I had a meeting with the Imam yesterday in our city. Another  major step in getting local support for my Interfaith Dialogue initiative. Even though he is clearly a busy man in an important position, he was very generous with his time. For more than an hour we sat, drank tea and had a conversation about my idea for establishing an interfaith dialogue in Almelo. He was enthusiastic about the idea because it enhances his own mission. He said that even though his primary duty is to his followers, reaching out to the non-Muslim community is also an essential part of his responsibilities. Coincidentally (or not ;-)), I arrived at the same time he was giving a presentation about Islam and the mosque to a group of about 30 bureaucrats from City Hall. He regularly does the same with schools, civic organizations, other churches and the like. He said, “Even though we don’t proselytize, we do find it important to instruct others in our faith. After all, Mohammed (PBUH) was also surrounded by non-Muslims: Jews and Christians. It was also His responsibility to tell others about His faith.”

What I found most remarkable about our conversation was how learned the Imam was about Christian beliefs. And clearly how much respect he has for other faiths. In his presentation to the city employees, I found him somewhat defensive, without prompting explaining how the Islam is a peace-loving religion and the acts of violence committed in the name of Islam were perverting the teachings. Even though it’s understandable that he would do this, considering the amount of demonizing around the faith, I found it unfortunate. During our one-on-one, however, he was nothing but gracious, generous and supportive. I’ve clearly got the Imam in my corner.

It was interesting, even though the meeting went as expected, there were some interesting surprises. The first is how young the Imam is. A young guy, maybe in his early 30’s. When he was saying prayers and later in front of the group of city hall employees he was dressed in his ceremonial robe and headwear he projected an air of religious authority. But when he met with me he was wearing a simple business suit with tie, giving him the air of a junior associate with an accounting firm. I guess the thin, scraggly mustache didn’t help (no beard, as is the custom of most Turkish men). The second surprise, though it shouldn’t have been surprising, was that he spoke little Dutch. He is relatively new in his position, having been sent by Istanbul to Almelo for this assignment relatively recently. We had an interpreter, a young guy in his early 20’s. We got by, even though we weren’t able to converse on the level I was hoping to. Whenever the sentences or ideas became complex, the kid was a bit lost. He performed admirably, nonetheless. It was interesting to hear that every time he would translate for the Imam, he would, without fail, preface his text with “The Imam says . . . “.

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