My commentary in The Indianapolis Star

I was invited to write the following commentary for The Indianapolis Star’s Faith Forum column on Saturday, August 11, 2012.  The positive feedback has been tremendous; I’ve already been told that it was discussed at length at a local Quaker meeting, and a professor at the Christian Theological Seminary in Indy will use it as required reading for his class on dialogue!

Dialogue deepens, not weakens, woman’s faith
Jordan Denari

“Are you converting to Islam?”

This question was addressed to me multiple times during my freshman year at Georgetown University, and I wouldn’t be surprised if people still asked it now, three years later — given that I’ve been a board member of Georgetown’s Muslim Students Association (MSA), lived a Muslim living-learning community, and worked at an Islamic advocacy organization.

In reality, however, I’m far from converting, and feel more rooted in my own tradition, Catholicism, than ever before. And, that’s not in 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 isn’t only formal discussions, but also lived engagement with those different from oneself — 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 (which this year is being celebrated from mid-July to mid-August.) 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 things in Islam — prayer and community — 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 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.

That’s why I continue to stay involved in the Muslim community. Not only are they are 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. Students find that their stereotypes of others are shattered, and they identify similarities and crucial differences, which I would argue, are a positive thing worth discussing. Differences in creed and ritual show us the diversity of forms in which believers understand their relationship with God, and help us identify the unique position espoused by our own tradition.

This kind of dialogue challenges the assumption held by many believers who feel that engaging with people of other faiths forces us to sideline aspects of our practice, water down our doctrines, and drop our distinct identities. But the dialogue in which I participate and promote doesn’t ask us to compromise on or abandon our differences; it thrives on the sharing of them.

I often say that I have Islam to thank for helping me reclaim my faith — and for making me a better Catholic. I hope others can say this about their experience of dialogue, too.

Bio: Jordan Denari, an Indianapolis native, is a senior at Georgetown University. She has been published in America, a Jesuit magazine, and her efforts at building interfaith relationships have been featured in other Catholic news outlets. She writes about Muslim-Christian relations on her blog, Witness (jordandenari.com).

 

Reflections on 9/11, Part 1

This weekend is a unique one.  Today, Muslims are celebrating Eid al-Fitr, the end of the holiest month in the Islamic calendar, Ramadan.  Tomorrow, Americans of all faiths will mourn the ninth anniversary of the attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

It seems quite ironic that these two days–arguably the most significant days for Muslims in America and around the world–fall on the same weekend.  Clearly, these days are important for different reasons.  Ramadan and Eid mark a time of self-sacrifice, community, friendship, and peace for Muslims, while the anniversary of September 11th marks a day of slaughter and the beginning of a trend of fear, suspicion, and division.  At a time during which Muslims are celebrating the vitality of their peaceful community, many in America are using Islam’s (distant but exaggerated) connection to the September 11 attacks to cast a shadow of fear and mistrust over the religion and its people.

The fact that this holiday and day of memorial fall on the same weekend–that they are connected and unable to be separated–is symbolic of the relationship between the Muslim community (here and abroad) and post-9/11 America.  One cannot be understood without the other.

The occurrence of these two events on the same weekend offers me the perfect opportunity to address many of my recent concerns about America’s response to Islam in the post-9/11 world.

I’ll break up my thoughts into three topics and post them over three days:

PAST: Today, on September 10th, I’ll discuss the U.S. reaction to 9/11 and the steady increase of Islamophobia over the past nine years.

PRESENT: Tomorrow, on September 11th, I’ll discuss this current moment of crisis in the relationship between Islam and post-9/11 America.  I’ll specifically make comments about the recent events like the Park 51 controversy, planned Qur’an burning, hate crimes, etc.

FUTURE: On Sunday, September 12th, I’ll talk about the actions that we as individuals and as a country must take in order to reverse this trend of Islamophobia, and I’ll offer a historical example after which we can model our actions now and in the future.

I urge you to share your views as well, or at least give yourself some time to think about these issues.

9/10: Looking at the past nine years

In my International Relations lecture last week, the professor asked my classmates and I to identify the event that first caused us to think about international relations–the event that made us realize there was a bigger world outside our city or country.  I, along with over half of the class, responded that September 11, 2001 was this event.

Though we didn’t realize it as 10-year-old fifth graders, the attacks would greatly change the spirit and culture of our country.  Before the attacks, Americans were confident about our country’s rising status and power in the world.  With the fall of the Soviets 10 years before and a booming economy, it seemed nothing could stand in our way.

On September 11th that changed.  It appeared that our way of life was being challenged by a mysterious and hostile entity.  The climate of confidence reversed completely, becoming one defined by fear.  Suspicion and judgement were tools we were urged by our government to use, or else we’d risk being attacked again.  A pall of xenophobia began to descend slowly over our country as foreigners and even citizens of Middle Eastern and South Asian heritage were questioned about their patriotism and motives.

This climate of fear prevented our country from having a much needed national discussion about the key question surrounding the attacks: Why did this happen? If this question had been grappled with–if knowledgeable scholars, journalists, activists, and civilians had been consulted–then the second important question, “What can we do to prevent this from happening again?” might have been answered in a way that didn’t result in two foreign wars that have only increased hostility toward the U.S.

One thing that didn’t change on 9/11 (something that desperately needed to change) was American ignorance, and our tendency to act on that ignorance.  Before 9/11 we were unaware the implications of our policy decisions in the Middle East and South Asia, and how often those military and political actions produced feelings of anti-American sentiment in the places we affected.  Today is no different; we act without real forethought and with little knowledge.  Except today our actions are not driven so much by confidence but by fear, which is a much more dangerous motivator.

Our fear prevents us from learning how to better conduct our foreign policy, but even more problematic is how it affects our daily interactions with and perceptions of our fellow Americans.  The fear that stemmed from 9/11 encourages us to continue living in ignorance–to not learn about and not reach out to those who may appear to fit the ethnic or religious profile of a “terrorist”. We cling to our old notions, or ones fed to us by prominent politicians who fear-monger in order to maintain or regain power.  The media simultaneously magnifies and mystifies issues surrounding Islam through its 24-hour coverage that somehow still fails to provide in-depth and balanced information.  This news coverage only reinforces our incorrect stereotypes.

This ignorance propped up by fear has allowed many Americans to believe that Islam the religion perpetrated 9/11.  Many are unable to make the distinction between those who hijacked religion in an attempt to justify a political cause with those who practice that religion in order to serve God and neighbor.  Because of their fear, they refuse to take a close look at Islam and subsequently come to false conclusions about this religion of 1.5 billion people.

9/11 offered us an important opportunity for expelling this ignorance and we failed to take advantage of it.  Instead we only allowed it to grow quietly and slowly.  It wasn’t right after 9/11 that I heard anti-Islamic remarks from acquaintances, received anti-Islamic emails from family friends, and heard broad generalizations and unfair associations spewed by politicians.  It was several years down the road that the Islamophobia began to make its way out of the woodwork (at least in my experience.) This trend of American Islamophobia has been rising over the past decade, but it moved quietly, subtly and slowly.  Only during the past summer has it exploded into full view, as politicians hope to bring out and harness this fear in order to regain power in the fall elections.

A national discussion about Islam in post-9/11 America has begun, but the dialogue seems to be increasing tensions rather than alleviating them.  And sadly this discussion is happening nine years too late.

Also, I’d like to wish “Eid Mubarak” to all of my Muslim friends, especially those here at Georgetown University.


“Revealing Ramadan” & “Choosing to be Catholic” preview

To accompany Ramadan, the holiest month is Islam which started this week, Speaking of Faith re-released their program, Revealing Ramadan.

While I’m not Muslim, I see Ramadan as a time to learn more about Islam and how it is practiced in the U.S. and around the world.  I listened to this program last year during Ramadan and it greatly helped my understanding of the spirit behind this season and this faith.  I hope it helps you too.

Nick and I after serving at a Mass over which our great-uncle, John, presided.

In the next several days, I’ll be posting a series of excerpts called “Choosing to be Catholic” about my experiences being Catholic.  I have been writing this essay for most of the summer, but it seems appropriate that it will be finished during Ramadan.  In addition to learning more about Islam, I am trying to look at and further understand my own faith.  As is commonly said, only when you know yourself can you begin to know others.