It was a packed house inside Quinn Hall at UTEP Friday evening. Instead of heading out to the local bar to kick off the weekend, students and other El Pasoans gathered to listen to a lecture by Imam Abdullah Antepli about religious extremism and the need for interfaith discussions.
Antepli is the chief representative of Muslim affairs and an Islamic studies faculty professor at Duke University. He was invited to El Paso by the Dialogue Institute of the Southwest to tackle the topic.
"It's very timely. We should've had many of these conversations. We should have more of these conversations among faith communities, among the civic leaders, among educated and intellectual people," Antepli said.
He described the recent beheadings of American journalists as well as the burning of a Jordanian pilot as barbaric, saying that this is not a fair representation of the religion.
"What we are seeing in different names, different manifestations, is Islam hijacked by a group of extremists who are uncivilized, primitive, barbaric people who are distorting its beautiful message and turning it into evil."
However, he said that he will not apologize for the religion of Islam or say that ISIS fighters are not Muslims.
"I am not here to apologize... I'm not going to say that Islam has nothing to do with it, that they have nothing to do with Islam. As evil as they are, I can't tell them they are not Muslim; they are, as crusaders were Christian," Antepli said.
President Obama reiterated that sentiment Friday with a controversial statement.
"Humanity's been grappling with these questions throughout human history, and unless we get on our high horse and think that this is unique to some other place -- remember that during the Crusades and Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ," he said.
The director of the religious studies program at UTEP, Ann Horak, says this is the perfect time to be having this discussion.
"The conversation has gotten even more important, it's gotten even more vital for us to counteract this narrow image of Islam that many people have."
She also believes UTEP is the perfect venue because of its proximity to Fort Bliss and the abundance of service members and veterans attending the university.
"They are the most interested in learning about Islam and they're the ones that understand the most how diverse the religion is. So, perhaps they have been deployed, and perhaps they have been in firefights with certain factions of Islamic militant units, but they've also had the opportunity to meet many other Muslims who'd welcome them," she said.
Antepli agrees and says he sees El Paso as a starting point for future generations because it has already shown how accepting it is of diversity in cultures.
"I think El Paso in many ways is showing us the projection, the future of America, in a couple of generations down the road, my children's generation. It shows what America or part of America will look like and I'm hoping this new color and face of America will be different. It will be much more diverse. Our ability to engage with diversity and difference will be a lot better."
In the end, both Antepli and Horak say communication is stronger than misconception.
On Monday KFOX14 will feature a Town Hall discussion on the impact of terror groups on our everyday lives, the radicalization of Islam, and what action our government should take to protect all Americans.