How can Christians respond to Islamophobia?

The following article was originally published in Living City, the magazine of the Focolare movement. Their March issue is focused on Islamophobia and interfaith issues. I hope to see more Catholic publications dedicate articles or entire issues to these important topics. I hope this article can be a resource for parishes, churches, and related groups. Please share it with those who might find it useful.

One day in 2007, I received a chain email from a family friend from my parish. It cast suspicion on all Muslims in light of the violence committed by a few, saying that the majority were “irrelevant” or even “our enemy.”

The anonymous author asked recipients to forward the message to family and friends, and I realized the email had already circulated among members of my Catholic community.

Even though I didn’t know many Muslims at the time, the message troubled me. It didn’t seem to reflect the loving attitude I heard preached at Mass every week, but rather fear of those who were different and unknown. At the time, I wasn’t sure how to respond. But now — after getting involved in interreligious dialogue and studying Muslim-Christian relations — I have some ideas from my Catholic perspective about what to do when encountering anti-Muslim prejudice.

1. Look up what the Catholic Church teaches about Islam and Muslims

Pope Francis prays with Istanbul's grand mufti Rahmi Yaran during a visit to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, in Istanbul Nov. 29. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters) See POPE-ISTANBUL Nov. 29, 2014.
Pope Francis prays with Istanbul’s grand mufti Rahmi Yaran during a visit to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, in Istanbul Nov. 29. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

The Second Vatican Council didn’t only change the Mass from Latin to English — it also changed the way the Church approached non-Christians and their religions. Nostra Aetate, one of the most influential council documents, says that the Church regards Muslims with “esteem.” It praises their dedication to prayer, fasting and charitable giving, and highlights their reverence and devotion to Jesus, who is considered a prophet, and Mary, his virgin mother. Nostra Aetate also calls Catholics to work with Muslims to establish peace and social justice, something Pope Francis and his predecessors have also emphasized. Pope St. John Paul II identified four ways that Catholics can participate in dialogue with Muslims, the most important being everyday, lived dialogue.

2. Help your parish host a dinner with the local Muslim community 

Adam Park, chaplain of George Washington the Newman Center, greets students at the university's Interfaith Journeys Dinner.
Adam Park, chaplain of George Washington the Newman Center, greets students at the university’s Interfaith Journeys Dinner.

A meal is always a great starting point for dialogue. Parishes could coordinate with the local mosque or interfaith group to host a meal with local Muslims. The gathering doesn’t necessarily need a topic for discussion; breaking bread to get to know one another is enough. But if Christians are looking for a theme to shape the event, they might consider a discussion on mercy. For Catholics, 2016 is the Year of Mercy and can be a great time to learn about the strong emphasis placed on God’s mercy in Islam.

3. Organize an educational event about Islamophobia

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Creating an atmosphere of hospitality and solidarity with Muslims is especially important today, given the rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric and attacks in many parts of the world. From 2014 to 2015, mosque vandalisms tripled in the U.S., and in many parts of Europe, anti-Muslim acts jumped to troubling heights. These  statistics and the experiences of Muslims who have been targeted still don’t receive the attention they should.  A parish could host an event with an expert and even invite members of the Muslim community to speak. Organizations like The Bridge Initiative, a Georgetown University research project on Islamophobia, have resources and potential speakers that could be utilized for an event like this.

4. Respond to anti-Muslim prejudice 
Now, more than ever, it is important for Christians to speak up against Islamophobia in their communities. As I know from experience, it’s often uncomfortable to address a friend’s stereotypical remarks or an inappropriate Facebook post. But we are called to stand in solidarity with all people, particularly the marginalized. If you’re faced with an anti-Muslim chain email, respond to your friend in person, and invite her to join you at an interfaith event in your city. But don’t simply wait until you’re confronted with Islamophobia personally — start the work of bridge-building now. Let us take concrete actions during this Year of Mercy to do what Pope Francis asks of us: to “eliminate every form of closed-mindedness and disrespect, and drive out every form of violence and discrimination.”

Dr. Larycia Hawkins: Click on the photo to read her story.
Dr. Larycia Hawkins: Click on the photo to read her story.

9/11/11: A new American anniversary

In my most recent posts, I’ve discussed the terrorist attacks in Norway, offering quite a depressing analysis of their causes and implications, many of which are related to Islamophobia in America.  Fear of Muslims existed in the American psyche before September 11, 2001, but the terrorist attacks ten years ago only amplified and cemented those feelings for many Americans.

Despite the horrible backlash we’ve seen against Muslims in the wake of 9/11, I am quite optimistic about the future of America and its relationship with its Muslim community.  The United States, unlike Europe, has an identity rooted in diversity and faith, and re-embracing these values will allow us to fight back against the Islamophobic forces in our society.

Diversity

When immigrants began coming to America 400 years ago, they sought a place that would embrace their differentness.  When they established our country decades later, America’s founders intended to make our nation a place for diversity and the mixing of cultures.  Unlike those in Europe, our identity as Americans is defined by the fact that there is no one language, ethnic background, or religious affiliation that we all share.  Ironically, our unity stems from our differences.

Some Americans want new immigrants (like Latinos and Muslims) to ‘assimilate’ into American life and culture.  But is it possible to assimilate into diversity? Participation in our society doesn’t mean conforming to arbitrary standards that the often too powerful majority would like to set.  Rather, being an American means adding one’s unique history and perspective to the already-colorful American landscape.

If we look back on our history, most minority ethnic or religious groups have experienced discrimination and marginalization, especially during periods of economic uncertainty and war.  Catholics, Japanese, blacks, and Jews were perceived to be un-American and their racial, religious, or national heritage was seen as incompatible with being a loyal American.  Today, labeling members of these groups as un-American seems laughable—these people are irreplaceable contributors to American life.

Today, we see the marginalization of Muslims in the movement to ban sharia, attempts to block the construction of Islamic centers, and hate protests and crimes directed toward Muslims and their institutions.  But looking back at our history, we see that it is possible for us to outgrow our fear of the ‘other’ as we begin to see the important contributions that minority groups make to our society.

My hope in American progress and the eventual acceptance of the ‘other’ lies in stonework that was recently erected on the Washington Mall: the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.  Fifty years ago, the persecution and marginalization of African-Americans was rampant and deemed appropriate by many Americans, and today, an African-American prophet is honored among the founders of our country and a black man leads our nation as president.

Faith

The United States is also fortunate to be a country rooted in religion.  In a recent Pew report, over 80% of Americans identified themselves with a particular religious tradition.  This is in contrast to the increasingly secularized Europe, where most citizens say that religion does not play an important role in their lives.  The levels of religiosity in America and Europe directly correlate to the regions’ level of acceptance of Muslims.  Religious people in America have something in common with Muslims—a belief in God and a devotion to their faith life—as opposed to Europeans who lack this point of commonality.  Thus, the marginalization and discrimination of Muslims has been far less in America than in Europe.

The founding fathers wanted America to be a place of vibrant and diverse religiosity, and explicitly included Islam in their vision for the country.  Thomas Jefferson praised the Virginia commonwealth for including religious protections for all people in its constitution, saying: “[the lawmakers] meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan [Muslim].”  Proud to own a copy of the Qur’an, Jefferson was the first president to hold a Ramadan iftar at the White House.  John Locke, George Washington, and others whose ideas shaped our nation were accepting of and welcoming to Muslims in England and America.

Building unity

Recognizing and embracing America’s unique claims on diversity and faith will help us respond to the Islamophobia plaguing our country.  Thanks to these two values, America has a chance to reverse anti-Muslim sentiment before it escalates to the level it has in Europe (where we see openly Islamophobic political parties, infringements on Muslims’ religious freedom, and violent attacks, culminating the terrorism committed by Anders Brevik in July.)

Gospel choir at the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C.

Yesterday, diversity and faith were brought together at the 9/11 Unity Walk in Washington.  Teenagers in yarmulkes, mothers in hijabs, small children, and little old ladies strode down Embassy Row, visiting houses of worship, asking questions, andsharing their experiences of faith in America.  We heard from religious leaders and interfaith activists like Tony Blair, Karen Armstrong, and Arun Gandhi, Mohandis Gandhi’s grandson.  A D.C. gospel choir sang on the steps of the mosque, nuns gave out cookies at the Vatican embassy, and the Islamic call to prayer was recited at the synagogue.

I was most struck by my experience at the Islamic center as I stood in a long line of girls and older women, waiting to enter the prayer room.  As a sign of respect, women must cover their arms, legs, and hair in the mosque (traditionally men dress conservatively as well,) and girls like me, who were clad in shorts and t-shirts for the hot weather, had to wait to be offered a long jellabiyya and colorful scarf before going in.

Many American women misunderstand Islamic covering and feel that it is demeaning, and knowing this I was overwhelmed almost to tears by the enthusiasm of these non-Muslim women, who chose to cover themselves to enter the mosque.  These women chose to challenge the deep assumptions Westerners have about Islam and women, and decided to be open-minded and curious, withholding judgment until they’d had the experience.  While it was clear that all the women were not fully comfortable with covering (myself included—and I cover quite often,) that didn’t stop them from participating or asking questions respectfully.

The line of women waiting for scarves.

This attitude of openness and respect imbued the walk, and I wish that more Americans could have seen this wonderful example of how we must engage with those who are different from us.

9/11/11: A new date to remember

September 11, 2001 marked the beginning of a decade of divisions—political, religious, and social.  It will remain on our calendars and in our hearts as a day of mourning for generations.

Now, September 11, 2011 offers us an opportunity to begin a new decade, one in which we choose to foster unity through an engagement with diversity and faith.  Let’s make sure we remember this new date, too, and hopefully in ten years, we’ll look back on September 11 not only with sadness, but also with joy.

Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil. Arun Gandhi, center.

Islam & women piece: Seeking questions from my readers

“Why do you cover your hair? Do you have to?”

“You’ve never had a boyfriend. Will you ever date before you get married?”

“Why do you and the other girls stand behind men when you pray?  Why don’t women lead Friday prayers?”

“Muhammad had several wives.  Is polygamy still ok in Islam?”

Before coming to Georgetown, these are some of the questions that I had for Muslim women, but I didn’t have any way to get real and thoughtful answers.  I knew of a few women in my community, but not well enough that I felt I could talk to them about these deep and complex topics.

Sadly, for many Americans, this image defines their understanding of the relationship between Islam and women.

Despite the fact that we as Americans hear so much about “Islam” in the news, good resources about Islam and its female followers are hard to come by.  The only resources we have to guide our understanding about Muslim women are books like A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (the author of The Kite Runner) and news articles like TIME’s recent cover story about abused Afghan women—accounts which are not representative of the lives lived by many American Muslim women.  The most important means for understanding—daily interaction with real people, in this case, Muslim women—is not something that most people have.  I didn’t have it either.

Since coming to Georgetown, I have fortunately had those daily connections that have helped me answer my questions about Islam and women.  Spending classroom time my Arabic professor and TA; meeting female leaders and mothers affiliated with the campus; and forming friendships with students have provided me with a perspective of Islam and women that I wouldn’t have possibly received by simply watching the news or reading popular fiction.

However, many other Americans still have many of the questions I did, and they lack the daily interactions that can help provide answers.

In order to remedy this in the smallest way, this winter a Muslim friend and I will be writing a joint piece for my blog about women and Islam.

Finn (left) and Sam (right) from Glee

It is this friend* who initially provided me with this interaction. During my first semester, we became instant friends and she is now one of the closest friends I’ve ever had.  In between watching hilarious Youtube clips and arguing over whether Sam from Glee has an awkwardly big mouth, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about what it means for her to be a Muslim women in America today.   She and I both think that her first person accounts can help give non-Muslim Americans a new, much-needed look into the lives and perspectives of Muslim women.

The piece (which will probably turn into a series of smaller pieces) will look like this:  I will organize a series of questions that my friend will respond to based on her personal experiences.  I will add any context that may be useful to a non-Muslim or Christian audience.

Because of our deep immersion in these topics, it is difficult for her and I to step back and identify what specific questions should drive the piece.  We don’t know what many Americans want and need to hear about.

This is where my readers come in.  What questions do you have?  Is there something you’ve heard relating to women and Islam that discomforts you or makes you curious?

I will be happy to receive any and all questions you may have.  To encourage you to ask whatever is on your mind, I will keep your questions anonymous when I use them in my piece.  Even my friend, who will be responding to the questions, will not know their origin.

So please do not worry about sounding insensitive, uninformed, or politically incorrect—all questions expressed respectfully are valid.  Meaningful and productive discussions require that we address all of our thoughts and questions.

If you know of a family member or friend who may have questions but who doesn’t read the blog, send them the link so they can submit a question.

My friend and I greatly appreciate your questions and support of this project.

My email address is jed56@georgetown.edu.  You can send me your questions there, or post them in the comments section of the blog.

*You probably noticed that I did not use my friend’s name in this post.  Because she doesn’t want her name floating around in the blogosphere, she has decided to work on this project under a pseudonym (we haven’t picked it yet).  Also, given the nature of this honest discussion and the increased hostility we’ve recently seen directed toward Muslims in America and Europe, this will allow her to respond without worrying whether her statements will be taken out of context and used against her later.