“What we have seen over the course of the last 6 or 7 years is exactly the toxic polarization that we don’t want… because when you have these messages for one side, that just increases those differences and it’s then so much harder!” — I met Mahmoud via Zoom after he participated in a Mustard Seed event. We chatted about his experience as an American Muslim living in an increasing polarized social and political environment. He feels that the political polarization which has been affecting the United States has had negative consequences on harmonious intergroup relationships. Divisiveness seems indeed to be the word of the day: neighborhood segregation and school segregation are at an all-time high; the urban/rural divide is increasing; and tensions between different ethno-racial and religious groups are exacerbated by years of dividing political discourse. But as Mahmoud mentions, this “toxic polarization” is something “we don’t want.”
MPAC has partnered with One America to launch the Mustard Seed project. Inspired by the moral imperative to do the necessary work to counter the rising divisiveness and polarization in the country, the Mustard Seed project aims at establishing bridges between American Muslims and Evangelical Christians in predominantly conservative areas of our country. In the Biblical story in Matthew’s Gospel, the Kingdom of Heaven is compared to a mustard seed which, “though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches” [Matthew 13:32]. The mustard seed story is mentioned also in the Qur’an: “But We shall set up just balance-scales on Resurrection Day, and no human being shall be wronged in the least: for though there be [in her but] the weight of a mustard-seed [of good or evil], We shall bring it forth; and none can take count as We do” [21:47]. The mustard seed thus becomes the symbol of the crucial work that each act of compassion performs in generating goodness in the world. And the Mustard Seed project is inspired by these shared Quranic and Biblical stories and aims at fighting the increased polarization in the country one act of compassion at a time.
Polarization is a multifaceted phenomenon that affects various dimensions of U.S. civic and political life. But, as scholars have pointed out, the religious divide constitutes one of the most problematic aspects as it goes counter to that same spirit that religions have embraced throughout history: love, compassion, mercy, togetherness. Mark, a Christian participant at the Mustard Seed event in Orange Country, CA, shares how people who contribute to exacerbating the polarization in the country, “they think, ‘oh, Muslim bad!’… ‘liberal bad,’ that kind of thing… and that is not representative of who Jesus was, is not representative of what the Bible says and so we are very interested in trying to bring people together in unity and in peace. I don’t think you can have one without the other!” Similarly, Mahmoud from Arizona shares how “we [Muslims] really want to add value to the United States of America, and as Muslims we believe in peace and prosperity and family and culture… and what we really want is for Christian families and Jewish families to prosper as much as Muslim families.”
Despite these shared common sentiments of love and compassion in the Muslim and Christian faiths that both Mark and Mahmoud symbolize, the spreading of the ideology of white nationalism has acquired a religio-national undertone which makes Christian nationalists “much more likely to create, support, and maintain symbolic boundaries and social boundaries that exclude non-Christians from full inclusion into American civic life” (Whitehead and Perry 2020). The Mustard Seed project means embarking on the crucial journey of bridging the divide with Evangelical Christians who might hold exclusionary views. The reasons for holding these exclusionary views might be as simple as not having had any opportunity to come across a person of the opposite faith before; as Mark pointed out during our chat: “Because the problem is when you live in an area like Orange County, or I grew up in Ohio, you don’t necessarily have the opportunity to mix with a lot of people who don’t look like you!”
The Mustard Seed thus becomes an invaluable occasion to make “the strange” familiar by bringing Christians and Muslims together to share a meal, chit chat, and ask uncomfortable questions that they would not have asked otherwise. While attempts to bridge the gap across religious difference has been initiated in other programs that involved Muslim and Evangelical Christian leaderships, the Mustard Seed project is unique in involving communities directly, creating a grassroots movement for change. The event is constructed as a safe space in which stereotypes can be challenged and the beauty of shared commonalities comes to the surface. The emergence of commonalities is most striking in the following comment by Ahmed, a Muslim who participated in the event in Orange County. Ahmed shares how the group ended up talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which was undergoing a flare-up in hostilities during the days in which the Mustard Seed occurred, and he adds: “I was actually very pleasantly surprised! I always described Evangelicals or members of conservative communities, especially in Orange County, as extremely pro-Israel no matter what, and I found that they were also very nuanced in their approach. I had always assumed what Fox News says, that they are just kind of always against Palestine, whether Israel is wrong or right.” This comment clearly signals how Ahmed managed to change his perspective on Evangelicals thanks to the exchange of ideas and the conversations he had during the Mustard Seed event. Indeed, Muslim participants overwhelmingly reported their surprise in discovering that Evangelical Christians adopt more balanced and nuanced approaches to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than what the media suggest. In the words of one of the Evangelicals I interviewed: “We are not in this to take sides, we are not pro-Israel, we are not pro-Palestine: we are pro peace!”
On the Christian side, one of the stereotypes that have been challenged concerns Muslim women. In a historical moment in which the status of women in Islam keeps making newspaper headlines on the wake of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, changing people’s perspective and countering the mainstream victimization narrative on Muslim women becomes of paramount importance. On the matter of the hijab, Western media frequently portray Muslim women as being compelled to wear a hijab, thus falling back into a victim narrative which portrays Muslim women as deprived of agency. But Christian participants at the Mustard Seed event were able to hear an array of narratives of empowerment shared by the Muslim women present. James recalls a discussion as follows: “One woman said that she had decided not to do that [wear the hijab] because she did not want to… two women got up and spoke about why they do and why they don’t, one wants a normal Muslim wear and the other doesn’t. They both were kind of ‘yeah, I understand why you are doing what you are doing, but here is why I am doing what I am doing.’ And there were pretty powerful stories on both sides but, you know… she has been through a lot of ridicule, especially after 9/11.” Hearing different perspectives and observing Muslim women engage in an open discussion around their personal choices on such a miscontrued topic in the media was crucial to achieve a better understanding of the complexity of lived Muslim American experiences for women, thus fighting the monolithic representation of Islam and Muslim women usually fed by the media.
Last but not least, the events helped unpack the meaning of jihad for participants. Jihad is another term widely used, and abused, by Western media. Christian participants reported feeling very inspired by the redefinition of jihad that was offered at the Mustard Seed event. Bernard, a Christian attendee, shares that he learnt how “jihad can be interpreted in a way that is actually beautiful and it is empowering and it is not destructive.” Muhammad felt empowered by the mere fact of being able to tell a different narrative about jihad. Usually, jihad is evoked to justify the War on Terror, but Muhammad had an opportunity to share how “[jihad] means ‘struggle,’ that’s what the word jihad means!” and most Christian were surprised to hear jihad carried a beautiful meaning of internal growth on the path towards self-betterment which is not mentioned among the meanings that mainstream media attribute to it.
The beauty of discovering commonalities, of challenging stereotypes, of making the ‘strange’ familiar, created a palpable sense of possibilities during the Mustard Seed events. This did not come without difficulties. As one of the pastors involved in the event shared: “I think that everyone there really carried a genuine level of curiosity that was actually a lot of fun to participate in. There was an understanding that, hey, we are going to step into something that might be a little unique, or different for certain people, but everyone loved it!” Participants knew they were going to potentially feel uncomfortable, submerging themselves into something unknown to most on both sides of the Christian-Muslim divide. But people are genuinely interested in having opportunities like this one and the support and excitement for the project testifies to how it is catering to a widespread need to close the gap that the polarization is creating among our communities. There is hope to close the wound, and this hope is better captured in the words of Chris who describes how the event ended: “It gets over and so a few people left, we were cleaning up… we were folding up tables and doing all that, and people are just in these pockets of two or three or whatever talking, having conversations, keeping things going… maybe following up on something that was talked about earlier… or just talking about life…. And my wife and I actually met someone from the Muslim group in particular who lives like a mile and a half from us… and we were like, ‘Are you kidding me?!’ And so… we are talking about our kids, and where they go to school, and all that… we exchanged information and we were like, ‘Hey, let’s get dinner sometime!’ So, I think that for me was a big portion of… ok, this actually seems to have an impact past just some kind of curiosity… hear from other people a different perspective… there was a genuine interest in getting to know each other.”
That genuine interest in getting to know each other, one act of compassion at a time, above and beyond differences, is the mustard seed that the country needs to sow right now.