“One of the real gifts that Islam brings is an understanding of what it is to have a country with diverse religious viewpoints,” stated Rev. Dr. David B. Lindsey on June 11 at the Little River United Church of Christ (UCC) in Northern Virginia. Befitting the declining UCC’s leftwing, anti-Israel politics, his roseate understanding of Islam set the tone for Little River UCC’s biased, superficial presentation on “Faith in Film: Refugees and Islamophobia.”
A small group of about 25 middle-aged or older listeners watched three short films in the Little River UCC sanctuary followed by a discussion between Lindsay and Zainab Arain from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Growing Home, a film about a barber who fled Syria’s civil war to a Jordanian refugee camp, opened the evening, followed by the screening of a Hague TED lecture by the film’s director, Faisal Attrache. The evening’s final film was a new release, the short film Searching the Skies, from the Seventh Art Stand (SAS), a “nationwide screening and discussion series” intended “as an act of cinematic solidarity against Islamophobia.”
Searching the Skies’ eight minutes depict an American couple hosting a Syrian refugee family for a Christmas dinner along with the couple’s college-aged nephew who expresses hostility towards the refugee’s “all backwards” Islamic faith. The couple’s decision to avoid offending the religious sensibilities of the Muslim guests by fixing a salmon Christmas dinner instead of their usual ham beloved by the nephew only accentuates his animosity. Yet the couple incongruously appears to drink wine at the dinner table, even though Islam prohibits consumption of both alcohol and pork while the nephew had suggested offering both ham and salmon.
While largely poor, ill-educated refugees from Syria and other Muslim-majority countries currently confront Western countries with enormous social welfare costs, the film presents ideal refugees. The Syrian man, his veiled wife, and young boy and girl appear to come from middle-class backgrounds. With the nephew the man discusses how he was a professor in Syria while the American wife notes that he has received a new job at a catering company.
Intellectually as well as materially the Syrian refugees make a good impression, as the former professor surprises the nephew with the Syrian’s familiarity with Christmas. The professor notes that “Damascus is a very diverse city and most of our friends are Christian.” Christmas “is the favorite time of the year for us. In Syria always everybody gathers around the table, the families, and everyone is celebrating, going out, and dancing and music, it is wonderful.”
The professor’s Yuletide joy gives a false impression of Christian-Muslim interfaith harmony in the Middle East. In Syria’s civil war, most Christians and other non-Muslim religious minorities support the brutal Assad family dictatorship, under which Christians have enjoyed relative religious freedom, while fearing the jihadist-dominated rebel opposition. Moreover, most Muslims in the Middle East and around the world do not celebrate Christmas given the Islamic understanding of Jesus as a mere prophet. Some Muslims have even warned that any recognition of Christmas (such as a Christmas greeting) violates Islam.
The film further deflects attention from jihadist violence by focusing on Assad regime atrocities. The film depicts the refugee family’s son at the dinner table coloring a picture of a warplane bombing a house and closes with the refugee children screaming at the sound of an overflying jetliner. Such scenes focus viewer attention on indiscriminate Assad regime airstrikes, often used to facilitate ethnic cleansing of regime opponents, as opposed to similar brutality from anti-Assad jihadists.
Examination of SAS links to resources like the anti-Israel, pro-Arab media critic Jack Shaheen explains Searching the Skies’ biases. To understand Islamic doctrine, the SAS relies upon the Ahmadiyya, considered heretical by most Muslims, and their True Islam website with questionable apologetics on matters like Islam’s oppressive dhimmi status for non-Muslims. Meanwhile the film’s director, Vivian Hua, writes that she is:
…[a] writer and interdisciplinary artist who, in true Sagittarius fashion, resides in Los Angeles but frequently lands in the Northwest. (My heart resides forever in Seattle, where I feel I have lived many lifetimes.)
Lindsay’s post-screening discussion at Little River UCC had little more factual basis than Hua’s astrology tables, as he praised Islam’s “notion of the People of the Book,” actually a subjugated status for Jews, Christians, and others. He reprised myths of Islamic Spain’s multicultural harmony, Christian martyrs notwithstanding, while stating that “Christians, Jews, and Muslims could live together in societies that are majority-Muslim, in Al Andalus, for example.” While he reflected on his ancestors expelling Jews from England in the 13th century, he counterfactually imagined Islam as a more tolerant faith than Christianity, stating that:
…we are still learning in Christianity 2,000 years on. We have in our scriptures understandings of how to treat folks who are guests, folks who may have emigrated from other countries, folks who may be refugees, but somehow we still haven’t cultivated a kind of normative way of honoring folks and allowing folks to just simply be.
Lindsay received a brief reality check from an Iraqi Christian woman in the audience at Little River UCC who noted hearing in Growing Home the Islamic Fatiha prayer. She reflected on regular recitations in mosques across America of this prayer, often interpreted throughout Islamic history as condemning Jews and Christians. She stated that many hostile Quran verses say that non-Muslims “are infidel and we should be killed.”
The woman’s comments drew from Lindsay and other audience members at Little River UCC the hackneyed false equivalence between the Bible’s violent passages and Islamic jihad doctrine. “There has been an extraordinary amount of violence in Christian history endorsed by our scriptures, not least of which was slavery,” he stated. He left unaddressed Islam’s far worse record of slavery, a crime that is actually incompatible with the Bible’s true spirit, as detailed analysis and early Christian abolitionist arguments demonstrate.
Arain’s response to the Iraqi Christian was rather rich, given that CAIR is a radical Islamist organization and Hamas-derived terrorism financing unindicted co-conspirator. She advised the Iraqi Christian not to “cherry pick things out of context” in the Quran, consistent with her previous rejection of an “Islamophobic categorization of Islam as inherently violent” and a “racialised religion.” Using well-worn Orientalism tropes, she wrote that such an outlook “is rooted in European colonization, and has been transplanted and utilized by the U.S. to justify its foreign policy in Muslim-majority regions of the world.”
Arain and Lindsay’s presentation is not surprising given the UCC’s cooperation nationally with CAIR, such as in co-production of a 90-second video on interfaith relations between a Jewish rabbi, a Christian pastor, and a Muslim imam. The clergy trade places in their houses of worship (although the female rabbi preaches in a church, not a mosque) and discuss a common “commitment to the Ten Commandments” and the “importance of marriage and the family.” The video does not discuss Muslim views of the UCC’s commitment to LGBT agendas like same-sex “marriage” or Jewish and Christian views of Muslim polygamy. On a local level, Little River UCC has certainly pleased CAIR by supporting Washington, DC’s Voices from the Holy Land film festival, a contribution to UCC support for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel.
Lindsay’s UCC, its relationship with CAIR, and the film screenings at Little River UCC reflect modern distortions of biblical beliefs that have distinguished Western civilization. Christianity’s emphasis on critical reflection upon and repentance for one’s own sin as well as concern for loving strangers has sometimes resulted in a Western self-negation paired with uncritical acceptance of foreigners. Yet attacks in Europe by Muslim refugees upon Christian refugees indicate the dangers of projecting values cultivated in the West upon foreign cultures that might not reciprocate such love and humility.