MISSOULA -- Laurie Franklin is a Jewish leader in Missoula, a gun owner and, in her words, a “starry-eyed idealist.”
“It’s really hard to talk to somebody who wants to shoot you,” Franklin said this week. “However, I really feel that people can learn from each other if they’re willing to listen a little bit. There can be changes. I’m willing to be changed.”
It was Franklin, spiritual leader and student rabbi at Har Shalom, who late last year spearheaded formation of something called SALAM, the Arabic word for peace and an acronym for a uniquely Missoula group, Standing Alongside America’s Muslims.
During the week of April 25-30, SALAM and the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center will host Celebrate Islam Week in Missoula.
Events kick off that Monday with a dinner and discussion at St. Paul Lutheran Church, featuring presentations by Muslims from four countries.
On Wednesday, the documentary “The Muslims Are Coming” and a Technology, Entertainment and Design talk by Dalia Mogahed will be shown at Hellgate High School. “The Muslims Are Coming” follows Muslim comedians around the country as they perform and explore Islam and Islamophobia. Mogahed is the Egyptian-born director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in Washington, D.C. Her TED talk is called “What Do You Think When You Look At Me?”
Samir Bitar, a University of Montana Arabic instructor and popular public speaker, will give the keynote talk Thursday evening at Urey Lecture Hall on the UM campus prior to a panel discussion that includes Wuri Kusumastuti, a graduate teaching assistant in Indonesian language at UM, and Jameel Chaudhry, an ethnic Indian from North Africa who has been UM’s campus architect since 1995.
The week’s final event is set for Saturday when the congregation at Har Shalom on South Russell Street will host Dances of Universal Peace, using music and themes from Judaism, Islam and Christianity, as well as Rumi poetry.
All events except the first one start at 7 p.m. Dinner on Monday begins at 5 p.m. at St. Paul Lutheran. India Curry House will cater a $10 meal, though that’s not a requisite to attend. Everything all week is free and open to the public.
The idea at each session is to talk, listen, share and learn about the world's second-largest religion and soon-to-be second-largest in the U.S., one that encompasses as many cultures as the largest – Christianity.
“Our big belief is you can’t make peace if you’re talking with people who agree with you all the time,” said Betsy Mulligan-Dague, director of the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center, one of the sponsors of the week. “We’re very interested in being part of conversation where we can see different sides and perspectives and learn from each other.”
Missoula and western Montana are not hotbeds of people of the Islamic faith, but America is. While the recent decision of the International Rescue Committee to locate an office in Missoula has been met with vigorous protest on many fronts, it’s still not known if any or all the 25 or so families sent here the first year will be Muslim.
Franklin said SALAM is a “quiet advocacy group” that has been meeting weekly since December.
According to Bitar, a “red flag” was raised locally by reactions to the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif., on Dec. 2. Fourteen people died and many more were injured in the mass shooting and attempted bombing carried out by Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, a married couple living in nearby Redlands. The nation saw an escalation of anti-Muslim hate crimes in the aftermath, though the attacks were roundly condemned by American Muslim organizations.
SALAM consists of some two dozen western Montanans from a variety of churches and campus organizations, including advocates of Native Americans and military veterans.
“It has been great to have this outpouring of support and love,” said Bitar, a native of Palestine whose Humanities Montana talks in Darby last month stirred national discussion. “It’s very, very honoring, inspiring and comforting to have such a large group of university faculty, university staff, community members and faith leaders come together to work on this issue.”
“We’re kind of a modest little entity, not high on anybody’s radar,” Franklin said. “What I’m hoping is that people will come with real questions and they’ll get some answers and also have a chance to interact with real, live people of the Islamic faith and not radicals who want to kill them or impose their version of Sharia law on other people.”
A February meeting of county commissioners in Ravalli County to discuss the refugee resettlement issue drew an overflow crowd and added urgency for SALAM.
“Some of the language expressed there, along with some of the national rhetoric expressed by some of our political candidates, just kind of gave us a sense that we needed to present a counter-voice to that and show we supported our Muslim neighbors, as few as they are in Missoula,” said Clem Work, a retired journalism professor who’s lending his leadership to SALAM.
Neither Franklin nor Bitar think it’s incongruous that a Jewish rabbi is in the forefront of a pro-Islam educational movement.
“You see, we are people of faith,” Bitar said. “We have strong faith, and our interactions and collaboration with other people of faith only enhances our faith. God created us very diverse so we would come to know each other.”
Franklin refers to her experience of growing up in the post-Holocaust world.
“I can almost hear Muslims or Mexicans replaced by Jews in some of the conversations,” she said. “For me, it’s all part of a kind of pigeonholing and discrimination that I want to stand against, but I want to do it in a way that respects the fears of those who are really concerned about national security. And I want them to understand that not all Islam is radical Islam.”
The perception that Islam extremists are the norm in a religion practiced by 1.6 billion people is analogous to someone looking at an offshoot of Christianity such as the Ku Klux Klan and reaching the same conclusion, Bitar said.
“To which we would react: Excuse me? Isn’t this rather absurd that you would take a fraction – less than 1 percent – of a group and then attribute their characteristics to the other 99 point something percent?”