Waging Peace in Boise
by Nick Armstrong
“We must curb and limit Islamic migration and stop the refugee dumps.” Three weeks ago a former Muslim who is now a pastor spoke these words to Idaho lawmakers and warned of a Muslim conspiracy to establish Sharia law. Riding the wave of popular scorn of the recent dark and horrific deeds of ISIS, there has been no shortage of anti-Islamic talk from some of the political arenas in Idaho, and soon after this meeting there was a newsletter published from the Bonneville County Republican Central Committee which warned that Muslims were “infiltrating” the state of Idaho. Then just last week, 100 people gathered in the Community Hall of Sandpoint, Idaho, where there was talk of Islam being "a culture of death” and on the move to create enclaves of Sharia in Idaho.
Given the media’s journalistic preference for sensational conflict narratives, it’s easy to understand how an anti-Islamic message gets propagated and how people become fearful. After all, the news of bombings and beheadings sells far better than the thousands of small stories of compassion and caring for each other. Yes, it is easy to understand why popular perception is the way it is, but it is also undeniably a false picture of what is actually going on.
The fact is that there is no such thing as refugee dump in the United States or Idaho. Less than one half of one percent of the refugees in the world are allowed to come to the U.S., and only about one percent of those end up in Idaho. Furthermore, those refugees who do make it to the U.S. have an average waiting time of 5 years in a refugee camp and are extensively screened by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and the USCIS (United States Customs and Immigration Services), a department of Homeland Security, before being allowed to come to the United States. Also, only about one half of one percent of Idaho’s population is comprised of Muslims, and the overwhelmingly vast majority of those Muslims believe that they are not only required to uphold the laws and constitution of the United States but, as a good citizen, to safeguard and protect the security and wellbeing of the United States and its people. So the warning that Muslims are “infiltrating” the state of Idaho and would border on comical if it weren’t so grossly misleading.
Interestingly enough, at the same time as 100 people were gathering in Sandpoint, Idaho to listen to anti-Islamic rhetoric, there was a very different kind of event being held more than 400 miles to the south of Sandpoint. This “Peace Feast” was held at a Boise restaurant and was attended by an equal number of Muslims and Christians sharing dinner and, instead of stoking the flames of fear, building bridges and understanding.
The Islamic community in Boise is very ethnically and culturally diverse, made up of people who have come to Boise as refugees from countries like India, Bosnia, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Syria, Bosnia, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, the United States and elsewhere. The one thing all the Muslim refugees share is a story of persecution, escape, and survival. For many of these survivors, some of the greatest battles they face are not physical but rather fear, loneliness, despair, trauma, and the loss of family and community. These Peace Feasts are intended to wage peace, build bridges, and provide opportunities for authentic friendships to take root.
As a kind of postscript to this blog, as the Peace Feast dinner wrapped up, I was asked by a Saudi Arabian and two Kuwaiti students who had been quietly dining in the back of the restaurant during the presentation to come outside with them. Just outside the restaurant they told me how impressed they were that this group of Muslims and Christians were actually learning together, and one of the young men insisted on paying for everyone’s meal – 20 people! God works His peace in mysterious ways.
Footnote: It is because of the extensive nature of the screening process a refugee goes through before they are allowed to step on U.S. soil that only about 2,000 of the 12 million Syrian refugees in the world are slated to come to the United States this year.