From Conversion to Conversation

IImam Ahmed Elkhaldy, president of the Iowa chapter of the Muslim American Society (MAS), responds to the same question nearly every time he gives a presentation on Islam to a Christian audience:

“Everything you've said in an hour and a half is [identical to] Christianity. Can you tell me how we are different?”

Elkhaldy is one of a number of people in eastern Iowa working to foster communication and understanding among religious communities . In doing so, Elkhaldy and others like him are attempting to challenging the i dea that Muslims are vastly different from followers of other religions. But with media reports arguing the opposite, the need for dialogue between religious communities remains paramount.

“Well, we don't believe that Jesus is God. It's as simple as that,” Elkhaldy says in answer to the question. “No Muslim is a Muslim if he disbelieves in Jesus, or questions the identity of Jesus as the messiah, or his miraculous birth — which is mentioned in the Quran.”

But according to Elkhaldy, Muslims do view Jesus as a prophet, just not the prophet.

“In the Muslim world, we believe that [Christians] believe in [most of] the same things we do,” Elkhaldy said, reiterating a shared belief in many aspects of the Old and New Testaments, including the tales of Moses and Jesus.

Understanding the commonalities between religions has always been a part of Elkhaldy’s life.

Elkhaldy, 42, was born in Kuwait to an Egyptian mother and a Palestinian father, both practicing Muslims. He and his family moved to Egypt before he turned 12 years old. There, he interacted with many Christian friends.

Christians are a minority in Egypt, b ut Elkhaldy says he never experienced any negativity toward his Christian friends. He was never told not to play with another group of children simply because of their religious or cultural heritage.

Graduating from college with a double major in dentistry and religion, Elkhaldy traveled to the United States in 1996 and became the associate imam, or spiritual leader, at the Islamic Society of Central Florida. Four years later, he took up the position of imam at the Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids, where he began working diligently to help change the religious climate in his community.

His tenure has been marked by a clear desire to reach out to other religious communities.

“Before 9/11 … I could spend half the day in the Yellow Pages, calling churches, asking if they would like to have someone talk about Islam,” says Elkhaldy.

Most churches' responses were far from positive, with one church leader pointedly asking Elkhaldy if he had the Yellow Pages in front of him. They had heard that a Muslim had been calling churches all day.

But Sept. 11, 2001 changed everything.

“Before 9/11, I was able to get four or five [churches] interested, and after 9/11, we average 150 to 250 churches a year. 90 percent of those churches, they call us, they request a presentation.”

While the majority of churches have been receptive towards Elkhaldy and his dialogue, some churches have been reluctant to invite Elkhaldy to speak, for fear that Elkhaldy may try to “convert” those in attendance. Elkhaldy insists his only goal is to educate and dispels myths about Islam.

“I make sure to say at the end that I was only here to teach, and that it was not my intention to offend anyone,” he said. This is not always the case, however. Elkhaldy has, on more than one occasion, had to place a the Quran on the projector during a presentation to disprove what he sees as misconceptions about jihad, judgment and many other topics.

As the interest in Islam grew in religious circles, it also grew in the academic world.

Many large academic centers began to form Middle East and Islamic centers of research, including the University of Iowa, which is in the process of building a large research library and attracting Islamic scholars. But interest isn’t limited to the large institutions of learning.

The Kirkwood Community College administration saw interest in Islamic studies and responded with a change in its curriculum. A course that previously only covered Christianity and Judaism was expanded to include Islam, and has been popular among students so far.

Robert Dotzel is currently teaching this course, in addition to his duties as Pastor of Lutheran Campus Ministries in Iowa City.

“Since 9/11, there's been this tremendous interest in religion from college students,” Dotzel said. “Students are clamoring to find out what people in the world believe, what their world views are.

“Why are we in conflict in parts of the world? Are they religious issues? Is it the religion causing the conflict, or is it political?” asks Dotzel. “Students are really falling all over themselves to find a course to answer these questions.”