I received an e-mail from my sister yesterday, a forwarded e-mail sent to her by her sister-in-law. It was one of those "This is a true story written by someone who has a ministry; pass it on to everyone on your e-mail contact list" type, stopping just short of saying something bad will happen to you if you don't. The content of the e-mail was the story of a man who works with a prison ministry who went through volunteer training for a prison in my home state. Part of the training included education on different religious views, including Islam. The e-mail says the part on Islam was presented by an imam, and the prison ministry guy asked him a question that led to an exchange in which the prison ministry guy supposedly got the imam to admit that most Muslim clerics have called for jihad and agreed that it is incumbent on those of the Islamic faith to "kill the infidels. " The story continued with the prison ministry guy victoriously arguing with the imam to the point of making him cower.
It took no time to look the story up on Snopes and discover that the details of the story are widely disputed. There was a volunteer training exercise that included religious diversity education at the prison, but the person who spoke about Islam was an inmate without adequate training to respond to the questions posed to him. Even the supposed author of the story back pedals some when asked about the story's truthfulness. It's pretty clear he wrote it, but embellished for effect. It's sickening, really. It made my skin crawl reading it.
So, I e-mailed my sister and asked her a question: What did you think and feel when you read this? Her reply contained some form of the word fear in three of the five sentences she wrote in response, and as I suspected, she accepted the claim of authority at the end of the e-mail as true. She thinks that all the bad things that have happened in the world can be traced back to Muslims, and because she believes that and it makes her afraid, she has no reason to question the content of this story.
I replied to her this morning, pointing her to the Snopes article about the story and spoke from my experience of working with Muslims on interfaith projects over the past few years. I made some comparisons between the Bible and the Q'uran, showing that the Bible, in the hands of the wrong people, has been and could still be used to justify killing in the name of God.
This is not the first time someone in my family has said or forwarded something like this, but it is the first time I've responded. I'm nervous about how she will respond to me. But, I'm tired of living with their fear. I know how to respond to the intellectual issues, to show how the beliefs are not true. I just don't know how we begin to address the rampant fear that so many people cling to. It breaks my heart.
Updated 2:00 p.m.: Holy cow! The approach I took worked with her. She's already done some research on her own and learned a lot more about some of the ideas she's had that were wrong! She even made the connection that we need to be just as concerned about Christian extremists. She asked a ton of questions and even wants to know what religion it is that I practice now and how it's different than the baptists. Oy. Guess I'm going to have to come out as a Unitarian.