Make Jesus and Muhammad Proud

This week, I published two new articles, one focused on the Middle East, and another about domestic events. Both, however, deal with Islamophobia and the necessary interfaith response to it.

Sojourners was kind enough to ask me to write a piece in response to the anti-Muslim rallies which were planned throughout the country last weekend. Fortunately, many of these protests didn’t materialize, and often the ones that did were met with loving responses from Muslims and other Americans. Still there is always more that can be done.

A Muslim woman embraced a lone protester outside an Ohio mosque on Saturday. After visiting the mosque at the encouragement of the worshippers, the protester said, "I had no idea Muslims could be nice to me, even after I stood out there with those signs. Sorry."
“I had no idea Muslims could be nice to me, even after I stood out there with those signs. Sorry.” -Lone protestor outside Ohio mosque

In “Five Things To Do When an Anti-Muslim Hate Rally Comes to Town,” I elaborate on several ways to counter to Islamophobic  activities:

  1. Gather together… and pray together.
  2. If you do demonstrate, make Jesus (and Muhammad) proud.
  3. Learn about Islam…and Islamophobia.
  4. Publicize what you’re doing, even if it’s something small.
  5. Repeat steps 1 through 4, even when a hate rally isn’t coming to town.

One important gesture, I write, is joint prayer: “Christians could observe Muslim’s prayer rituals, or better yet, recite a written prayer together with them. This sample prayer, which incorporates teachings from both Islamic and Christian traditions, could be used to affirm the common values maintained by all:

Almighty and Merciful God,
Who created humanity in all its wonderful diversity:
Help us to be peacemakers
And inspire us to repel evil with good.
Help us to love our neighbors,
To welcome the stranger,
And to turn enemies into friends.
Guide as one community
As we strive on the path of justice, peace, and understanding.”

In another piece, titled “No One is a Stranger: the Jordanian Model of Muslim-Christian Relations” and published by Commonweal online, I share my reactions to a Jordanian family’s remarks to Pope Francis at the Festival of Families in Philadelphia.

Here’s an excerpt:

There was no acknowledgment of peaceful co-existence in the past, of the centuries of tolerance during which Christian communities thrived under Muslim rulers. There was no mention of the tolerance that today is typical of Jordan. There was simply implicit condemnation of Islam and the unchallenged characterization of the country as a “hostile environment… this overwhelmingly non-Christian community [in which] the church youth group gives our children safe harbor where they can grow in their faith and feel supported and cared about.”

Elaborating on the history and contemporary situation of Muslim-Christian coexistence in Jordan, I also reference my Fulbright research on Arabic-language Christian satellite television channels to help explain what might have led to Sweden’s one-sided portrayal.

A sign welcoming Pope Francis to Jordan in May 2014

In addition, I point to a decades-old poem by the Jordanian writer, Arar, whose words are quoted in the piece’s title. It’s message, about the shared Christian and Islamic heritage of Jordan, is echoed in a more recent poem which I encountered online and translated into English:

Because I Was Born in Jordan

I open the Qur’an
with a cross upon my chest,
reading Surat al-Tawba at the break of day
and Surat Maryam as the sun sets.
I look to my right
and I see Christ there.
I look to my left
and I greet the face of the beloved Prophet.

You all, don’t ask me:
“What is this strange prayer?
What is this foreign religion?”
Because this prayer isn’t strange,
and this path isn’t foreign.
It is who we are,
our identity,
our unity,
our oneness.

Because when Mama bore me in Jordan,
she baptized me with the water of Zamzam
and gave me the Qur’an as well as the cross.

The Muslims and Christians that came together across the U.S. last weekend, and the individuals that live side-by-side in Jordan, would make Jesus and Muhammad proud.  They challenge the suspicion and distrust that too often characterize our time, and approach one another with love and patience. Their witness is crucial for today’s world, and an example we all must follow.

Why American Colleges Need The Islamic Call to Prayer

Earlier this week, I published my first piece for Huffington Post Religion. I’m grateful it’s received wide circulation: 4.5 thousand ‘likes’ on Facebook and over 200 shares. Here’s the link to the piece on HuffPost’s website. It is reproduced below.

Why We Need the Islamic Call to Prayer at American Universities

The average college student spends eight to 10 hours a day on a smartphone. Eighty percent of college students report feeling frequently stressed, and one in 10 have been diagnosed with anxiety, depression or other mental disorders. Like the rest of the country, universities are fraught with busyness and competing distractions. Students rush around, faces buried in smart phones and heads cluttered with things to do.

Given this grim reality of college life, it’s too bad the Islamic call to prayer won’t be proclaimed from Duke University’s bell tower. The adhan can be an antidote to some of the challenges college students face.

Since Duke’s decision last week to not broadcast the call to prayer from its chapel steeple — prompted by Islamophobic rhetoric and threats against Duke’s Muslim community — the national discussion around the incident has centered around questions of pluralism and religion in the public space. But what was missed in those debates was the meaning and purpose of the adhan: encouraging deeper mindfulness among those who hear it.

The adhan, like the ringing of church bells, calls us to gratitude, appreciation and attentiveness–things that the modern American university desperately needs. This kind of practice is especially suited to universities with a religious heritage or mission — like Duke or my alma mater, Georgetown — where the balance between rigor and reflection is encouraged, but often hard to strike. Religious and non-religious students alike have much to gain from being called from the chaos of their days to remember the greater purpose and meaning of their lives.

A Catholic in a Muslim land

When I lived abroad in Amman, Jordan during and after college, the adhan was a familiar part of my daily life. Five times a day, the rolling syllables of Allahu akbar — Arabic for “God is greater” — echoed across the city. Chanted from tall minarets and amplified by loud speakers, the adhan bounced off stone buildings and reminded Muslims to pray wherever they were — at home, at work, at school or even at the mall. Sometimes, when I’d visit my local produce shop, I’d find the owner praying outside, his rug unrolled on the sidewalk and his body bowing in humble prostration.

The adhan became something that I, as a Catholic, grew to deeply appreciate and enjoy. Countless times, the words “Come to prayer, Come to well-being,” prompted me to step back from my day and remember what was most important.

I remember one of my first nights in Amman, when I climbed into the backseat of a cab, laden with my heavy backpack and the stress of adjusting to a new city. My mind was full of questions and doubts about whether Amman could ever feel like home. As we sped down the streets of Amman as sunset fell, the adhan came on the radio, and immediately a feeling of calm settled over me. The lyrical words drew me out of my anxiety and calmed my racing mind.

In the months that followed, the adhan continued to remind me to praise and thank God for the blessings of the day, and to ask for God’s help in facing the challenges that would inevitably come my way while living in Jordan. It made me more attentive to the world around me — the beauty of the pink sky at maghrib, the white flowers on the jasmine trees and the kindness of those I met.

A good habit for all

Colleges could benefit from being prompted to mindfulness. Deeper awareness and thankfulness are necessities for today’s campuses, where stress and strain run rampant.

My Muslim friends at Georgetown described to me the benefits of being called to pray, not just once on Fridays, but five times a day. Alerted by their watch, phone alarm or intuition, they’d get up from studying or hanging out with friends to pray. Being called out of their daily activities helped them cope and keep perspective when they were over-worked or concerned about grades.

That’s why the adhan can be good for everyone — even for those who aren’t Muslim, and for those who don’t believe in God. For most people, something is “greater,” whether they choose to call it God or not. The adhan can help us recall what gives our lives meaning, and can help us cultivate an attitude of gratefulness. It can help us look up from the cellphone in our hand and notice the blue sky, the purple shadows stretching across the snow or the smiles of those we pass by.

I don’t anticipate that many universities will choose to adopt the adhan on their campuses anytime soon. But, that doesn’t mean that students and others can’t begin habits that yield the same results. Many campuses have bell towers, which ring on the hour or other specified times of day. At Georgetown, the bells toll in a clang excitedly at noon and six in the evening — a custom reminiscent of earlier times when monasteries rang bells seven times a day to call Christian religious to pray the psalms. For me, and for many students I knew, these bells were an invitation to focus on what’s truly important.

The events at Duke should not only be a spark for discussions about diversity and tolerance. They should also compel us to attend to the things that are akbar — the deeper needs of our soul.

Trends we can’t ignore: 1) Americans’ religious illiteracy

In recent years, numerous polls and reports have illustrated Americans’ ignorance about the basics of minority religions.  But the media’s coverage of the terrorist attack at the Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisc. showed us just how religiously illiterate Americans are.

During their breaking news coverage of the attack, CNN anchors, clueless about the Sikh faith and lacking sufficient sources, were relegated to fumbling through the Wikipedia page in describing the religion’s basic tenets.  According to a Philadelphia Inquirer commentary on the attack,

One Fox anchor asked a witness whether there had been previous acts of “anti-Semitism.” A Fox local report claimed Sikhs are “based in northern Italy.” And the host of CNN Newsroom, Don Lemon, struggled with the “murky detail” of whether Sikhs are Hindus, Muslims, or a different sect altogether; he later postulated that the killer “could be someone who has beef with the Sikhs.”

Heck, I don’t know details about the Sikh faith either—something I’m not proud of.  Before the attack, I knew the religion originated in India and I could identify turban-wearing men as Sikh believers, but I couldn’t confidently claim to know anything more about it.  I remember seeing a portrait of the founder on the mantle of the Sikh family in the movie, Bend It Like Beckham, but I couldn’t tell you his name, when he lived, or how many Sikhs currently practice the faith throughout the world.  I remember being uncomfortable with the portrayal of the Sikh family in the film (it was your stereotypical, Orientalist depiction of overly-strict South Asian parents with thick accents) and yet I was just as ignorant (if not more) than the moviemakers.

Most Americans don’t know Sikhs either.  They make up only .16% of the American population.  I only know one personally—a prominent interfaith leader in Indianapolis.

In order to fill the massive gap in Americans’ illiteracy about the Sikh faith, many news outlets, like The Huffington Post, have attempted to provide resources about the religion to educate American citizens.  Organizations like the NPR-affiliated Story Corp used the attack as an opportunity to share the stories of Sikhs, so other Americans can, in some way, get to know them.

But the media is in even greater need of resources about religion. Both major networks like CNN and small, local papers should have had materials about the Sikh faith—and all religions for that matter—at the ready.  That preparedness should be common sense in an era when everything from Chick-Fil-A to terrorism seems tied to religion.  Reporters and news anchors, who shape our understanding of faith-related issues subtly and over a period of time through their coverage, critically need a better understanding of religion.

When the media—and major politicians like Mitt Romney, who referred to Sikhs as “sheiks”* in his comments about the attack—demonstrate their own ignorance about religion, it legitimizes the American public’s religious illiteracy.

The assertion made in the following comment, which was shared by an anonymous commenter on the CNN website, was recycled throughout the media’s coverage of the attack:

“Sikh people… can be easily mistaken for Muslim or Taliban.”

The key phrase is “can be easily mistaken for.” It’s saying, “it’s ok to confuse Sikhs with Muslims and with the Taliban, because we don’t really know the difference either.  A turban is a turban, right?” Note: Many (maybe, most) Muslim men don’t wear turbans, and the Taliban wear ones distinct from Sikhs.  But do most Americans recognize this? No.  And do many Americans conflate Muslims and the Taliban?  Sadly, yes.

Click here to see different styles of Sikh turban wrapping.

The media coverage of the attack also implicitly argued that Muslims and their religion are more prone to violence.  The common way anchors distinguished between Muslims and Sikhs was by saying something to the effect of, “Sikhs are not Muslims.  The Sikh faith is one of peace.”  This “distinction” implied that Islam is a religion of violence.

The attack and its coverage showed us that ignorance about religion leads us to buy into untruths, and also reaffirms our misguided beliefs about minority religions like Islam.

Religious literacy is lacking in American society, and it is critical that we as a country make an effort to improve it among the young and old, if we hope to end the violence and mistreatment experienced by all people of faith. 

Tomorrow’s post will discuss hate crimes again Sikhs in America.

*Romney used the world “sheik” when referring to the Sikh people. The word “sheik” (pronounced “shake”) does not exist, but it sounds like the English pronunciation of an Arabic word, “sheikh,” which means a learned person and is often used to describe Islamic scholars. Though the Arabic word ends in a hard “h” sound, as denoted by the “kh,” it is commonly pronounced with a “k” sound (“shake.”) Romney’s slip, therefore, points to his ignorance about religion, and also conflates Muslims (whose religious scholars are called “sheikhs”) with Sikhs.

Trends we can’t ignore (Series introduction)

The shooting at the Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisc.—and the nationwide string of hate crimes against Muslims that went virtually unreported by the media—reveals a number of disturbing, yet ignored, trends about extremism and ignorance in America.

Sikh worshippers outside their gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisc. after the shooting on August 5, 2012.

Over the next few days, I’ll be posting about issues that are not new, but that have been re-illuminated by these recent hate crimes. They include religious illiteracy in America, post-9/11 attacks against Sikhs, the recent rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes, and the (intentionally covered-up) threat of white supremacist domestic terrorism.

For those who heard little about the shooting at the Sikh place of worship a few weeks ago, here’s a brief recap:

Wade Page, a prominent member of a white supremacist organization, opened fire at a Sikh gurdwara (house of worship) in Oak Creek, Wisc. during a Sunday worship service. He entered the temple and he killed three, and then murdered three others outside, where he was shot in the stomach by police.  He then shot himself in the head. Four others, including a police officer, were wounded.

The hate crime is rightly being treated as a case of domestic terrorism by the FBI, given that Page appeared to have political motives.  He was an active member of the racist skinhead group, Hammerskin Nation, and was a musician in white supremacist bands.

The FBI defines terrorism in the following way: “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

But according to an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer, “that designation seemed to baffle some media outlets. NBC News reported that ‘it was not immediately clear why local police were classifying the shooting with domestic terrorism.’ A Fox News analyst claimed the shooting was not terrorism because Page was a ‘nut job’ who mistook Sikhs for Muslims.”

Like NBC and FOX, most media outlets have been hesitant to refer to the attack as terrorism, however.  Is this surprising?  No, because since 9/11, the American media—and thus the American public—have only considered attacks committed by Muslims terrorism.

Tomorrow, I’ll begin posting about specific trends, starting with an essay about religious illiteracy in the U.S.  I’ll provide background on the string of attacks against Islamic places of worship in one of my later posts.

The Oslo Opportunity, Part 2: Fears of an emerging “Eurabia”

I write often about Islamophobia in America, and while it is a massive and growing problem, it plagues Europe far more.  Let’s uncover why.

Unlike America, which was founded to embrace diversity, western European states each grew out of a common national identity.  Those living within the borders of a country generally shared a similar history, language, religion, and ethnic heritage.   After WWII, Europe embraced and spoke highly of tolerance, plurality, and freedom of expression, and liberal immigration policies allowed for increased numbers of North Africans, South Asians, and Arabs—many of whom are Muslim—to make Europe home.

The influx of brown-skinned people with unfamiliar customs and thick accents made native Europeans nervous, and the religiosity of these Muslims didn’t seem to fit into the increasing secular landscape of Europe.

In explaining why Muslims in Europe are viewed somewhat differently than those in America, we must look at the religious group’s standing economically. While in America Muslims are generally wealthier and work in professional careers, Muslims in Europe (who make up 4% of the continent’s population) are poorer and more marginalized, living in the more segregated ghettos and suburbs surrounding cities like Paris. In America, Christians see Muslims in respectable professions.  They may go to a Muslim doctor, someone they trust with their life and health.  In Europe, Muslims generally hold lower paying, less desirable jobs, and thus are looked down upon by the majority of society. (Sadly, we might compare the perception and treatment of European Muslims with Latino immigrants in America.)  Muslims in America are generally more ‘integrated’ (I normally don’t like this word) into society than European Muslims, and this clearly plays a role in the higher level of Islamophobia in Europe.

With citizens fearing a loss of national identity as European demographics change, right wing political parties have risen up to address these concerns, capitalizing on fear and promising to bring back Europe from “multiculturalism,” a value that even moderate and mainstream German PM Angela Merkel said has “utterly failed” in Europe.

Geert Wilders

Parties that once were fringe groups have now begun to win seats in Parliament.  The right wing Netherlands’ Party for Freedom won 15.5% of the vote (and thus make up 15.5% of Parliament) in the 2010 election.  The party’s leader, Geert Wilders, compared the Qur’an to Hilter’s Mein Kampf and has been open about the fact that he “hates Islam”, but “not Muslims.”  Though he didn’t coin the term ‘Eurabia,’ he has used it frequently to describe what he believes Europe will become if Muslim immigration is not adequately challenged.  He no doubt intends it to invoke images of suppressed women, harsh punishments, and a lack of freedom—images Westerners often associate with the Middle East or Saudi Arabia.

The power and influence of these far-right parties has translated into real policy changes in the region.  I’ll focus on one case I’m particularly familiar with—the Swiss minaret ban, which I wrote a term paper about this past spring.

In 2009, Swiss citizens voted in a referendum to ban the construction of minarets (the tall structures often attached to mosques from which the call to pray is traditionally sounded, but is rarely done in non-Muslim majority countries.)  The overwhelming vote was unsurprising given the massive propaganda campaign that was waged by supportive parties and political groups.

At train stations and bus terminals it was common to see this poster (below), which depicts missile-like minarets shooting up out of the Swiss flag and a burqa-clad women with sinister eyes. Many others posters, which showed weapon-like minarets pushing out traditional Swiss landmarks, could also be seen around the country.

"Stop. Consider a minaret ban."

Here’s a slideshow of all the posters, both pro-ban and anti-ban.

The politicians’ rhetoric that accompanied these posters was equally disturbing.  Knowing their constituents lacked much contact with Islam and Muslims, the politicians tried to shape their constituents’ views, often providing a distorted and negative portrayal (as is often done in the U.S. as well.) Those opposing the ban, who even included the Prime Minister and ruling party, focused on arguments about the right to religious freedom.  But those arguments, which relied on a critical and calm examination of the facts, could not convince those who were already steeped in fear of Islam.

Since the minaret ban, Islamophobia has become more institutionalized in Europe.  Other countries have proposed minaret bans (Austria, the Netherlands, Italy, and Belgium) and France and Belgium banned Muslims women from wearing the burqa in public and Italy hopes to do the same.  What’s particularly interesting about these campaigns to ban Islamic symbols is that they are addressing small, even insignificant

A niqabi woman outside Notre Dame

issues.  Switzerland only has four minarets nationwide, and few women wear the burqa in European countries.  Just as with the anti-sharia campaign in the U.S., the European movements are creating a large problem out of nothing at all.

As was made apparent by the Swiss minaret referendum, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment has seeped into the mainstream, affecting ordinary citizens.  Especially with the rise of the Internet, right-wing extremists can communicate and hate groups can organize more easily than ever.  (Continued after YouTube video.)

(The statistics in the video are highly exaggerated.  This article from the BBC helps to shed light on its inaccuracies.)

In this caustic political and social climate, it’s not surprising that violence and hostility toward immigrants are common, as the AP summarized well: “They beat up black and Arab football fans, terrorize immigrant neighborhoods, smash Muslim and Jewish gravestones, preach hate and rally support online.”  Despite the lack of news coverage, these violent reactions to immigration have been occurring for years.

The Norway terror attacks don’t signal the emergence of a new problem, but rather put a spotlight on an issue that has been simmering on for years and only recently began to boil over. Breivik’s terrorism is only the latest and greatest in this sad trend.

In my next post, I’ll discuss the American personalities who influenced Anders Breivik and what that says about Islamophobia in the U.S.