing that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, a statement of theological unity straight from the mouth of Pope Francis himself. A speaker and author, Hawkins used her position to challenge people’s assumptions about Muslims.

But all was not in vain. Her selfless actions gave the rest of the world some basic questions to ponder over: Should we question our predispositions? Is it okay to show solidarity towards a minority group? Can people of different faiths come together for the common good?

The Western world’s largely anti-Muslim sentiment, initially stirred up because of 9/11, have amassed with more recent events like the Paris attacks and the San Bernardino shooting. But just as the actions of the KKK and the Lord’s Resistance Army don’t represent Christian beliefs, similarly, Al-Qaeda, ISIS and other so-called Muslim terrorist organizations are not representative of all Muslims.

Still, analogies and statistic make it difficult to shake these prejudices against the religion of Islam. In a recent social experiment, two Dutch videographers showed that when presented with verses of the Bible, disguised as verses of the Quran, passersby were quick to condemn the brutality and backwardness of Islamic teachings. They were stunned to learn that the verses were actually Biblical excerpts.

Seeking to learn about other faiths is our right and responsibility. This current wave of Islamophobia is a golden opportunity to educate ourselves, forming our opinions based on facts rather than on prejudgment.

Just as hostility is reaching unprecedented levels, more interfaith activists, supporters and responsible citizens are coming out of the woodwork. It turns out there are many Hawkinses out there. I was pleasantly surprised last month by three independent actions by my non-Muslim friends on Facebook.

First, a university’s executive director of international programs posted a video titled “To Paris from Pakistan.” The video comically showed that all Pakistanis are not terrorists, but they, in fact, share in many commonalities with Parisians, such as wanting coffee in the morning, dreaming about soccer and feeling shock at terrorist attacks.

Secondly, I received a message from an ex-colleague asking me how she could show support towards Muslims who may currently be feeling isolation in the U.S. The third and last – so far – was a news video my equestrian instructor posted, expressing that division among ordinary citizens is what terrorists organizations are aiming for and are having success with. “I’ll probably get a lot of grief for posting this, but I’m still going to post it anyway,” she commented on it.

Instead of getting swept away in the tide of Islamophobia, Hawkins and these three people have acted selflessly to try to eradicate people’s misconceptions about Islam. They may be small steps, but they’re vital. Because if left unchallenged, basing opinions on incorrect information is both unfair to the Muslim population and incredibly dangerous to the goal of establishing peace in our communities.

We may have different beliefs, but we can still stand united during hard times. Hawkins illustrates that religious tolerance does not deny the practicing of your own beliefs; rather, it seeks to end hatred and violence towards others.

Bringing people of different faiths together and finding common ground is a cornerstone of peaceful communities. Interfaith activism can be as simple as a display of compassion, like attending vigils for victims of terror attacks. It can be a source of coming together to fight for the common good, like people of different faiths working in teams to engage in disaster relief. But probably the most needed interfaith activity of today is engaging in dialogue. Participating in interfaith dialogue is not only an opportunity to learn about the beliefs of others, but a practical exercise in respecting those who think differently than us.

The actions of Hawkins and others are a display of concern for the oppressed as well as a protest against those who hold prejudices. During such times, we can either join in the popular sentiment or use whatever means we have to challenge assumptions and eliminate injustices. Let’s be sure to choose wisely.