About six months ago, I composed the following poem. It’s called Bethel, which means “house of God” in Hebrew. Initially inspired by peaceful summer sunsets and a passage of Genesis (which can be found below), I found myself weaving together strands of wisdom I’ve gathered from diverse religious sources over the years.
The words of this poem are not original. Every line contains a direct reference to a different scripture passage or myth that has informed my own personal sprituality. The sources include the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, the Qur’an and Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), Jewish midrash (commentary), the poetry of Hafiz and Rumi, the mystical writings of Julian of Norwich and Gregory of Nyssa, and Buddhist myth.
I’ve linked each line to the source from which it comes, so you can look up the ideas inspired this piece. I hope this poem can be a source for inter religious education, to help acquaint religious and non-religious people alike with the beautiful truths contained in religious stories.
But more importantly, I hope this poem can express a bit of my own varied experience of God. The words of these great religions help me to describe a range of encounters and emotions: first, wonder and awe; then, confusion and mystery; abandonment and anxiety; pain and relief; excitement and giddiness; peace and communion. I’m learning that of these states of being–all of these stages of joy, sorrow, boredom, and everything in between–are locations of encounter with God.
In short, the message of this poem is an elaboration of Jacob’s exclamation in Genesis 28:16: “Truly, the Lord is in this spot, although I did not know it.” Though I don’t often realize it, God is always with me.
Last weekend, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to deliver the following speech at the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice to an audience of over 1,000.
Using my own experiences with Muslim-Christian dialogue and the documents of the Second Vatican Council, I argued that we as Catholics are called to engage in interreligious dialogue.
Click here, or on the image below to watch “Living Nostra Aetate: Dialoging with Muslims,” or read the full text of the speech below the photo.
Full text of the speech:
[My name is Jordan Denari, I’m a senior at Georgetown University here in Washington, D.C. (applause) and a proud alumnus of Brebeuf Jesuit in Indianapolis (applause). Forgive me, I’m getting over a cough and lost my voice earlier this week, so bear with me.]
I’d like to begin first by saying “Assalaamu ‘alaykum,” which, in Arabic, means “peace be with you.” It seems like an appropriate way to begin today, given that it’s a phrase that Muslims use to greet one another, and it’s something that Jesus encouraged his followers to say to each other as well.
During my freshman year at Georgetown University, I was asked the following question multiple times: “Are you converting to Islam?”
I wouldn’t be surprised if people still asked that question now, three years later — given that I’ve been a board member of Georgetown’s Muslim Students Association, lived in the Muslim living-learning community, worked at an Islamic advocacy organization, and can often be spotted participating in Muslim Friday prayers with my hair wrapped up in a scarf.
In reality, however, I’m far from converting, and I feel more rooted in my own tradition, Catholicism, than ever before.
And that’s not spite of my engagement with the Muslim community, but because of it. Rather than pulling me away from my Catholic faith, interreligious dialogue with Muslims has deepened my faith, enriched it. Dialogue — which for me is about lived engagement with those different from myself — helped me fall back in love with the Catholic tradition in which I grew up.
At the beginning of college, while struggling with my Catholic identity and wondering if another religion like Islam might provide me with the connection to God that I was missing, I formed a close friendship with a Muslim girl in my dorm, Wardah. She taught me more about Islam than books ever could, because she simply lived her religion. When we roomed together as sophomores, she woke up early in the morning to pray and often stopped in the middle of homework assignments to pull out her prayer rug. Lacking commitment in my relationship with God, I wanted that kind of consistency in my own prayer life.
Wardah brought me to Muslim students’ events, like an iftar, the fast-breaking meal during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. I was struck by the sense of community and solidarity I saw among my new Muslim friends, and realized how much I craved that, too.
Finding these emphases on prayer and community in Islam reminded me that they also existed in my own Church, and I wanted to find them again. I signed up for a Catholic retreat with the intent of improving my daily prayer habits, and I joined a small Catholic bible study that provided me with a community with whom I could reflect on scripture. My relationship with God began improving, and my appreciation for my Catholic tradition increased.
My re-embracing of Catholicism would not have been possible without my exposure to Islam and my immersion into the Muslim community. But this process occurred differently than many might expect. People may assume that, after being exposed to Islam’s beliefs and practices and not liking them, I ran for the hills—the familiarity of Catholicism.
Instead, Islam, a faith not my own, became the medium through which I came to love the faith of my childhood. Islam provided me with a critical reference point from which I could see my own tradition more clearly. Before, I had been too close to really notice the beauty of Catholicism.
I often say that I have Islam to thank for helping me reclaim my faith —for making me a better Catholic. I think immersion into any other religious tradition would have served me in the same way.
As I began to reflect upon my own faith journey and the way in which Islam brought me back to Catholicism, I wondered what the Church would say about my engagement with the Muslim community and the interreligious dialogue that was so crucial to my experience.
A class on the post-Vatican II Church began to answer my questions, and I was thrilled to discover that the Church’s understanding of the importance of dialogue mirrored my own.
For the Church, interreligious dialogue is essential, and its purpose is vast: fostering understanding and learning between different religious groups; establishing social peace and cooperation; and strengthening the spirituality of all those involved.
The Church’s dedication to dialogue officially began with Nostra Aetate, a revolutionary Vatican II document that describes the Church’s new relationship to non-Christian religions. In only five short paragraphs, it reshaped the way the Church approaches people of other faiths.
It reads: the Church “urges its sons and daughters to enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions. Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, together with their social life and culture.”
The Church asserts that I can still remain true to my Catholic identity—that I am actually living out my Catholicism—while supporting and encouraging my Muslim friends’ way of life.
Pope John Paul II, who took strides to implement the ideals called for in Nostra Aetate, wrote in his encyclical Redemptor Hominis that participation in dialogue “does not at all mean losing certitude about one’s own faith or weakening the principles of morality…” Rather, he said, “the strong beliefs and the moral values of the followers of other religions can and should challenge Christians to respond more fully and generously to the demands of their own Christian faith.”
This has been my experience precisely. And that’s why I continue to stay involved in the Muslim community. Not only are Muslims my good friends, but their devotion to their religion constantly motivates me to re-examine the way I live out my Catholicism.
And, it’s why I’ve led efforts at Georgetown to provide religiously-diverse students with opportunities to dialogue with one another. Thanks to our small-group dialogue program, students find that their stereotypes of others are shattered, and in seeing how other believers practice their faith, they reflect on their own tradition in a new light.
The most powerful—and likely surprising—line in Nostra Aetate is one that again speaks directly to my own experiences.
It reads: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. …[Their teachings] often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men and women.”
I feel “rays of truth”—or God’s presence—when I participate in Muslim prayer and squish shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest of the congregation. I see the rays of truth when I watch the way my Muslim friends interact with one another in love.
And I hear the rays of truth in the azan, the Islamic call to prayer. When I studied abroad in Amman, Jordan, I was constantly drawn into a state of prayer upon hearing the azan five times a day. It was God calling me to dhikr, remembrance of God and the way he works in my life.
Nostra Aetate helped me realize that living a life of dialogue and interreligious engagement with Muslims was an inherently Catholic vocation, and it continues to challenge me today to live out that call in deeper ways:
The Church encourages all to “work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve, as well as to promote, together, social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom, for the benefit of all mankind.”
It’s particularly important for me to stand in solidarity with my Muslim brothers and sisters today, in light of the prejudices that Muslims face in the post-9/11 world.
Last month, anti-Muslim hate propaganda lined the walls of the D.C. metro, and a friend’s mosque was targeted in arson. And those are only two of myriad hate-filled and ignorance-driven acts that Muslims have had to cope with over the last few years. When I worked at an Islamic advocacy organization, I’d read daily local news reports about hate crimes against Muslims, but never were they reported about on a national scale, despite the fact that between 2009 and 2010, hate crimes against Muslims in America rose by 50%. As a Catholic, I can’t forget that our minority religious community too faced prejudice and scapegoating during an earlier time in American history. Like Muslims, we Catholics were marginalized because we were “foreign” and “threatening to American law and way of life.”
Today, the same accusations—and worse—are leveled against Muslims. Because many Americans don’t know Muslims—62% claim to have never met a Muslim—the media’s negative portrayal allows the American public—and many Christians—to push Muslims to the margins.
Unfortunately, I saw this marginalization occurring in my own Catholic community back home in Indianapolis. One afternoon during my junior year of high school, I opened my e-mail inbox to find a hateful, Islamophobic chain message, forwarded from a family friend. The email contained inflammatory epithets about Muslims, who, according to the email, expressed tacit approval for terrorism and violence committed by a few radicals. I was angry and sad that a family friend, someone from my own Catholic community, could espouse and promote this hateful sentiment—that she would lump terrorists together with people like my friend, Nadir, a Muslim who went to my high school, Brebeuf Jesuit, and now goes to Georgetown with me. He is an exceptional individual who exudes kindness and has committed his life to helping others. I wondered how my family friend could put him in the same category as those who carried out the 9/11 attacks.
It was immediately apparent to me that my family friend was not a hateful woman; it was her ignorance that resulted in her prejudicial comments. Those in my Catholic community who had circulated this email did so because of their lack of understanding of Muslims.
I hope my own story, and the call of Nostra Aetate, can help remind Christians how much we need our Muslim neighbors—how much we can learn about God and each other by engaging with them. We must be like the Samaritan, pulling up the stranger. We must bring Muslims out of the margins, making clear that they too are our neighbors.
Every night, I go to Mass in the chapel of the North American Jesuit Martyrs at Georgetown. It’s a habit that I never would have anticipated myself undertaking four years ago, when I came to college shaky about my Catholic identity. During the Eucharist, I often think about the fact that I wouldn’t be at nightly Mass were it not for the group of believers on the other side of the chapel wall—the Georgetown Muslim community. While the Catholics participate in their 10pm Mass, the Muslim students complete their nightly 10pm isha prayer in the musallah, or prayer room, next door. When I come to Mass discouraged about the state of Muslim-Christian relations—when it seems that violence and bigotry will win out—I’m often strengthened by the quiet, Arabic words that echo from the musallah into the chapel every night: Allahu akbar—God is greater.
The malicious and intentional spreading of an offensive, anti-Muslim video. The murder of an American ambassador. Protests around the world. Hate crimes against mosques in the U.S.
All of these events seem to further solidify the already-entrenched narrative about Muslim-Christian relations—that Muslims and Christians are in a “clash of civilizations,” fundamentally at odds, and hell-bent on the destruction of the other. The images we see on CNN, and the headlines we read in the morning paper, point to an inherent battle between the world’s two largest religious groups.
But another, more subtle, yet more powerful, narrative exists. One I’ve tried to share often on my blog. I was reminded of it again tonight, first at a banquet celebrating the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr (which was last month) and second at Catholic Mass.
The banquet, hosted by the university’s president and attended by diverse leaders on campus, began with the maghrib, or sunset, prayer. As the Muslims lined up in their rows, and rabbis, Jesuits, and other non-Muslims bowed their heads in reverence, I looked over to find one of Georgetown’s Franciscan priests in the prayer line with the other Muslims, bending and placing his head on the floor. I was so moved by the message that this Franciscan’s participation sent—that his belief in God, and his vocation as a priest, doesn’t preclude him from worshipping with those who are different. It actually calls for it.
At the end of the prayer, the university imam spoke to the congregation about the meaning of the Arabic word for prayer, salah, which literally means, “reaching out and connecting.” He discussed the importance of reaching out not only to God, but also to those around us.
This “reaching out” continued through dinner, as we met new people and shared stories. I was lucky enough to sit next to Georgetown’s first Jewish chaplain, a rabbi who retired a few years back. He told me of his time working in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements; how he was a Freedom Rider and met Martin Luther King and Malcolm X; and that he studied under Abraham Joshua Heschel, who famously said of the March on Washington: “I felt like my feet were praying.” I was not only amazed at the compassionate action of this man, but also by the fact that our conversation quickly transitioned into a discussion about how we miss cheap falafel in the Middle East.
He also spoke to me about his concern for the declining numbers of Jesuits. He began rattling off statistics about how many Jesuits were in the Maryland province when he began at Georgetown in the sixties, compared to today. As he finished his shpeal, I realized that I wasn’t talking to a Jesuit concerned about this decline, but a rabbi. He cares about Catholic clergy just as much as those in his own tradition.
After mingling with Muslim friends I hadn’t seen since before I went abroad, I went to Mass, where the reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians stressed that we are all parts of Christ’s one body. In the homily, the priest discussed the intersection of diversity, complementarity, and dependence—that in our diversity we complement one another, and more importantly help one another when we are in need.
I couldn’t help but think of the following passage from the Qur’an, which Georgetown’s president had read shortly before at the banquet:
“If God had willed, He would have made you one religious community, but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race one another in good deeds.” Just as in Paul’s letter, the Qur’an speaks of God’s desire for diversity, complementary, and dependence.
And I thought of the sweetest thing that a Muslim friend said to me as we left the dinner—how he and others had missed me, and how a hole had been left, when I was abroad. I was struck by the kindness of his words, but also the greater truth that they held.
A truth that must become the new narrative about interreligious relations: that without one of us, there is a gaping hole. When one part of the body is missing—whether it be the rabbi, the Catholic girl, or the Muslim boy—we cannot move or act. We cannot “pray with our feet” and race together in the game of doing good works on our common planet.
When I arrived back to my apartment late on Tuesday night, the eleventh anniversary of September 11, 2001, I opened my laptop to find a burning, bright orange image of a man stoking fire and a New York Times headline reading, “Anger Over a Film Fuels Anti-American Attacks in Libya and Egypt.”
As I read on about the violent demonstrations in Cairo and in Benghazi, and as I watched the offensive, bigoted video that apparently sparked these riots, my stomach began to drop.
I was at a loss for words, didn’t know what to say or even think.
How could this be happening? And why the hell was it happening on September 11th? And what can I do that will ever, in some way, pull us out of this cycle of bigotry and violence?
Over the past week, as I’ve thought about how to comment on these unraveling events and answer these questions, no clear explanation or response has been easy to find. Instead, I keep coming back to the place I was just before I opened my laptop to discover this terrible news—in Copley Crypt Chapel at Georgetown.
“I wish you didn’t…” said the Jesuit priest who was giving the homily at the nightly 10pm Mass. About thirty of us, mostly students, were seated in a semi-circle in the small, arched space, where faint gold light rests on the curved walls. The stained glass windows, depicting the martyrdoms of North American Jesuits like Jean de Brebeuf, let in only darkness from outside.
“I wish you didn’t live in this time, this era, where things are so hard and unclear. I wish you were graduating at a time like the one when I did—when walls were falling down and a man was released from jail to lead his country.” Our priest graduated from Georgetown in the nineties, optimistic that the Cold War had ended and that Nelson Mandela was free. Things seemed to be looking up—and then 9/11 happened.
“But you are living in this new, troubled world. And our world needs you.” He was crying, and I began to cry, too. On the anniversary of 9/11, I’m always reminded how much my life, my passions, and my career have been shaped by that event and what’s happened after.
Our priest then spoke of the group of us gathered there for Mass, about the difference we must make.
And it was then that I became completely overwhelmed by the good that will be done (and is already being done) by the thirty-some people sitting with me. To my right and left sat two of my closest friends, who have dedicated their lives to address two of our generation’s most pressing issues: migration and climate change. I thought of others in the room, and my friends who weren’t there, who are going into education and business, medicine and healthcare, just to name a few. My eyes welled over not just with amazement at my friends’ love and self-sacrifice, but also with a heavy sadness at the challenges we face and the suffering experienced by those with whom we walk in solidarity.
The priest concluded his homily, explaining why we come to Mass. He said that it’s not inside the academic buildings on campus where we can be transformed to make the difference our world needs.
“It’s right here, with Jesus,” he said.
I’ve come to learn that becoming closer to God doesn’t mean becoming happier or even more at peace. It means coming face-to-face with, and even entering, suffering. Jesus was at his best on the cross, and in order for me to be a better, more loving human, I have to meet him there, both in nightly Mass and in the work I do during the other 23 hours of my day.
The loving Catholic community and the time of prayer that helps orient me toward a more Cross-centered life are the reasons I continue going to nightly Mass at Georgetown. But I wouldn’t even be there in the first place were it not for the group of believers on the other side of the chapel wall—the Georgetown Muslim community. While the Catholics are participating in the nightly 10pm Mass, the Muslim students are completing their nightly 10pm isha prayer in the musallah next door. Over the past three years, I’ve witnessed my Muslim friends’ devotion to prayer, and it’s made me want to have the same commitment to my own prayer life. That’s why I decided to become more active in my own Catholic community, and to make nightly Mass a regular part of my day during my senior year.
As I sort through and begin writing about these confusing, troubling “eleventh anniversary” events, which mark a new low in the downward spiral of Muslim-Christian tensions, I remember the good that will be done by those on both sides of the chapel wall, and the support we will provide one another as we take up our crosses.
When it seems that violence and bigotry will win out, the passionate commitment of these Catholic and Muslim communities remind me of the quiet, Arabic words that echo from the musallah into the chapel every evening: God is greater.
On Sunday afternoon, I marched in downtown D.C. behind rows of black-hooded figures in orange jumpsuits, holding a sign that read, “Torture is always wrong.” I was part of a procession commemorating the “National Week of Action Against Torture, Guantanamo, and the NDAA,” and the mock-prisoners walking ahead of me represented the many victims of torture who have suffered at the hands of the US military.
Torture is not a new phenomenon in war and conflict, but in recent years, its use by the US military and government has increased tremendously. As a result of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US military has built prisons at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Afghanistan (e.g. Bagram), and Iraq, where many foreigners have been detained for years without trial and have little hope for release. Even children, like Omar Khadr, an Afghan boy who was only fifteen when he was captured, have been imprisoned in Gitmo for the last ten years.
Despite promises that previous and current administrations have made to refrain from torture, those in Guantanamo and other US military facilities around the world have been subjected to electrocutions, beatings, sleep deprivation, and humiliation.
Murat Kurnaz, a German Turk studying in Pakistan who was detained by Americans at Bagram and eventually sent to Guantanamo, describes the torture techniques he endured after being interrogated about the “whereabouts of Osama bin Laden:”
During their interrogations, they dunked my head under water and punched me in the stomach; they don’t call this waterboarding but it amounts to the same thing. I was sure I would drown. At one point, I was chained to the ceiling of a building and hung by my hands for days. A doctor sometimes checked if I was O.K.; then I would be strung up again. The pain was unbearable. (NYT)
For many of us, the immorality of torture is unquestionable. Harming another human being, through physical torture or coercion, is morally disgusting.
But despite the immorality of torture, we must wonder, is it effective? Doesn’t torture work to get information that will protect our country from terrorism, and don’t the ends often justify the means?
Matthew Alexander, a former US interrogator in Iraq, answers this question in his must-read book,How to Break a Terrorist. He writes how he used “brains, not brutality” while interrogating terror suspects in Iraq, and thus tracked down the most dangerous man in the country, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
He describes the tension that existed among his fellow interrogators—one group was convinced that the old ways of intimidation and humiliation (asserting power over and breaking down one’s detainee) would succeed in producing information; the other group, Alexander’s, was convinced otherwise. By building rapport with detainees, and showing respect for their culture, religion, and background, Alexander could establish trust, and was consequently able to more easily pry for information.
Not only does Alexander’s book argue successfully for the effectiveness of avoiding torture and coercion in interrogation, but he also reminds us that even those guilty of horrific crimes are people, full of contradictions. One detainee, who ultimately confesses to building bombs for al-Qaeda, writes a love letter to his wife from prison. “You will always be the first star in the night sky, my love. I would endure ten thousand lashes to just to see your face again,” he wrote, “I am so sorry for everything that I have done” (Alexander, 130 – 131).
Alexander writes that while terrorists can’t be excused from the violence they committed—no matter the circumstances, their actions were wrong and punishable—, their motives for embracing terrorism are often complicated. Many of the Iraqi detainees, Alexander describes, were motivated to join al-Qaeda not because they shared the group’s ideals and goals, but “out of economic need and out of fear” that their families would face reprisals if they did not join (220).
How to Break a Terrorist shows Americans what interrogation could look like if we abandon torture and coercion in dealing with foreign “enemies.” I put the word “enemies” in quotations because not all those detained by the US military are enemies of America. More often than not, detainees, like Murat Kurnaz, are the victims of bogus detainment operations, driven more by racism and sweeping capture policy than sound intelligence.
And, in recent years, the “enemies” that the US has detained haven’t simply been foreign ones. Increasingly, US citizens have been detained without initial charge or trial and tortured. Many of the victims’ crimes seem to have simply been the exercising of free speech, or being a convenient scapegoat in a post-9/11 era defined by paranoia and fear. Sami al-Arian and Ahmed Abu Ali, who have both experienced torture and indefinite detainment in the US, are two Ameircan citizens who have suffered US-sanctioned injustice often tinged with the influences of Islamophobia.
Recent legislation has made legal the president’s right to detain a person indefinitely on suspicion of affiliation with terrorist organizations or “associated forces,” a broad, vague power that can be abused without meaningful oversight from the courts or Congress (the law is currently being blocked by a federal judge). This law violates the right to freedom of expression and to be presumed innocent until proved guilty, two other rights enshrined in the [Constitution]. (NYT)
At the time al-Arian and Abu Ali were detained, these practices were illegal—but that didn’t stop the government from using them. The legalizing of them, then, likely means that more al-Arians and Abu Alis will be subjected to these injustices. At the rally, we were marching for the repeal of the NDAA’s clauses that violate our constitutional guarantees and, more importantly, our collective American conscience.
To me, what is almost more appalling than the injustice itself, is that Americans are virtually ignorant of the problem. As we passed tourists at the rally, one onlooker said to me: “It [torture] happens to us too, you know.”
Her short statement implied a few things: 1) that we, the protestors, were only concerned about foreign torture victims at the hands of the US, and not about our own, who have endured harsh treatment all over the world, in places like Vietnam; and 2) that we should meet torture with torture—“Why should we stop torturing, if our enemies will continue torturing our people?”
I wanted to answer her, “Yes, I know torture happens to us, as Americans, too, and that’s why we’re marching.” She didn’t know that many, many Americans suffer torture at the hands of our own institutions, which should uphold the values they claim to possess.
So, once again, I want to reiterate a message that seems to constantly reappear in my writings: that ignorance of injustice is our biggest enemy. I hope the few words I’ve provided here about torture and America’s complicity in it begin to chip away at that ignorance, which is the first enemy that must be broken.