‘In our time’: Francis moves beyond Nostra Aetate

My newest piece on dotCommonweal. Read an excerpt here and continue reading on Commonweal’s website.

Muslim immigration to Italy. Persecution of Christians in Syria. Anti-Muslim rhetoric in the Netherlands. Anti-Christian rulings in Malaysia. Mosque burnings in the United States and church burnings in Egypt. These sad events are some of the most obvious points of contact between Catholics and Muslims in the modern world. Thus, it’s unsurprising that Pope Francis’ new apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, or “The Joy of the Gospel,” makes mention of Islam and Catholic-Muslim interaction. In his familiar style, Pope Francis smartly roots his commentary on Islam in the tradition of the Church and his predecessors, while at the same time forges new theological territory.

Read more.

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.

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.   

A Catholic priest’s defense of Islam in Europe

In his open letter to Dutch MP Geert Wilders, UK Catholic priest Frank Julian Gelli criticizes the MP’s Islamophobic statements.  As a fellow Catholic, I am encouraged by Fr. Frank’s remarks, and I hope more Catholics in Europe and the US come to share his view. Thanks to Saladin128 for the link.

Illustrations of Islamophobia

I’m sure most of you are familiar with the proposed bans on the niqab and other Islamic religious clothing in many European countries.  The case I’ve been following most closely is in France, where the law is expected to pass soon.  It would ban the few thousand women who wear the niqab (face veil) in public from doing so, and if women refuse to comply, they will be fined or be required to attend a “citizenship” class.

http://ekramibrahim.files.wordpress.com/2009/06/niqab-2.jpg

These European cases, along with the campaign to halt the building of an Islamic center in downtown Manhattan near Ground Zero, are, to me, illustrations of the ever-growing and irrational Islamophobia in the Western world.  Here is an example of the irrationality that surrounds this issue: In an interview with Al Jazeera English, a French parliamentarian claimed that he was made a “victim” by women who choose to wear the niqab because he cannot see their faces.

I recognize, of course, that many Westerners cannot be blamed for their phobic behavior when confronted with the people and symbols of Islam.  The portrayal of Muslims in mainstream T.V. news, especially on cable news channels, leaves Americans with an uninformed and fear-based view of Islam—a view that is hard to shake if a person has no access to other information about the religion and its people.  Only when the media changes its ways in its coverage of Islam will people realize that these campaigns in Europe and in the U.S. are misguided and are driven by fear, as opposed to true concern.

Al Jazeera English has done some good reports about the proposed niqab ban in France, and here’s the most recent report.

Also, guests on the Diane Rehm Show yesterday discussed this issue. I haven’t listened to the whole piece yet but I will post it here, too.

Please respond with comments if you have any!