Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #098. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Sep. 5, 2015; in print Sep. 6

No time in the eight years I’ve been writing Times columns has an issue generated so much unfounded, irrational and occasionally vitriolic commentary, both in print and online, as immigration does these days — and there’s no doubt that it’s the Somalis who are the focus.

Careful and thoughtful commentaries such as Dave DeLand’s Aug. 23 column “Religion isn’t a license to kill” are dismissed as “simply not true” as in David Milz’s letter, Aug. 30.

Create CommUNITY, committed to overcoming the effects of racism in this area, is accused in AJ Kern’s column of fifth-column communist intentions because two books named as resources on its website are by Saul Alinsky, who, to be sure, advocated some Marxist tactics and even principles — but as we will see, this is a flimsy indictment.

Muslims are often treated in columns, letters and online comments as though they weren’t here. I suspect that people are talking about neighbors they don’t know, haven’t had a conversation with and view through the lens of sensationalist news reports.

Guilt by association is running rampant. When that happens, reason and fairness and objectivity — and even simple courtesy — flee.

Milz’s letter states “Islam is only peaceful and tolerant where it doesn’t have the power to legislate and enforce Islamic tenets. Once political dominance is achieved, any sham of tolerance soon disappears.” The sole authority he cites for his all-or-nothing view is “Ali Sina, an Iranian ex-Muslim.” To treat Sina as an expert witness is like looking to the late Madalyn Murray O’Hair for a characterization of Christianity.

It is more rational to take cues about Islam from Muslims who are here, like local residents Tohow Siyad and Abdul Kulane.

The former, a business owner, and Steve Joul, president of the Central Minnesota Community Foundation (Siyad is a board member), writing in the Create CommUNITY series, May 30, say this: “Somalis and people in the United States share many values, such as independence, democracy, individualism, egalitarianism and generosity.”

Kern’s rant fails to mention that there are 33 other books besides Alinsky’s on the list at Create CommUNITY’s website. Guilt by association again. Create CommUNITY leaders who have recently written Your Turns — among them, Bishop Donald Kettler and Rev. Dee Pederson — are not Marxist dupes.

Kulane’s Aug. 25 column tells of an occasion which Milz could only interpret as a sinister plot. “During my time in college,” St. John’s alumnus Kulane writes, “a group of us got our research paper accepted at Notre Dame University’s Peace Studies Conference. The group was diverse. We traveled together to present our paper. We shared our stories during that trip. We shared our experiences, goals and aspirations.” Milz would have to say that a Muslim at a peace studies conference couldn’t be a real Muslim, or, if he is, he’s there to subvert the whole enterprise.

It’s bad enough when Muslim bashers treat a virulent apostate from Islam as the authority on the tradition. It’s additionally bad when Christianity is touted as the shining counter-example. Dave DeLand declares that violence and murder have “nothing to do with the beliefs of their associated religions (Islam and Christianity).” “Nothing to do” goes too far in both cases, but Milz says that “while this is certainly true of Christianity, it is — sadly — simply not true of Islam.”

The first rule of conversation is that you don’t compare your best with the other person’s worst. Christian history is full of violence and murder — even of other Christians — in the name of God. And when, at the end of the fourth century, Christians achieved political dominance, it became illegal not to be a Christian in the Roman Empire. We Christians shouldn’t throw stones from our glass house.

On Aug. 6, the Times Editorial Board issued a plea: “Let’s have meaningful communication. Is there no middle ground on these issues? Where are the reasoned discussions that can generate solutions to the concerns expressed? Why doesn’t anyone ever talk about local solutions?”

Local — that’s the key. And reasoned discussions — they’re the method. For starters, let’s find out about their faith from our Muslim neighbors.

I have no standing to tell my Muslim friends what they believe about the Prophet (peace be upon him), the Quran, society, government or anything else. I need to listen to Siyad and Kulane and so many others as they tell me that “the Somali people who have come to the greater St. Cloud area are proud to call this community home. They have the same hopes and dreams most of us have.”

Become caretakers of one another’s stories — that’s the way forward.