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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Exploring religion? Join the (Faith) Club

Jewish, Christian and Muslim co-authors visit campus

Published: January 18, 2008
Section: Arts, Etc.

dc0118086.jpgRanya Idliby hardly appears to be the stereotypical Muslim woman. At a Meet-the-Author event Tuesday to promote The Faith Club: A Muslim, A Christian, A Jew- Three Women Search for Understanding, sunglasses, rather than a scarf, rested upon her perfectly coiffed, highlighted hair.

However, she is the woman responsible for forming The Faith Club, a coalition of three mothers from three different faiths, with the goal of exploring their respective religions via discussion and publishing their experiences in a book.

Idliby said she initiated The Faith Club following the events of 9/11 and the ensuing questions and negative impressions about Islam that were raised by the public, as a way to determine the positive aspects of the religion.

“I came to the Faith Club out of a deep sense of isolation and alienation from the dominant voice of Islam right after the events of 9/11,” she said.

“As a mother I was deeply concerned about the future of my children being both American and Muslim. I worried that perhaps Islam had become more of a burden than a privilege that I was handing down to my children.”

In researching her religion, Idliby found the connections Islam shared with Christianity and Judaism and thought that reaching out to a Christian mother and a Jewish mother would give all of them the opportunity to highlight the commonalities of their faith traditions.

Idliby found the women she was looking for in Suzanne Oliver, an Episcopalian she met at her daughter’s school bus stop, and Priscilla Warner, a Jewish children’s books writer with whom Suzanne was already acquainted.

Oliver said she was excited by “the opportunity to spread a message of peace and connection at a time that our misunderstandings and differences were fueling violence and hatred around the world.” She saw it as an opportunity to disprove the stereotypes she had of Islam as violent and of Judaism as exclusive.

The open-mindedness that Warner’s eclectic upbringing (attendance of an Orthodox Hebrew day school and later a Quaker girls school) endowed her with was put to the test during their multiple discussions, particularly when the crucifixion of Christ was mentioned. Warner recalled how she incorrectly stereotyped Oliver as a Christian who saw Jews as “Christ-killers.” Despite this first argument, Idliby refused to see their meetings dissolve.

“I had become attached to our dialogue. They had rescued me from my spiritual isolation. They had become my temple, my church and my mosque right there in my living room,” Idliby said. “And if these two lovely women could not affirm my voice as a Muslim, there wasn’t much help for the world”

Warner also admitted to stereotyping Idliby, in that she was surprised by how comfortable she felt in Idliby’s home. When introducing Idliby to her friends, Warner would constantly emphasize Idliby’s graciousness and other admirable qualities, until at one meeting, Idliby asked Warner, “do you think you like me for who I am or do you think I defy some sort of stereotype you have of Muslim women?” In this way, Warner’s experience in The Faith Club made her aware of the subtle stereotypes she was buying into.

Together the group was able to identify both the negative and positive overlaps between their respective religions. Idliby pointed out that the Koran does not explicitly encourage killing, arguing that human ideology rather than Islam itself is responsible for this misinterpretation. She also noted that the Bible was another religious text used to justify killing, as in the Crusades and the Inquisition.

However, The Faith Club also identified positive themes that re-appeared again and again in all three religions. Oliver found stories where Jesus was asked to identify the most important commandant, where Rabbi Hillel was asked to teach the entire Torah while standing on one leg, and where Muhammad gave a speech to his followers. In all of these situations, these individuals gave a similar response, urging their followers to show their neighbors the kindness and compassion that they would wish to receive.

Idliby ended the discussion by encouraging non-Muslim Americans to ask the tough questions to clear up any misunderstandings that they may have about Islam and urging her fellow Muslims to read in the name of God and ignore the heresy and myths.

She concluded, “this country was built on the principle of freedom of worship and therefore it is in all sincerity that I sit before you today and I share with you that I believe that my children and your children in the very near future will be able to speak of the great American Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition.”