NEWTON CENTER, Mass. — Several dozen Baptists and Muslims gathered Jan. 9-11 to work toward repairing a relationship better known for harsh anti-Islamic rhetoric by high-profile Baptist preachers than by dialog or cooperation.
Baptist pronouncements about Islam include a 2002 statement by former Southern Baptist Convention President Jerry Vines calling the Prophet Muhammad a "demon-possessed pedophile" and evangelist Franklin Graham's description of Islam as "an evil and wicked religion" in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The event was held at the Islamic Center of Boston and Andover Newton Theological School in nearby Newton Center, Mass. Scholars from each tradition offered presentations on their own faith's holy book, doctrines and practices.
Conversations centered around the theme of both traditions' emphasis on love of neighbor.
Participants said the interfaith gathering began with a Middle Eastern meal and fellowship Friday night at the Islamic center and ended with a Baptist-style worship service on Sunday morning. The idea for the dialogue began in 2007, when Roy Medley, general secretary of American Baptist Churches USA, visited the Republic of Georgia and Lebanon. Baptist and Muslim leaders in both places implored him to seek to improve relations between the two faith groups in the United States.
Rob Sellers, a professor at Logson Seminary at Hardin-Simmons University, said the organizers reached an early consensus that talks should focus on Baptist-Muslim relations rather than broader Christian-Muslim dialogue.
They did that to "make the important point that there are other kinds of Baptists than those who get the headlines," Sellers said.
The Baptists found a willing partner in Sayyid Syeed, national interfaith director of the Islamic Society of North America. Syeed said U.S. Muslims and Baptists share commonalities including commitment to separation of church and state and respect for religious tolerance, but "there are people on both sides who speak louder than others and demonize each others' religions and ensure the two stay apart."
"This can be addressed only if we create forums and situations that help the well-meaning Muslims and Baptists to come closer and recognize their passionate allies in each other," Syeed said in an e-mail interview. "We can jointly work to fight against injustice, poverty, death and disease rather than be ignorantly scared of each other and further contribute to injustice and tyranny around the globe."
Charles Kimball, director of the religious-studies program at the University of Oklahoma, told participants in the recent dialogue that Islam has presented Christians with unique challenges since the time of Muhammad. He said recent events, starting with the 1979-81 Iranian hostage crisis and the rise of violent extremism in the name of Islam, have fed a popular image that Islam is inherently violent and dangerous.
Often, he noted, Christian leaders have jumped on the Islam-is-violent bandwagon. Kimball said a more appropriate Christian response to Muslims is education, dialogue and cooperation in community efforts.
Kimball said in many communities around the country, Jews, Christians and Muslims have come together to build Habitat for Humanity Houses and work on problems like public education, crime and prison reform.
As the nation's second-largest faith group, Kimball said Baptists should be at the forefront of such efforts. In another paper presented at the dialogue, Sellers cited traditions common to both Muslims and Baptists including championing religious liberty, meeting human needs, advocating for justice and educating the people.
Other Baptist groups represented in the talks included the Progressive National Baptist Convention and Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention, both predominantly African-American Baptist bodies; the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Alliance of Baptists. Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, professor of sociology and African-American studies at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, identified "seeds and connections" between Islam and the experiences of Baptist-derived slave communities in the South. Such connections led to the rise of African-American groups like the Nation of Islam.
She said those connections, such as an emphasis on prayer and other black Baptist commonalities with Islam less prominent in the white Baptist traditions, have an important role to play in cultivating and strengthening future Baptist and Muslim ties.
"We need to foster dialogue that allows us to see ourselves in the other, affirm what we share, and speak respectfully and gently about those things over which we must agree to disagree," Gilkes said.
The event follows on the heels of a formal response from BWA leaders to a 2007 overture to Christians from a broad group of Islamic thinkers. Called "A Common Word Between Us and You," the Muslim scholars' document has inspired other responses from centrist and progressive evangelicals. Those responses, in turn have drawn some criticism from conservative evangelicals.
The BWA letter affirmed much of the Muslim initiative, while noting important theological differences like the Trinity that Baptists regard as non-negotiable.