Muslim and Evangelical Christian students convened at a conference at Wheaton College over the weekend to explore what they could do to ameliorate relations between their two religious groups, a situation the event's organizers called "the greatest interreligious challenge of our time."
The conference, which took place on November 1-2 was arranged by Neighborly Faith, an organization that bills itself as "a nationwide movement bringing Christians and Muslims together."
The conference resulted from a partnership between Neighborly Faith and various groups evangelical college, according to a press release from the organization.
If past polling results are any indicator, the folks at Neighborly Faith are right to think that there is room for improvement in evangelical-Muslim relations, especially on the part of the Christians.
According to the results of a survey from the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and PSB Research released in March, most evangelical Christians do not harbor much interest in "building bridges" with Muslims.
The survey (which used results from equal numbers of Evangelicals and Muslims), found that only 22 percent of evangelical participants said they had regular interactions with Muslims. A similarly small number believed "that such interaction helps the groups to understand each other better," according to World Religion News. By contrast, 53 percent of Muslim respondents said they interact with Christians frequently.
Further, the survey indicated that 61 percent of evangelical Christians supported the so-called "Muslim ban" that the Trump administration implemented between 2017 and 2018, as opposed to only 20 percent of Muslims.
More than 20 speakers attended the event, which was designed for evangelical and Muslim students, according to the press release.
"Neighborly Faith Co-Directors Kevin Singer and Chris Stackaruk encouraged students to ask speakers their hardest questions, and they did not disappoint," the press release read. "Many questions centered on the compatibility of friendship-building with evangelism, or the responsibility many evangelicals feel to share the Gospel verbally with non-Christians."
Other questions tackled topics such as the role of social justice in the two faiths and the role of gender in Islam.
The conference's keynote speaker was Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, author, and contributor to the Atlantic. In his remarks, Hamid talked about his friendship with evangelicals, and how one of them, theologian Matthew Kaemingk, introduced to him the idea of "Christian pluralism." After learning about this, Hamid wondered if there was a similar ideal commitment to pluralism in his own Islamic tradition. He found that there was.
"Evangelicals, in their engagement with Muslims, should feel comfortable being open and unapologetic about their commitment to Christ, and Muslims shouldn't need to temper any of their convictions either," he told Newsweek. "The idea that you have to dilute in order to understand and engage has it backwards."
"If you know who you are, then this allows for a mutual respect and generosity of spirit that wouldn't otherwise be possible," he said. "Friendship with those who are different can only be possible if we liberate ourselves from the fear of difference."
A survey conducted after the conference seemed to support previous findings that "frequent interaction lead to more perceived similarities" between members of the two faiths. Organizers highlighted evangelicals' improved perceptions of Muslims in particular.
"Among conservative evangelical students, an anonymous post-conference survey showed that while 49% had neutral or somewhat negative attitudes toward Muslims coming into the conference, only 6% remained neutral while 0% maintained a negative attitude – 94% left the conference with either somewhat positive or very positive attitudes toward Muslims," Neighborly Faith reported. "Similarly, 44% of conservative evangelical students were either neutral or disinterested in building friendships with Muslims before the conference. Afterwards, only 4% remained neutral, while 0% remained disinterested."
Saad Hazari, a Muslim student at Benedictine University, was one of the conference's attendees. He told Newsweek that some of his dearest friends are evangelicals and most of his interactions with people from that religious group have been pleasant in the past. But Hazari reported being saddened by what he sees as a lack of empathy among evangelicals "towards any cause that is related to the Muslims, like whether it be Islamophobia in America, Uighur Muslims, Yemen, Ethiopia, Kashmir [or] Burma."
However, Hazari said he thinks that the Neighborly Faith conference and other events designed to spark dialogue between people of different religious backgrounds was important because it forces people to peek out of the "bubble" they might otherwise put themselves in.
"This conference helps us learn about the facts," Hazari said, "and people become more open to learning this way because otherwise we only filter our news and what we like to see and so many never learn about Islam and Muslims."
When asked how and if they would change their behavior after attending the conference, students who attended said the conference had a positive impact on them.
Anna Cole, a Christian student at Wheaton College, told Newsweek that the conference would not necessarily change how she interacted with Muslims, but said it gave her "renewed inspiration for working to build relationships between Wheaton students and Muslims in the area."
Cole said that her favorite part of the conference was not actually at the conference at all. Rather, it was when she drove two of the speakers, a Christian and a Muslim, to the airport after the event concluded. She listened intently to their conversation about applied theology and how they interpret the holy books of their respective faiths.
"I missed my exit to the airport a few times," Cole said, "but it was a really wonderful and open conversation where all involved were very honest about their beliefs and very interested in learning from the others."
Hazari said that the spirit behind the conference reminded him of a certain quote from the prophet Muhammad that he likes to keep close to his heart: "None of you have truly believed until you wish for your brother what you wish for yourself."