At a loss

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.

The crucifix in Copley Crypt Chapel at Georgetown.

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.

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.