Americans are doing “less than well” in their understanding of Islam, the world’s second-largest religion, according to Charles Kimball, director of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma.
“We see a lot of animosity, a lot of fear,” said Kimball, who will speak at the 31st annual Knippa Interfaith Ecumenical Lecture on Jan. 28 in Tulsa.
“It’s reflected in the immigration debates and policies or the Sharia law debates.
“But there are things to build upon. There’s no magic wand; there’s no easy answer.”
Kimball, an ordained Baptist minister, said he has “always been interested, both intellectually and personally, in exploring questions of particularity and pluralism, what does it mean to be a person of faith, with depth, with commitment, with integrity, but also with a recognition that my experience of God doesn’t exhaust all the possibilities.”
“That question began early for me. My grandfather in Tulsa was Jewish, so as a child I was exposed to a very positive understanding of Judaism and experience of Judaism. Even as I was getting deeper into my own faith and pursuing seminary, I was intrigued, theologically, with how to make sense of diversity without watering down one’s own experience and commitments.
“And I think that’s a question that’s increasingly important for a lot of people.”
Kimball holds an undergraduate degree from Oklahoma State University and a doctorate in comparative religion with a specialization in Islamic studies from Harvard University. He has lived in Egypt and been to the Middle East 35 times.
Before he came to OU, he chaired the Department of Religion and the Divinity School at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and was a visiting professor at the University of Tulsa.
“9/11 was a huge watershed event for Americans because it hit home,” he said, but many Americans before that had already formed an impression of Islam based on other events: acts of terrorism by Palestinians, the 1972 Olympic Games massacre, PLO attacks, the Iranian hostage crisis, the murder by Islamic militants of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
“These events are real but do not represent the vast majority of Muslims any more than the KKK or the Westboro Baptist Church represent all Christians,” he said.
The cover of Time magazine posed a question several years ago, “Is America Islamophobic?” Kimball said. “That is still a very front-and-center question.”
Americans tend to treat Islam as a monolithic religion, and it is not, he said. There is diversity within the religion.
“To characterize it in a monolithic way or to view it through the lens of the actions of a few contemporary extremists does not reflect the reality of Islam and how the vast majority of Muslims live it out.”
Violence is not inherent to Islam, a religion of about 1.7 billion adherents, he said.
“It has clearly stood the test of time and spawned great cultures and civilization.”
He said Muslims make up about 1 percent of the population in Oklahoma and are well above average in their education and professions; Tulsa and Oklahoma City each have some 400 Muslim doctors.
“These are not people who want to blow something up or impose Sharia law.”
Kimball said he has seen some areas of improvement in American-Muslim relations, educational initiatives and efforts in local churches.
“But at the same time, there’s been a lot of regression. A pretty substantial majority of non-Muslim Americans still don’t know very much about Islam and tend to think in monolithic terms, derived largely by what they see on television, acts of extremists and violence perpetrated by people claiming inspiration from Islam.”
One of his books, “When Religion Becomes Evil,” addresses how sincere people end up justifying behavior diametrically opposed to what their religion teaches — and not just in Islam but in all religions, he said.
Kimball said there are things people of faith can do to “facilitate a more hopeful future.”
“Education continues to be front and center — not just intellectually, but doing things that humanize ‘the other.’ ”
That can include interfaith programs; discussion groups in churches, mosques and synagogues; and sharing in religious activities such as Ramadan Iftar dinners and Jewish Seder meals.
And he said people of all faiths should look for common concerns they can address together, such as a Habitat for Humanity house or a feeding program.
“You don’t have to agree on the divinity of Jesus to do what your faith calls you to do and help those in need,” he said.
Kimball will give the Knippa Interfaith Ecumenical Lecture at 4 p.m. Jan. 28 at Grace Lutheran Church, 2331 E. Fifth Place, on the topic “Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations in the 21st Century: Finding Hope for the Perilous Journey Ahead.”