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Monday, March 5, 2012

Speaker aims to break down walls between religions, debunk myths of Islam

MILFORD – When the Rev. M’ellen Kennedy talks about the 99 percent and the one percent, her conversation has nothing to do with politics or the ratio of the nation’s wealthiest to “the rest” of America.

Instead, Kennedy, a minister of both the Unitarian Universalist and Sufi faiths, is citing statistics that many believe are at least, if not more, troublesome than when bandied about the political arena.

The “99-percenters” in Kennedy’s area of expertise – cultivating knowledge, understanding and friendship between Muslims and non-Muslims – are, she told a Milford Unitarian Universalist congregation Sunday, “wonderful, upright, compassionate and nonviolent” people of the Islamic faith.

“Less than one percent of Muslims believe violence is appropriate. But that less than one percent gets 75 percent of media coverage,” Kennedy said, citing a recent Gallup Poll documentary that sums up a massive survey of Muslims in 19 countries over several years between 2001 and 2006. The project, “Inside Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think,” debunks Americans’ widely-held belief that Muslims are an overwhelmingly violent people whose very beliefs present a serious threat to America, Kennedy said.

Kennedy, who founded “Peace and Unity Bridge” at her Washington, Vt., Unitarian Universalist Church, delivered the sermon at the Milford church’s morning worship service. In the afternoon, Kennedy hosted a “Facing Islamophobia Workshop,” in which roughly 60 parishioners and guests took part. Her visit was sponsored by the Fund for Unitarian Universalist Social Responsibility.

In her sermon, titled “What I Love About Islam,” Kennedy traced the roots of Islam, from its 6th-century founding by the prophet Mohammad to how it evolved as “a very practical” religion based on five pillars: Belief, worship, fasting, almsgiving and pilgrimage.

“Islam encourages us to get things straight, to prioritize, what’s really important to us,” she said. “It teaches us to not waste our precious life on trivia, on nonsense. What I love about Islam is it’s very, very practical.”

But today, Kennedy said, the true message of Islam is all but lost in misunderstanding and fear.

“What’s going on today is a far cry from the truth of Islam,” she said, calling it “the most misunderstood religious group in the world today.

“The results of the Gallup Poll don’t match up at all with what we’re seeing in the media. And that’s extremely dangerous. Americans are being stirred up in fear,” she said. “We’re being led to believe we’re under attack.”

While the danger the “one-percent” of Muslims, like any fundamentalist extremist group, pose to America is very real, Kennedy said, Americans need to realize the vast majority of Muslim men and women, according to the Gallup findings, “ … cite political freedom, free speech and gender equality as among the most admired aspects” of the Western world.

“Doing this work is a challenge,” she told the group. “In today’s society, we’re being manipulated by fear. People are afraid of what they don’t understand. Our mission is (for Muslims and non-Muslims) to meet, to understand, to make friends. The answer (to erasing fear) is to learn about it, to understand it.”

Kennedy’s message resonated with many attendees, some saying they knew little, beyond the very basics, of Islam’s origin and its tenets. Others called Kennedy’s work very important at a time when heightened fear and hate not only mischaracterize Islam, but create hostility toward its practitioners – Muslims.

“She gave a very good introduction on Islam,” said Emma Johnson, a Milford U.U. congregant.

“I don’t feel Islamophobic myself, but I know that many people do these days. I think learning about all the religious strife today is an opportunity for me to try and be more helpful to others, to understand each other,” Johnson added.

Holly Hornor, a former Nashua U.U. parishioner who joined the Milford congregation when her family moved to Amherst recently, agreed.

“This is fascinating,” she said during a break in the workshop. “I think we all should learn more about Islam, and other religions. This (Kennedy’s work) is very important.”

Added Johnson about Kennedy’s presentation, “she put it so clearly, so simply. ‘God is love’ is the basis of both religions,” she said of Unitarian Universalism and Islam. “It’s a wonderful principle.”

Dean Shalhoup can be reached at 673-3100, ext. 31, or dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com.