Religion (and rap): bringing Muslims and non-Muslims together

Jeff vonKaenel

Religion can be used to divide us, as Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum demonstrated when he suggested President Barack Obama subscribes to a “phony theology.” But religion can also bring us together. That is certainly how I felt at the 25th anniversary of Sacramento Area League of Associated Muslims held Friday, February 24. Even though I am not a Muslim, I have been moved many times by the events held at SALAM and the friendships I have made there.

Dr. Metwalli Amer’s original vision was a place where the Muslim community could engage in dialogue with the non-Muslim community. It has been this openness to others that has made SALAM such a Sacramento treasure. Its members, particularly Metwalli, have been very active in interfaith activities. Metwalli immediately set himself apart at these events by bringing a gigantic platter of baklava to virtually every interfaith event he attended.

SALAM’s outreach efforts really made a difference in the days after 9/11. It hosted many community events at its center, and as a result, many Sacramentans were moved to stand up and say that we would not tolerate violence against our Muslim neighbors. At the 25th anniversary celebration, United States Attorney Benjamin Wagner described it as a national model for an American mosque, bringing in different cultures and providing a bridge to the non-Muslim community.

Over the last 25 years, SALAM has contributed mightily to interfaith dialogue in Sacramento and has built three magnificent buildings on College Oak Drive. But I believe its most important achievement has been combining the best aspects of Muslim faith with the best aspects of American life. For example, unlike other mosques, and unlike some Christian organizations, Muslim women are active in the leadership at SALAM. At times, women have made up the majority of the board. But my favorite example is something I saw several years ago: Muslim rap.

At a community event at the mosque, a young high-school student who loves rap music presented his devotion to Islam in a rap format. What was so lovely about the performance was the obvious sincerity of the young performer. He was melding two things he cared deeply about in an admittedly unusual combination. Most of the audience consisted of older members of the mosque. I suspect they were not rap fans, our young rap artist was warmly received.

So, while there are some who use religion to place themselves above the rest, there are others, like the members of SALAM, who believe there are many diverse paths to God, and we can all climb the mountain together. With people like these in the community, maybe religion can be more of a force for unity and peace.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.