ISNA Co-Sponsors 2nd-Ever National Baptist-Muslim Dialogue

Last weekend, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) co-sponsored the second-ever National Baptist-Muslim Dialogue in Boston, MA.  Over 75 Baptist and Muslim leaders came from across the United States to explore the theme “Loving God as a Pathway to Peace” in an effort to improve relationships between their two faith communities.

The dialogue kicked off on Friday night with speeches by Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook, President Obama’s Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, and Ambassador Rashad Hussain, President Obama’s Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.  The event was free and open to the public, and took place at First Baptist Church in Newton, MA.  Dr. Nick Carter, President of the Andover Newton Theological School, welcomed everyone to the event, setting the direction for the next two days of dialogue.  Both ambassadors spoke about signs of hope and challenges with regard to religious freedom around the world, and Amb. Cook spoke in particular about her work with governments and civil society groups around the world to promote basic human rights for all religious communities.  Amb. Hussain highlighted ISNA’s important work to convene international Muslim scholars on the issue of religious minorities’ rights, in order to advance religious freedom in Muslim-majority countries and around the world.

The first-ever National Baptist-Muslim Dialogue took place in 2009, in response to a dialogue called, “A Common Word Between Us and You,” initiated by international Muslim scholars and joined by the Baptist World Alliance. The “A Common Word” initiative focused on two parts: “Love of God” and “Love of Neighbor,” and the 2009 dialogue focused on “Love of Neighbor”.  It was immensely successful and resulted in a documentary aired by the ABC television network entitled, “Different Books, Common Word.”  The theological papers from the conference were published in the American Baptist Quarterly and have been widely circulated in Muslim and Christian circles both nationally and internationally. Additional public attention was drawn to them when Denzel Washington referenced the dialogue on late night talk shows.

Last weekend’s dialogue focused on the first part of that initiative — “Love of God” — with the understanding that both Baptists and Muslims believe in one God, a God of love, mercy, kindness, and justice.  On Saturday, Dr. Zulfiqar Ali Shah of the Fiqh Council of North America and Dr. Aliou Niang of Union Theological Seminary elaborated on the theological concept of peace as a human ideal by reflecting upon the nature of God as the author and source of peace.  Dr. Zeki Saritoprak of John Carroll University and Dr. E. Glenn Hinson, a renowned seminary professor, spoke about how we can develop interior, private, individual peacefulness as a pathway to outward peace with other humans and all of creation.  On Sunday, Dr. Jimmy Jones of Manhattanville College and Dr. Daniel Buttry of American Baptist Churches USA addressed the challenge that we have to work for peace both locally and globally, not just within our own hearts, and gave practical examples of ways to promote peace in our own communities.

The Rev. Dr. Roy Medley, General Secretary of American Baptist Churches USA (the second largest Baptist denomination in the United States), and Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed, ISNA National Director for the Office for Interfaith & Community Alliances, led the Baptist and Muslim delegations throughout the weekend as they explored each other’s beliefs, sacred texts and religious practices through presentations, panel discussions and small group conversations.

The highlight of the conference took place on Saturday night, when the Islamic Council of New England (ICNE) co-sponsored an event for dialogue participants with the Islamic Center of Boston in Wayland, MA.  There, participants celebrated the “next generation” of interfaith peacebuilding by hearing from young religious activists and scholars about their experiences with the religious “other.”  Celene Lizzio, a lecturer at Merrimack College and former ISNA fellow, and Mostafa Hussein, a Fulbright scholar at Brandeis University, joined local pastor Jeremy Battle and Kori Bowen, an international missions pastor from Texas.

In addition to ISNA, the conference was co-sponsored by the American Baptist Churches USA, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the Alliance of Baptists, the Progressive National Baptist Convention, the Lott Carey Foreign Mission Society, and Andover Newton Theological School. The program was been made possible in part by a grant from the Boston Baptist Social Union.

Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed reiterated the role played by Baptists in establishing separation of church and state in America. “The work of Baptists throughout American history has helped our nation create a respectable space for other religions and religious denominations like Catholics, Jews and Muslims,” he said.  “This freedom of religion has helped our nation and our faiths grow in a healthy and fruitful way.  Over the past several years, our Baptist friends have joined us in speaking truth to power and in forging partnerships against bigotry and hate at a grassroots level. We are proud to work together with Baptist communities to support American values of mutual respect and build bridges of understanding.”

ISNA and the other co-sponsors are working to assemble the dialogue’s presentations into a formal publication, and to develop a way to sustain the positive outcomes of last weekend’s dialogue between Baptist and Muslim leaders.