A massive protest was expected outside of the Virginia General Assembly earlier this month. But it never happened. When Imam Johari Abdul-Malik received a call requesting that he lead the invocation for the Virginia General Assembly, he accepted without hesitation. As a leader in the interfaith movement in D.C., a former chaplain of Howard University, and an imam at one of the largest mosques in the nation, Abdul-Malik has led prayers before many meetings, so it made sense that Delegate Adam Ebbin would extend the invitation. A week before the event, as the imam learned about the logistics, he became aware of resistance. The Virginia Anti-Shariah Task Force wrote a letter to the Members of the House of Delegates urging them to revoke Imam Johari Abdul-Malik's invitation to pray. James Lafferty, the Chairman of the Task Force, wrote that Abdul Malik showed "contempt for the rule of law" and "support for terrorist acts against America." Nothing could be further from the truth. Immediately after the events of September 11, 2001, Imam Johari Abdul-Malik publicly denounced terrorism and condemned Osama bin Laden. In the years following, Abdul-Malik reached out to faith communities, worked with religious leaders, and spoke to congregations. In that important moment, when the walls of distrust and fear could have been built between our religious traditions, Imam Johari Abdul-Malik worked throughout the greater D.C. area, constructing bridges of understanding, peace, and reconciliation.
The Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center created Abdul-Malik's position, the Director of Outreach, after September 11, 2001. Two of the high-jackers briefly worshiped at the Islamic Center, and the faith community struggled to live through the Post-9-11 reality. "Nine-Eleven changed everything," Abdul-Malik said. "People were ready to misunderstand Islam." The members of the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center had to figure out how they were going to respond to hate speech and witch hunts, and they decided not to hunker down, but to open up to their community. The Center began efforts to communicate what the real Islam is, and they created Abdul-Malik's position so that they might get beyond the propaganda. The imam has spoken for peace in global events, deepened relationships among religious leaders, and he labored for peace within the home, as he worked against domestic violence.
As the days passed, Delegate Adam Ebbin, issued a letter to the members of the House, explaining that he didn't see any reason to revoke the invitation. False statements about Abdul-Malik continued to spread, as well as the rumors surrounding the rally that would take place outside of the Virginia General Assembly. Three hundred people were expected to gather in Richmond to protest the imam's prayer. It was the first time that Abdul-Malik thought, "I ought to ask my wife to buy some extra life insurance." But what happened on that Thursday? "Five protesters showed up. Five," Abdul-Malik said. "There were more police than protesters. There were more reporters than protesters."
Many people wrestle with the fact that religious intolerance often beats in the heart of conflicts. As a Christian, I know that just beyond the Sunday school stories of Jesus healing people and teaching us to love our neighbors, religion can impassion people and arm them for violence. Our faith can become be perverted into a manipulative force that blinds us to suffering and compels us to destruction. All over the world, "holy" wars have been fought, calls for the annihilation of those of other religions have been furiously spewed, and spilled blood only seems to make the struggle more sacred. Yet, another stream runs deeply throughout our traditions. People of faith have also compelled us to practice forgiveness and reconciliation. Our great religions can evoke calm in the midst of warfare, love that enlivens our merciful imaginations, and stories that inspire us to compassion. As long as wars in the name of God are fought, then peace in the name of God must be sought. In this time, when the scars of the terrorist attacks are still sore in Virginia, many religious leaders work toward a deeper understanding and respect of our differing faith traditions, because we know that just as religion has been a weapon, religion can also be a balm. It is a healing stream that makes a man like Imam Johari Abdul-Malik seek peace even in the midst of defamation.
"We have these reactionary episodes, but as a nation we have grown," Abdul-Malik reminded me. He explained how we matured when slaves gained freedom, when the Japanese were released from internment camps, when we upheld the dignity of women, and when we fought for civil rights for African-Americans, Jews, and Asians. "We have really grown, and we still have some growing to do. And that's how I look at this -- as an opportunity to grow."