'Our Muslim Neighbors' Chautauqua set at SJC

Mike Easterling

FARMINGTON — Albuquerque resident Ned O’Malia has been delivering his Chautauqua presentation “Our Muslim Neighbors” throughout New Mexico for the better part of 20 years under the auspices of the state Humanities Council. He begins with the premise that not many New Mexicans know much about Islam.

Ned O'Malia delivers a Chautauqua on "Our Muslim Neighbors" Friday, Sept. 9 at San Juan College.

“And I’m usually right,” he said.

O’Malia will deliver his Chautauqua again this weekend in a presentation at San Juan College. He describes Islam as the fastest-growing religion in the world and believes there is a sizable benefit to Americans having a better understanding of what it does and doesn’t represent.

“When I talk to people about Islam, nobody knows anything about it — and now, they equate mosques with terrorists,” he said. “Most people don’t know about the quiet Muslim family that lives down the street with the father who is a math professor and the mother who is a radiologist.”

O’Malia — who holds a doctorate in Asian religions from Temple University — begins his presentation by discussing the Five Pillars of Islam, then talks about well-known American Muslim figures ranging from Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali to Marcus Garvey and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison. He also covers Sharia law.

A longtime faculty member at the University of New Mexico who is now a chef, travel writer, photographer and tour director, in addition to being a part-time teacher, O’Malia said he used to be much like most other Americans in his ignorance of other religions besides Christianity. During his undergraduate years, he attended a small Catholic college in northeast Pennsylvania and said he didn’t know any Muslims or Jews.

“But by the time I got to Philadelphia (where Temple is located), I found this huge cultural world,” he said.

That ignited O’Malia’s fascination with the world’s religions. He became particularly interested in Islam.

“I find the religion to be a great, beautiful religion until you meet some of the people who are Muslims,” he said. “It doesn’t always carry over into the marketplace.”

Nevertheless, O’Malia certainly understands why Islam is so popular around the world.

“I’ve always said, ‘If you can read about Islam and not think about becoming a Muslim, you have no heart,’” he said.

From the perspective of many of those who adhere to the faith, Islam has steadfastly avoided change.

“One of the attractive parts of Islam that I continue to hear from converts is they believe the religion today is exactly the religion the Prophet Muhammad preached from 622 to 632 (A.D.),” he said. “To them, it’s pure, unadulterated, continues in a straight line and is very simple. … Theirs is a belief that it is simple and straightforward.”

It is precisely that element that O’Malia finds troubling. First of all, he argues, that belief simply isn’t true. If it were, he said, there wouldn’t be discussions within the faith about whether it is appropriate for pregnant women to fly during Ramadan, for example.

But that devotion to a perceived purity of theology also needs to be challenged, he said.

“Islam needs a reformation in the same way the Catholic Church had a Reformation with Martin Luther that allowed people to believe different things,” O’Malia said. “Muslims do believe different things, but it’s not really accepted.”

Islam had a very small presence in America before 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs ushered in major changes in America’s immigration laws, O’Malia said. Those changes did away with the old quota system, and based admission on a prospective immigrant’s profession and the need for those kinds of workers in America. That enabled many well-educated Muslims from Arabic nations such as Jordan and Egypt to resettle in the United States, becoming what O’Malia calls “American converts.”

He described most of those Muslims as devout and reverent but said they tend to have a larger worldview than the people in their countries of origin. And, eventually, he said, their faith comes to define them less and less, especially for those who are of the second or third generation.

“They become — and I hate this phrase — ‘ordinary citizens’ in time,” he said. “They become like people who say, ‘We’re Christians. We go to church — we went on Christmas last year.’”

O’Malia said it often takes two or three generations before Muslim immigrants to America “enter that less-than-sheltered existence.” For example, he described having seen some teenagers in Española — northwest of Santa Fe, where there is a decent-size Muslim community — walking down the street wearing a Muslim head cover and a Michael Jackson hat.

That eventual cultural assimilation has happened on a far-more-infrequent basis in Europe, O’Malia said.

“There are 8 million Muslims in England, and often, their terrorists have come from second-generation children of immigrants,” he said. “And France has at least 6 million Muslims. But then, I’m not sure Americans could integrate into French culture.”

O’Malia said he likely will begin addressing the subject of Middle East refugees in his lecture, since so many Americans fear their presence.

“In my view, they may be Muslims in name, but I think of them more as refugees,” he said, explaining that the priority for the vast majority of them will be to salvage a good life rather than pursue a religious agenda. “I don’t think they’re coming here to build mosques.”

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

If you go

What: Chautauqua presentation by Ned O’Malia on “Our Muslim Neighbors”

When: 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 9 in the Little Theatre on the San Juan College campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington

Admission: Free

For more information: Call 505-566-3430