The woman seated across from me on MARTA stared at my t-shirt and squinted as she re-read the words. It was late, she looked tired, and it wasn’t the first stare my shirt had garnered that day.
This is what a Radical Muslim Feminist Looks Like.
The corners of her mouth crept up into a slight smile. “Ok then,” she said, chuckling a bit. We ended up having a great conversation – turns out she’s from just outside my mother’s hometown in Mississippi and is part of the Katrina Diaspora scattered across the country, struggling to reclaim their lives.
More importantly, she didn’t flinch at faith.
Unfortunately, it seems the organizers of the first United States Social Forum flinched. Outreach to progressives of faith regarding the Forum was insufficient. Local Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist friends said they knew of no outreach from USSF organizers or affiliates to their congregations. Other progressives of faith from around the country told similar stories.
Throughout the week I was met with bewildered looks, awkward silence, and even mild hostility if I mentioned pertinent issues of faith during some workshops. One young woman I met spoke of how uncomfortable she felt identifying herself as a Christian in any context during the week, despite being a committed and active progressive.
The experiences of others and myself at the Forum highlight what seems to be a lack of comfort with and inclusion of religion and people of faith with a certain element on “The Left” and within the progressive movement. This lack of cohesion and, sometimes, outright exclusion weakens both the faith-based and broader progressive movement denying them the benefits to be found in perhaps unexpected coalitions such as new ideas, energies, and partnerships.
These days religion is more likely associated with conservatism, extremism, even militarism and consumerism. The existence of a religious Left has been all but forgotten as the U.S. lurched towards the Right in recent years. The narrow, conservative, antagonistic view of religion is partly the fault of media misrepresentation.
Media Matters highlighted the issue in their report Left Behind: The Skewed Representation of Religion in Major News Media, which analyzed coverage beginning the day after the 2004 election through the end of 2006. According to the report, conservative religious leaders were quoted, interviewed or mentioned 2.8 times more often than progressive religious leaders when reviewing newspaper and television coverage combined. Television, which Media Matters constrained to the three major networks, three major cable news channels and PBS, provided outlets for conservative religious leaders 3.8 times more often than for progressive leaders. Major newspapers utilized the voices of conservative religious leaders 2.7 times more than those of religious progressives. The bias is remarkable given that most in the US hold what would be considered progressive views, based on a recently released report by Campaign for America’s Future and Media Matters reviewing polling data from reputable sources such as Pew Research and Gallup.
Atlanta was selected as the host city for the US Social Forum because of the city’s significance in the US civil rights struggles. Anyone who knows anything about that progressive movement knows people of faith were at its forefront.
I am not a resident of Atlanta, but I reside here temporarily. I mention this because it means my ability to engage in outreach to any community is limited given my transient status. I share the ideals espoused by organizers of the Forum and signed up to volunteer in order to make it happen. My first question to people in the local organizing office was what outreach had been made to the faith community and specifically, because they are often forgotten in such efforts, the Muslim community. I was met by polite, yet unsatisfying answers:
“We don’t have any contacts.”
“I wouldn’t know how to approach them.”
“We don’t do religion.”
I had no contacts and only a week before the start of the Forum, but I did have an Internet connection. A quick Google and Salat-O-Matic search led me to the only mosque I knew and coincidentally the largest in the area: Al-Farooq. I cold-called the director and explained what the Forum was I why I believed the Muslim community should be involved. He cautiously agreed to meet me after the Friday prayer service so I could pass along posters and fliers. I arrived early for jummah and struck up a conversation with a middle-aged women dressed in white. When I began explaining the Forum and my visit with the Director, her face lit up.
“Oh, I am so glad you came,” she said, clasping my hand in hers. “I haven’t heard anything about this. When is it?”
“Next week,” I replied. Her face registered disappointment.
“I wish I’d known about it.”
The Director proved helpful, but said because his function was mostly to oversee finances and the construction of the huge new facility I should call another member of the community who was involved in youth organizing.
When I phoned him, his enthusiasm was hugely gratifying. He was ready to bring others into the discussion and suggested a conference call. And he absolutely understood why I felt the ideals of the Forum matched the faith.
“So, when is this happening?” he asked. I cringed.
In her session description for the Building a Faith-Based Progressive Movement workshop, presented during the Forum by the Church in Society division of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, facilitator Loretta Horton, Director of Poverty Ministries Networking with ELC, illustrated the hard middle ground progressives of faith often find themselves shoved into these days.
“At many progressive gatherings, the faith community is often overlooked or completely left out of any conversation focusing on building a progressive movement for change in this country. Now is the time for progressive people of faith to step forward with conviction and be bold as we live out our theological beliefs of what a just society looks like. We have to challenge those on the religious right who would distort scripture, support public policy that is racist and sexist, and who use the rhetoric of hate as a tool to divide communities.”
During the workshop, members of the ecumenical and interfaith panel spoke of their personal struggles within the movement.
“It’s hard to be a Christian on the real radical Left, an unapologetic Christian,” said Malika M’Buze Moore or Atlanta’s 1st African Presbyterian. “I walk with my comrades and feel lonely.”
“In social movements faith is viewed with quite a bit of suspicion,” said Reverend John Selders of Amistad United Church of Christ in Connecticut, who acknowledged that religion has “hurt a lot of people”. “I am continuously amazed when people say ‘you’re from the church and you think WHAT?’”
Building a progressive movement is supposed to be about inclusion.
“The God I know speaks in an inclusive language and is a big ol’ God,” said Rev. Selders. “We gotta find partners in those spaces and places that may not be the likely ones and they may not be the comfortable ones.”
None of us are one-dimensional beings. Our multiplicities, every little quirk and contradiction that makes us who we are, are like facets on our own brilliant diamond; they make us shine. A movement that celebrates its multiplicities, including those of faith, will be stronger, more brilliant, and more valuable to the world.