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.

A new narrative

The malicious and intentional spreading of an offensive, anti-Muslim video. The murder of an American ambassador. Protests around the world. Hate crimes against mosques in the U.S.

All of these events seem to further solidify the already-entrenched narrative about Muslim-Christian relations—that Muslims and Christians are in a “clash of civilizations,” fundamentally at odds, and hell-bent on the destruction of the other. The images we see on CNN, and the headlines we read in the morning paper, point to an inherent battle between the world’s two largest religious groups.

But another, more subtle, yet more powerful, narrative exists. One I’ve tried to share often on my blog. I was reminded of it again tonight, first at a banquet celebrating the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr (which was last month) and second at Catholic Mass.

The banquet, hosted by the university’s president and attended by diverse leaders on campus, began with the maghrib, or sunset, prayer. As the Muslims lined up in their rows, and rabbis, Jesuits, and other non-Muslims bowed their heads in reverence, I looked over to find one of Georgetown’s Franciscan priests in the prayer line with the other Muslims, bending and placing his head on the floor. I was so moved by the message that this Franciscan’s participation sent—that his belief in God, and his vocation as a priest, doesn’t preclude him from worshipping with those who are different. It actually calls for it.

At the end of the prayer, the university imam spoke to the congregation about the meaning of the Arabic word for prayer, salah, which literally means, “reaching out and connecting.” He discussed the importance of reaching out not only to God, but also to those around us.

This “reaching out” continued through dinner, as we met new people and shared stories. I was lucky enough to sit next to Georgetown’s first Jewish chaplain, a rabbi who retired a few years back. He told me of his time working in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements; how he was a Freedom Rider and met Martin Luther King and Malcolm X; and that he studied under Abraham Joshua Heschel, who famously said of the March on Washington: “I felt like my feet were praying.” I was not only amazed at the compassionate action of this man, but also by the fact that our conversation quickly transitioned into a discussion about how we miss cheap falafel in the Middle East.

He also spoke to me about his concern for the declining numbers of Jesuits. He began rattling off statistics about how many Jesuits were in the Maryland province when he began at Georgetown in the sixties, compared to today. As he finished his shpeal, I realized that I wasn’t talking to a Jesuit concerned about this decline, but a rabbi. He cares about Catholic clergy just as much as those in his own tradition.

After mingling with Muslim friends I hadn’t seen since before I went abroad, I went to Mass, where the reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians stressed that we are all parts of Christ’s one body. In the homily, the priest discussed the intersection of diversity, complementarity, and dependence—that in our diversity we complement one another, and more importantly help one another when we are in need.

I couldn’t help but think of the following passage from the Qur’an, which Georgetown’s president had read shortly before at the banquet:

“If God had willed, He would have made you one religious community, but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race one another in good deeds.” Just as in Paul’s letter, the Qur’an speaks of God’s desire for diversity, complementary, and dependence.

And I thought of the sweetest thing that a Muslim friend said to me as we left the dinner—how he and others had missed me, and how a hole had been left, when I was abroad. I was struck by the kindness of his words, but also the greater truth that they held.

A truth that must become the new narrative about interreligious relations: that without one of us, there is a gaping hole. When one part of the body is missing—whether it be the rabbi, the Catholic girl, or the Muslim boy—we cannot move or act. We cannot “pray with our feet” and race together in the game of doing good works on our common planet.

Trends we can’t ignore: 3) The recent rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes

My last post discussed post-9/11 hate crimes against American Sikhs, many of whom were targeted because they were thought to be Muslim.  It’s no surprise, then, that American Muslims too have experienced a wave of hate crimes directed at their own community.

The remains of a mosque in Joplin, Missouri that was destroyed by hate-motivated arson.

In the year after September 11, anti-Muslim hate crimes rose by a staggering 1,600 percent.  While they decreased and remained fairly low (but still disconcerting) between 2002 and 2009, they rose by a sharp 50% in 2010 (160 reported crimes up from 107.)

Sadly, the FBI statistics are almost certainly a low estimate of the total crimes, because many go unreported or unprosecuted.  Working in an Islamic civil rights and advocacy organization last summer, I combed through pages and pages of bias incident reports and read countless articles from small, local news outlets reporting on incidents ranging from vandalism, to threatening notes, to bullying in schools.

Some may find a jump in anti-Muslim crime in 2010, almost a full decade after September 11, puzzling. But it actually makes perfect sense. 2010 was “a year marked by the incendiary rhetoric of Islam-bashing politicians and activists, especially over the so-called ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ in New York City.”

This rhetoric hasn’t let up since 2010, a point I won’t elaborate on more here because I’ve written extensively on it before.  (See “Sharia: A Fabricated Threat,” “Thoughts on King’s ‘radicalization’ hearings,” and “The Oslo Opportunity: Parts 3 and 4.” If interested in reading a paper on anti-Muslim discourse that I wrote for a course at Georgetown, I’m happy to send it to you.)

As community members fought the construction of a new mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee using hateful rhetoric about Muslims, the site was vandalized and the construction equipment set on fire. The mosque finally opened a few weeks ago, after years of setback due to the Islamophobic campaign. (CNN did a good piece on this last year.)

Though statistics on anti-Muslim hate crimes for 2011 and 2012 are not yet available, the dozens and dozens of individual cases I’ve read about over the past two years indicate that the numbers will likely be just as grim as they were in 2010.

After the attack on the Sikh gurdwara on August 5th, a shooting likely motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment, anti-Muslim bias attacks skyrocketed. Over the course of eight days, 11 major attacks were reported across the country.  Mosques were sprayed with paint balls and rubber bullets, hit with lemons, eggs, and pigs’ legs.  The home of a Muslim family, and a mosque, were fire-bombed with Molotov cocktails.  The grave of a prominent Arab leader was desecrated with the words “raghaed” (sic) and “killer, and the headstones of other Muslims were also graffitied.  And a mosque in Joplin, Miss. was burned to the ground (and this was the second time in about a month it had been targeted in arson.)  And these are only incidents that have occurred in the last few weeks.

One of the many desecrated headstones in Chicago 

cemeteryDid perpetrators have some sort of sick notion that the success of one attack (in Wisconsin) legitimized more? Who knows.  Was the spike in attacks intentional, given that they occurred during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan? Maybe.

Quoted in a Salon article, Ahmad Rehab of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Chicago asks:

How long are we going to go pretending like there is no relationship between this acquiescence of hatred and politics and the inclination of violence on the ground? …You cannot demonize a community and then be surprised when they’re under attack.

Many of the aforementioned attacks took place in Illinois, shortly after a notoriously Islamophobic congressman, Joe Walsh, alleged at a town hall meeting:

that “radical Islam” had made a home in the suburbs of Chicago; that “it’s in Elk Grove, it’s in Addison, it’s in Elgin. It’s here”; and that radical Muslims are “trying to kill Americans every week.” Walsh’s warnings were met with applause. (Salon)

Sadly, Walsh is only one of many politicians, media personalities, and “activists” spewing this crap.  In many parts of America and in many sectors of the media, this kind of talk is mainstream and goes unchallenged.

But this wave of attacks—this trend sparked by “acceptable” anti-Muslim rhetoric—hardly ever gets media attention outside of local community where it takes place.  It’s a national problem that isn’t being treated as such.

Though it received attention among Muslim activists and some interfaith leaders, the arson at the mosque in Joplin, Miss. was not covered like the Sikh tragedy was.  Most Americans were probably unaware of it.  True, no one died as a result of the arson.  But it is one frightening example of anti-Muslim hate that, like the Sikh shooting, must be treated as an opportunity to illuminate and address the roots and implications of racism and xenophobia in our country.  I wish more human rights and faith organizations had stepped up, like they did with the shooting at the Sikh gurdwara, issuing press statements about the mosque attack (and this trend of hate crimes I’ve discussed,) not only to rightfully condemn it, but also to push the issue into the national spotlight.

In a New York Times op-ed entitled, “If the Sikh temple had been a mosque,” Samuel Freedman writes about how anti-Muslim hate is (disturbingly) more expected—and maybe even more acceptable—to many Americans.

The mistaken-identity narrative carries with it an unspoken, even unexamined premise. It implies that somehow the public would have — even should have — reacted differently had Mr. Page turned his gun on Muslims attending a mosque. It suggests that such a crime would be more explicable, more easily rationalized, less worthy of moral outrage.

“Islamophobia has become so mainstream in this country that Americans have been trained to expect violence against Muslims — not excuse it, but expect it,” said Reza Aslan, an Iranian-American writer and scholar on religion. “And that’s happened because you have an Islamophobia industry in this country devoted to making Americans think there’s an enemy within.”

Convinced by the media that Muslims are violent and threatening, some white Americans may see threats and violence committed against Muslims as a logical response.

A sad and sick example of this logic was illustrated by someone who commented on one of my YouTube videos.  Calling Muslims “scum” and claiming that “one day we will be throwing their muslim (sic) butts out of America,” he told me to stop “betraying” my “own people and country.”  I visited his YouTube account, where I found his public list of his “Favorite” videos.  One of them was called “Top ten mosques to bomb.”  It showed photos of large, beautiful mosques around the world, and then a big mushroom cloud would appear in their places. This man was advocating violence against Muslims, so (wrongly) convinced that they were a danger to him.  This man had become the barbarian that he claimed to be fighting.

The trend of rising anti-Muslim hate crimes in America is one that can’t be ignored.  When the public sees the concrete (and horrific) effects of anti-Muslim rhetoric, the Islamophobic language that is so mainstream will become quickly become unacceptable.

Tomorrow’s post, the final in the series, will discuss the threat of white supremacist hate groups in America.

Trends we can’t ignore: 2) Anti-Sikh hate crimes

In my last post, I discussed the problem of religious illiteracy in America. One sad result of this illiteracy is the wave of hate crimes against Sikh Americans in the wake of September 11.

Valerie Kaur, an activist and film-maker who has documented hate crimes against Sikhs in post 9/11-America, writes that “Sikh men with turbans have been most affected by post 9/11 hate crimes”:

Post September 11 backlash violence has been primarily directed at those perceived to resemble the enemy – a turbaned and bearded Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda leader. Nearly all people who wear turbans in the United States are Sikh, members of the world’s fifth largest religion who trace their heritage to the Punjab region of India. On September 15, 2001 in Mesa, Arizona, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh man, became the first person murdered in the hate epidemic. Out of the estimated nineteen people murdered in the immediate aftermath, four were turbaned Sikh men.

Other cases of violence against Sikhs include arson, harassment, beatings, forced haircutting, and vandalism. In many cases, the attackers made their ignorant, anti-Muslim intentions known. Before beating a Sikh man to death in Los Angeles in 2001, the attackers shouted, “We’ll kill bin Laden today.”

Despite the trauma that the Sikh American community has undergone because of these hate crimes, the federal government does not keep statistics on anti-Sikh hate crimes. The FBI simply includes them in anti-Muslims hate crime statistics.

In a Washington Post commentary, Kaur argues that not keeping separate statistics for Sikhs is “wrong and dangerous.” Hate crimes against Sikhs, she says, shouldn’t always be simply seen as a “case of mistaken identity.” Though in many cases it has been proved that crimes occurred under the premise that Sikhs were Muslim or Arab, Sikhs are attacked for simply being different, for not fitting into the (false) homogenous picture of America that some fearful whites cling to. Kaur:

I believe it would not have mattered much to Wade Michael Page [the Oak Creek terrorist] if he knew that the people he killed were Sikh rather than Muslim. From what we have gathered so far, Page is just like others who have targeted Sikhs in hate violence: they see people with dark skin, beards, and turbans as the enemy.

No matter if specific anti-Muslim sentiment or more general xenophobia drive hate crimes against them, “Sikhs deserve the dignity of being a statistic.” If we can’t even grant them something so simple and small—documenting hate crimes against them—how can we ever begin to take the next and most important step: acknowledging and honoring Sikh’s dignity as human beings.

Tomorrow’s post will discuss the recent rise in hate crimes against Muslims.