A Muslim teen builds bridges, one conversation at a time

KRT illustration by Jim Atherton

As one of the few Muslims in Gig Harbor, I am aware of the need for understanding among different religions. I realize that many people in my community do not know much about Muslims.

A person once voiced a misconception to me about my religion being terrible to women: “Islam doesn’t give any respect to women.” This really hurt me.

It was just one of many comments and statements of ignorance I have faced while being a minority Muslim in America today. That’s why I set out to promote understanding and greater dialogue in my community.

When I was younger, I had my own misconceptions, including some about the Catholic faith; for instance, how could humans eat Jesus’ body and blood? In my mind it sounded a bit like cannibalism.

However, as I grew older, and thanks to my religion classes, I came to see it as symbolic rather than literal.

We all have our misconceptions, but it’s how we choose to seek out knowledge and use it to correct ourselves that matters.

In today’s political climate, understanding within our community is needed more than ever. With that in mind, I decided to host an event to promote understanding across faiths.

The discussion took place Aug. 30 at the Lakewood public library and involved eight women of faith. What they said surprised me.

The participants were three Muslims from The Islamic Center of Tacoma, three Christians from The United Church of Christ on Fox Island, one Catholic from St. Charles Borromeo parish and one Jehovah’s Witness.

Each woman was very friendly and genuinely interested in authentic, meaningful conversations.

One of the Muslim women, Susan Palmieri, summed up what she wished people would understand better about her faith: “Islam is not just a religion, it is a way of life. There is no separation of state and church. Islam covers every aspect of life —how we deal with money, our spouses and children.”

Charnley Marsden, from the United Church of Christ, also shared what she would like the world to understand about her faith: “We don’t know exactly who God is and how to get to heaven — we say God is still speaking.”

Listening to these women, I realized that in my own life I’ve often felt the common threads between Islam and Christianity. Growing up in Catholic schools, I often attended Mass. The beauty of the churches inspired me. The stained glasses sparkled, depicting Jesus’s carrying of the cross.

Sitting in the service, I realized how similar Christianity is to Islam. People are moved by both faiths. I recall how the graphic, unfiltered depictions of the crucifixion evoke the strongest responses in Christianity.

At home, I am an American Muslim with full awareness of my religion; I pray multiple times each day with my mother in Arabic, touching my head to a scarlet carpet.

On one hand, I was surprised to learn through my Jesuit education how many stories Muslims and Catholics share. Both are called to embody in their daily lives Jesus' teaching to love others as he loved them.

I remember learning that Jesus said, “Whenever two or more are united in my name” (which means his commandment to love one another) “there am I present in their midst.” (Matthew 18:20)

Both faiths spread the message that our vocation is to live such mutual love that God dwells in our midst.

At the end of the meeting in Lakewood, many voiced to me that they believed their beliefs were much more alike than different.

Clearly, all expressed love for their Creator, in different forms and different names, as well as expressing love for human beings and showing it by service work, such as educating others and volunteering at detention centers.

In order for change to happen today, we need authentic conversations rather than derogatory statements that bring each other down. We need to emphasize our similarities, whether it’s through faith or otherwise.

I hope that this local event will inspire more conversations in other communities across the country to foster awareness and understanding.

Dark times may be in America, but together we can rise out of the ashes and into the light.

Amina Khan is a senior at Bellarmine Preparatory School in Tacoma. She was born in Minneapolis and moved with her family to Gig Harbor at age 2.