The imam at a new mosque that’s slated to open soon in south St. Louis County challenged perceptions of a group of older adults from the moment he walked in the door at the Episcopal Church of the Advent to speak about Islam.
SOURCE: St. Louis Post Dispatch
Some of the 50 people in attendance Thursday expected Eldin Susa to have dark skin, a full beard and tunic. Instead, Susa, 33, looked like most of the people who grew up here.
“In Bosnia, we dress ordinary,” Susa told a woman who introduced herself and kindly inquired about his button-down shirt and slacks.
SAJE, an ecumenical Christian ministry, invited Susa to its monthly “lunch and learn” event because of the political climate and in anticipation of a large mosque that’s nearly completed in the Affton area near Reavis Barracks and MacKenzie roads.
Susa said the mosque might open in a month or two, but mostly he spoke from the heart about Islam and how it’s often misunderstood because of extremists.
He drew applause from the crowd over his reaction to “brainwashed” suicide bombers and awe when he spoke about the common ground between Christians and Muslims, followers of the Islamic faith.
“We do not believe that Jesus was the son of God. We believe that he was created miraculously,” he said. “We believe that he is one of the greatest of God’s messengers to mankind.”
The group was all ears and didn’t hesitate to ask Susa questions.
What’s the difference between Muslim and Islam?
What is jihad?
One person said she didn’t understand how young men loyal to the Islamic State are willing to blow themselves up and others.
“Me, neither, “ Susa said, drawing applause.
A higher perspective
While Islam is often tied to terrorism in the news, Susa said their holy book, the Quran, forbids atrocities “before everything.”
“I don’t know how they justify killing innocent people,” he said. “I don’t know how they justify killing Muslims, not only non-Muslims, because most of those who are killed by ISIS are Muslim. If some of them came here, the first person killed by them would be me, not you.”
He said the extremist ideology first appeared after the seventh-century death of Muhammad, founder of Islam.
“In religion, there is a core value that cannot be changed, but there are some things left for people to decide,” he said. “This is what they do not accept. They have their own opinion and if you are not going according to their opinion, they will kill you.”
He said minority extremist groups have popped up since then.
“This extreme ideology cannot attract masses,” he said. “It attracts just brainwashed, brain-empty people.”
At times, he said, Islamic extremism has ebbed, then would pop up again. A rebirth is happening now in certain parts of the world such as Syria and Iraq.
But he also turned the extremism question back on the crowd, noting that all religions have terrorists.
“Maybe you are just looking around yourselves,” Susa said. “Let’s take a higher perspective. I can count you Christian terrorists who are willing to give their lives for what they believe and what they believe is totally different from what Jesus — peace be upon him — is calling to.”
Thousands of Bosnian Muslims were massacred in Srebrenica in 1995. A few months ago, Susa said a Christian orthodox priest who fought in the Serbian army during the war in Bosnia was quoted as saying: “I’m still in a good mood to kill.”
Susa said religion was not in conflict, people are in conflict. Yet religion tends to be used to justify violence, which tarnishes the faith for normal, peaceful believers.
The Dalai Lama, for example, is considered one of the most peaceful leaders on the planet, but he said there were still Buddhist nationalist groups and fringe radicals who resort to violence.
Added the Rev. Dan Handschy, pastor of the church hosting the event: “Just remember the troubles in Northern Ireland.”
Episcopal Church of the Advent, 9373 Garber Road, is one of four congregations that are part of SAJE, a ministry funded by Mission St. Louis. Two of the other congregations are Catholic, another is Lutheran.
SAJE’s senior ministry puts on the “lunch and learn” speaker series. The meeting about Islam drew one of the largest turnouts.
Construction for the 800-person-capacity mosque at the busy intersection in the Affton area has caught people’s attention since it began in 2013. Also, Muslims have been the topic and target of the national political discussion.
In February, a 71-year-old man from south St. Louis County was arrested after allegedly threatening a Muslim couple and their four children as they looked for a house to rent. “You Muslim? All of you should die,” the man allegedly yelled.
“Given the rhetoric, people are curious,” Handschy said. “We wanted to extend a hand of friendship to (Susa).”
Several of the people who showed up weren’t affiliated with the faith groups.
“I am interested in learning more about Islam,” said Kathy Kingsley, a retired clerk from the Affton area. “I am very aware that Islam is persecuted because people don’t understand it.”
Sandy Albrecht, of the Oakville area, said: “I was glad he made it clear that ISIS is not what they believe in.”
Susa, who is married with two children, moved from Bosnia to St. Louis a little over a year ago. He served as an imam in Bosnia, where he also taught Arabic, Islamic religion and history in high school. As an undergraduate student in Egypt, he studied history and theology.
Susa is leading one of three Bosnian mosques in the St. Louis area. The congregation didn’t take out any loans. They built as money was available.
The mosque will be open for daily prayers, a main congregational service on Friday and Sunday school.
Calming some concerns from the neighborhood, he said there won’t be loudspeakers outside the building calling people to prayer. He said there would be an open house for the public once the mosque is finished.
“What we fear most is what we do not know,” he said at the end of his lecture. “We can differ in religion. We can differ in beliefs. But if you know me, you will not fear me. If you don’t fear me, then you will not hate me and you will not try to kill me.”