Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Fears of Islamophobia

NORTHRIDGE - The Muslim university student was listening to his biology professor when the lecture sharply digressed from evolution.

"Don't talk to Muslims about religion," the California State University, Northridge, teacher reportedly said. "Because they turn to a different animal."

The unidentified student reported the incident to CSUN's Muslim Student Association, which sent a letter to university President Jolene Koester, demanding that the teacher apologize and that the university conduct sensitivity training.

"The school needs to provide a safe environment for our students' education," said Zabie Mansoory, Muslim association president. "It is a biology class, for God's sake. Religion shouldn't be anywhere close to a biology class."

The incident last month, which CSUN is investigating, illuminates a broader concern among the United States' estimated 5 million Muslims. With increasing frequency, Muslims are talking about an "Islamophobic" culture that is inciting violence and discrimination - more than five years after 9-11.

In February, a hacker entered the Web site for the council that oversees Southern California mosques and wrote a hateful obscenity aimed at Muslims on the mosque-finder page.

Three times in the past two months, the Islamic Center of Upland in San Bernardino County has been vandalized.

And in December, Keith Ellison, who was about to be sworn in as Congress' first Muslim, was widely criticized for wanting to take the oath on the Quran.

Hate crimes against Muslims have constituted about 11 percent of religious-bias incidents since 2002 - after spiking to 26 percent in 2001 from only 2 percent in 2000, according to the FBI. But religious-discrimination complaints filed with Muslim organizations have been climbing.

And some worry that could lead to broader problems. Marginalized Muslims in France rioted two years ago, bombed subways and buses in London, and bombed a train in Madrid.

"Islamophobia is a root cause of radicalization," said Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council.

"As we are trying to counter extremism, we are coming up on Islamophobia as a major barrier to integration of Muslim Americans into the larger society."

Biology digression

At CSUN last month, biology lecturer Haig Kopooshian had been talking about evolution when he digressed into discussing religious perspectives on science.

An Armenian Christian who lived most of his life in Lebanon, Kopooshian said his discussion of humans as the "most complex animals" caused him to unconsciously refer to Muslims as animals.

"I don't know what the problem is. You are an animal and I am an animal," he said, adding that he immediately apologized in case he had offended anyone in the class.

While Kopooshian said he harbors no ill feelings toward Muslims, plenty of Americans do.

In the film "Borat," a Virginia rodeo organizer asks Borat, whom he thinks is a Kazakh journalist, whether he is Muslim.

"I see a lot of people," the organizer says, "and I think, `There's a dadgum Muslim. I wonder what kind of bomb he's got strapped to him."'

Prejudicial feelings

It's an uncomfortable moment because while Borat is a film character, John Saunders, the rodeo organizer and assistant director of the Salem Civic Center, is a real person.

Last summer, a USA Today/Gallup Poll found that 39 percent of Americans have "at least some feelings of prejudice against Muslims" and 34 percent said Muslims living in the United States were "sympathetic" to al-Qaida.

"There are elements of truth (to that)," said Daniel Pipes, a Middle East expert and visiting professor at Pepperdine University. "That is not to say it is a broad-brush indictment of all Muslims. But there is a segment of Muslims who are alienated from the United States.

"Were Muslims unequivocal and consistent in condemning not just terrorism but the perpetrators and the ideology that support terrorism, the American public would feel much more confident."

The term "Islamophobia" was coined in 1997 by the British think tank Runnymede Trust. But before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, it had little use in the American lexicon.

Kevin J. Hasson, president of the Washington-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said growing suspicion of Muslim Americans isn't surprising.

"It isn't surprising people were fearful of Japanese-Americans in World War II, and it isn't surprising they decided to put them in internment camps," he added. "But it's still appalling."

Media voices blamed

Muslim leaders blame Islamophobia on voices in the media such as syndicated columnist Ann Coulter and politicians such as Rep. Virgil Goode, R-Virginia, who criticized Ellison's use of the Quran for taking the oath of office.

"The underlying issue is the growing anti-Islamic sentiment that is being fueled by the industry of hate in America," said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Southern California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an organization that has been accused of having links to terrorist groups, most recently in The New Republic.

"It's an industry that benefits financially and otherwise from policies of war, policies of division and policies of demonization of American Muslims."

But Ayloush also added: "America has its way of eventually accepting and integrating all segments of the population. It is just a matter of how long it takes. We are, as American Muslims, fully committed to integrating through dialogue and creating trust, no matter what attacks we are subjected to."

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Pastors feel the pressure on Easter morning

The senior pastor of Shepherd of the Hills hasn't been seen in two weeks.

Cell-phone mailbox full, voice silent to the 10,000 who attend his Porter Ranch megachurch, the Rev. Dudley Rutherford had escaped Los Angeles for deep prayer in the desert.

On Sunday, though, he will return triumphantly to a packed Pauley Pavilion at UCLA, where he will preach of Jesus Christ's death and resurrection during his church's relocated Easter service.

"It's a scary thought," he said in a phone interview from Rancho Mirage. "You know what is at stake: There will be someone in that arena making a spiritual decision for which the consequences are eternity. You multiply that one person by 13,000 people, and it is overwhelming."

So goes the pressure of being a Christian pastor at Easter, one of two days each year when pews swell with people who haven't seen an altar in months.

While Christianity couldn't exist without Christmas, which celebrates the birth of Christ, the faith's foundation is found in Easter.

On the heels of Holy Week, a time that drags Christians through the agonizing last days of Jesus' life and his death, pastors lead the celebration of the resurrection, which reminds Christians of their hope of eternal life.

"It is a journey through despair, meaninglessness, hopelessness, evil and the principalities of this world to some sense that God is still alive in this world," said John S. McClure, a professor of homiletics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. "It's a big challenge."

It's not unusual, McClure said, for pastors to take a brief retreat, to collect their thoughts away from the clutter of daily life and the demands of leading a church. Others opt to stay at home but purposely adjust their schedule.

"My preparation is first of all through prayer," said Bishop Gerald Wilkerson, head of the San Fernando Pastoral Region of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. "You've got to slow yourself down, let go of all these things and stop for a moment."

As a bishop, Wilkerson no longer endures the long hours he did as a parish priest - visiting the sick, speaking at Catholic school services, spending hours upon hours in the confessional box and celebrating special Masses for each day from Thursday through Sunday.

But he does still prepare a homily for Easter Mass, which he will celebrate at St. Finbar Catholic Church in Burbank.

Most pastors prepare weeks, if not months, in advance. With some churches putting on big Holy Week productions - Passion plays, services for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday - those ministers know that if they don't at least outline their sermon by Palm Sunday, they will be drowning in research and prayer the following Saturday night.

"There is a modicum of pressure, but it is not unbearable pressure. It is natural pressure," said Jim Tolle, senior pastor of The Church on the Way in Van Nuys, who preaches three Easter services on Saturday and eight on Sunday. "A woman giving birth has pressure. A man closing a big business deal has pressure. An athlete entering a championship game has pressure.

"But, truly, the Jesus Christ I serve carries the burden for us."

As of Thursday, Rutherford said he was 80-90 percent done. And that was after a period of study that would make a doctoral student blush.

Last week, he drove to Rancho Mirage, a resort community near Palm Springs, taking with him a basket of books, news articles, Scripture and anything else he found during the past year that involved the resurrection.

He rose early each morning, often before the sun, and pored through his notes, shaving the 2-foot-tall stack of books and papers into a 3-inch-thick sheaf of notes. Next, he honed in on the 20th chapter of the Gospel of John, identifying a few points from the text to highlight.

"Then, I take that three inches of material and I fill in all the blanks," he said.

"It is the most important topic of the year," he later added. "You've got one shot at some of these people. This is the only time they go to church all year. And I've got one shot at getting them to come back."