Steve Slocum was shocked and horrified by the Sept. 11 attacks on New York’s World Trade Center, like his countrymen around him and in fact much of the world.
But unlike most of his fellow Americans, he had a deep well of knowledge of the Muslim culture, having spent five years with his family working as a Christian missionary in Kazakhstan, a Muslim-majority nation that shares its eastern border with Russia and China.
As he grappled with the reality of the deadly attacks, he felt that something didn’t line up — he couldn’t square the actions of the 9/11 hijackers with the “wonderful, warm and friendly” people he had met in Kazakhstan.
He also watched with dismay as anti-Muslim rhetoric sprung up, a problem that he said is even worse today than immediately after the 9/11 attacks.
“I finally decided it was time to speak up and do something about it,” said Slocum, 64, a San Diego resident. He took some time off from his work as an aircraft design engineer, which gave him time to both care for his elderly parents, who were in failing health, and to pursue his passion of peace activism.
Slocum launched two efforts to foster understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims in the U.S. In 2018, he founded SalaamUSA, a nonprofit that seeks to help Muslims and their non-Muslim counterparts get to know each other on a personal level through dialogue and friendship.
He also wrote a book, called “Why Do They Hate Us? Making Peace with the Muslim World,” which was published in July by Top Reads Publishing LLC. The book’s title came from a question posed by President George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks.
It takes a straightforward look at Islam, including a history of the Prophet Muhammad and the religion, and also addresses present day Islam, including such topics as jihad and sharia law. The book also includes results of a Gallup survey that details Muslim views on a variety of topics, and includes a chapter on steps that can be taken to bridge the divide between cultures and religions.
Through SalaamUSA, Slocum arranges different types of events, such as bringing Muslim speakers to civic, political and faith groups to talk about their beliefs and answer questions. Slocum also organizes visits to mosques in San Diego County and “friendship dinners,” where Muslims and non-Muslims can share a meal and get to know each other.
Slocum said he doesn’t believe the responsibility for bridging the gap of understanding falls on the shoulders of Muslims. News coverage, films and TV shows tend to highlight extreme versions of Islam that are motivated more by political grievances than religious strictures. The vast majority of the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims are respectful, law-abiding and non-violent, he said.
“It’s a peace-loving, warm culture in general,” Slocum said. “I feel like it’s our problem, my people’s problem that we don’t treat this community as we should. I just bring people together, that’s my real goal.”
Ayesha Jafri, who sits on the board of the Muslim Community Center in Santaluz, said Slocum’s work is important because it helps to dispel misconceptions that Muslims and non-Muslims have about each other and their respective religions.
“He wants to bring the real Muslims to the real non-Muslims and have them get to know each other,” Jafri said.
Although San Diego is a welcoming and tolerant place, she said non-Muslims just don’t have a lot of opportunities to meet their Muslim neighbors. And Muslims also need to do a better job of reaching out to their fellow San Diegans.
“As a group we need to develop more confidence in speaking about our faith and how it is a positive for the United States. We need to be more proactive,” Jafri said.
Yusef Miller, a board member with the Islamic Society of North County, said he has participated in a number of Slocum’s panels and events, and said they provide an important avenue for better understanding between religious groups.
“I think it’s immensely important and useful,” Miller said of Slocum’s work. As a non-Muslim, said Miller, Slocum may be seen by some as a neutral observer, thus enhancing his credibility.
Slocum said that personally, he wanted to make up both for the hardships he put his family through during their missionary years, and to repay the kindness and generosity shown to his family by the Muslim residents of Kazakhstan.
“I feel I owe them a debt to speak out,” Slocum said.
For more information, visit Slocum’s nonprofit at SalaamUSA.org.