Inspired by conversations with her daughter who has taught English as a Second Language to Muslims, Florence Rooney, an American Martyrs parishioner for more than 50 years, attended a May 5 evening interfaith meeting at her Manhattan Beach parish to learn more about Islam.“We’re all children of God,” said Rooney, who has a special interest in the interfaith community, and has also participated in several meetings of the Catholic-Jewish Women’s Conference. “We don’t know much about Islam and this is a good opportunity to learn something new.” American Martyrs’ social justice and outreach commission presented “Islam 101: Faith and Practices” to provide a foundational understanding of what Islam means; to assess how American Muslims have adapted to the American way of life; and to explore the development of Catholic-Muslim relations since the Second Vatican Council, especially in light of the recent events in Boston.“Fifty five percent of the world is either Christian or Muslim,” said Tony Fadale, archdiocesan Justice and Peace Commission member, as he introduced panelist Father Alexei Smith, director of the archdiocesan Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.Several attendees were surprised when presenter Milia Islam-Majeed, a Harvard anthropology graduate and executive director of the South Coast Interfaith Council, said, “Islam in America is very much rooted” in the history of the United States. “It’s not something that just came up and somehow appeared after September 2011,” said the Muslim woman who was born in Bangladesh and raised in Fulton, a small town in Missouri that she jokingly called the “buckle of the Bible belt” of the United States. “As this world becomes more independent [from faith beliefs] it is necessary to intensify the dialogue among the various religions, particularly Islam,” said Father Smith. Referring to the words of Pope Francis, he added, “All people must live in such a way that everyone can see in each other not an enemy, not a rival, but a brother and a sister.” Then he referred to Nostra Aetate, the 1965 Vatican II document he called a “revolutionary statement,” in which the Catholic Church “acknowledges truth in non-Christian religions.”He asked Catholics in the audience if they have read the document; no hands were raised. “Well, we’ve got a lot of work to do,” said Father Smith.“1965!” he exclaimed. “This has been a Catholic teaching since 1965; Catholic teachings about Islam have become more explicit since Vatican II.”Nostra Aetate is “so timely,” he added, “because people often don’t know that we have common values.” At a Muslim-sponsored conference he attended regarding “Ethics of End of Life,” Father Smith was surprised to see that there were no differences with Catholic values. “It could have been a Catholic speaking because of the values we share,” he said. “Both religions have the same essential message: the love of God and the love of neighbor.” He urged the nearly 100 meeting participants to promote dialogue. “Dialogue alone allows us to overcome fear because it allows each one to experience the discovery of other,” he said, citing Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.Other values and traditions common to Catholicism and Islam he mentioned included worship of God by way of prayer, alms giving and fasting.“Muslims and Christians constitute half of the world’s population,” he reiterated. “So our essential message is love of God and love of neighbor.”Islam-Majeed shared how, when growing up in the Midwest, she attended church and Bible studies at the Christian Churches on her street. “Just on our street there were about 10 churches,” she said, “so my parents understood that being the only Muslim family [that had arrived from Bangladesh in 1986] in a town with barely 10,000 inhabitants, it was important to know one another.”Citing a study released five years ago, she said there were four to seven million Muslims residing in the U.S. compared to 161 million Christians, of which 14 percent are Hispanic Catholics and six percent are Asian Christians.Unlike what most people believe, she said, most Arabs are Christians and the majority of American Muslims are African American or South Asians.The diversity within the Muslims spreads to race, ethnicity, professions and political views, she said. “‘Muslim Americans’ is not a homogeneous group whatsoever and they come from 68 countries.”She added that the first Islamic centers were built in the early 20th century in the East Coast.After providing a short history of the theological origins of Islam, “a continuation of the Abrahamic faith, a continuation of Judaism and Christianity,” Islam-Majeed said that for practicing Muslims, Islam is a “complete way of life” with a foundation on five pillars that lead to a “re-connection with the divine.”The pillars are: oneness to God; prayer five times a day; fasting during the month of Ramadan; pilgrimage to Mecca; and charity (everyone is mandated to give 2.5 percent of their accumulated wealth per year).Echoing Father Smith, she said Christian values of family unity, humility, generosity and more are also part of Islam. Modesty is a value that is behind an overall identity for men and women alike, which shows in behavior and attire. The hijab (or scarf) worn by women is a sign of modesty, and it is not mandatory in the U.S. as it is in certain Arab countries.“And it is not thought to be a sign of oppression,” she said.Jihad, she said, is a term that has been loaded with negative connotations, when its actual meaning is “a fight against struggles within yourself.”Presenter Edina Lekovic, director of policy and programming for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, said that although 9/11 was the biggest crisis for the American Muslim community, in many ways it was also a catalyst of growth.Currently, there are two Muslim American members of Congress as well as at least a dozen of Muslims sitting on judicial benches nationwide.Lekovic admitted that most Muslims are non-practicing, with only 30-40 percent officially affiliated to a mosque. “Most Muslims are not different from you,” she said. “They are just worried about taking their kids to school or paying their bills.“As most Christians haven’t read the Bible cover to cover, most Muslims haven’t read the Qur’an either,” she said. “We are mainstream moderate middle class.”For more information about American Martyrs social justice and outreach commission, call Tony Fadale, (310) 542-9696.{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2013/0517/islam/{/gallery}