My talk at the Ignatian Family Teach-In

Last weekend, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to deliver the following speech at the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice to an audience of over 1,000.

Using my own experiences with Muslim-Christian dialogue and the documents of the Second Vatican Council, I argued that we as Catholics are called to engage in interreligious dialogue.

Click here, or on the image below to watch “Living Nostra Aetate: Dialoging with Muslims,” or read the full text of the speech below the photo.

Click here to watch “Living Nostra Aetate: Dialoging with Muslims” November 16, 2012, IFTJ

Full text of the speech:

Good evening.

[My name is Jordan Denari, I’m a senior at Georgetown University here in Washington, D.C. (applause) and a proud alumnus of Brebeuf Jesuit in Indianapolis (applause).  Forgive me, I’m getting over a cough and lost my voice earlier this week, so bear with me.]

I’d like to begin first by saying “Assalaamu ‘alaykum,” which, in Arabic, means “peace be with you.”  It seems like an appropriate way to begin today, given that it’s a phrase that Muslims use to greet one another, and it’s something that Jesus encouraged his followers to say to each other as well.

During my freshman year at Georgetown University, I was asked the following question multiple times: “Are you converting to Islam?”

I wouldn’t be surprised if people still asked that question now, three years later — given that I’ve been a board member of Georgetown’s Muslim Students Association, lived in the Muslim living-learning community, worked at an Islamic advocacy organization, and can often be spotted participating in Muslim Friday prayers with my hair wrapped up in a scarf.

In reality, however, I’m far from converting, and I feel more rooted in my own tradition, Catholicism, than ever before.

And that’s not 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 for me is about lived engagement with those different from myself — 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. 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 emphases on prayer and community in Islam 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, a faith not my own, became the medium through which I came to love the faith of my childhood. 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.

I often say that I have Islam to thank for helping me reclaim my faith —for making me a better Catholic. I think immersion into any other religious tradition would have served me in the same way.

As I began to reflect upon my own faith journey and the way in which Islam brought me back to Catholicism, I wondered what the Church would say about my engagement with the Muslim community and the interreligious dialogue that was so crucial to my experience.

A class on the post-Vatican II Church began to answer my questions, and I was thrilled to discover that the Church’s understanding of the importance of dialogue mirrored my own.

For the Church, interreligious dialogue is essential, and its purpose is vast: fostering understanding and learning between different religious groups; establishing social peace and cooperation; and strengthening the spirituality of all those involved.

The Church’s dedication to dialogue officially began with Nostra Aetate, a revolutionary Vatican II document that describes the Church’s new relationship to non-Christian religions.  In only five short paragraphs, it reshaped the way the Church approaches people of other faiths.

It reads: the Church “urges its sons and daughters to enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions.  Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, together with their social life and culture.”

The Church asserts that I can still remain true to my Catholic identity—that I am actually living out my Catholicism—while supporting and encouraging my Muslim friends’ way of life.

Pope John Paul II, who took strides to implement the ideals called for in Nostra Aetate, wrote in his encyclical Redemptor Hominis that participation in dialogue “does not at all mean losing certitude about one’s own faith or weakening the principles of morality…” Rather, he said, “the strong beliefs and the moral values of the followers of other religions can and should challenge Christians to respond more fully and generously to the demands of their own Christian faith.”

This has been my experience precisely. And that’s why I continue to stay involved in the Muslim community. Not only are Muslims my 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. Thanks to our small-group dialogue program, students find that their stereotypes of others are shattered, and in seeing how other believers practice their faith, they reflect on their own tradition in a new light.

The most powerful—and likely surprising—line in Nostra Aetate is one that again speaks directly to my own experiences.

It reads: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. …[Their teachings] often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men and women.”

I feel “rays of truth”—or God’s presence—when I participate in Muslim prayer and squish shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest of the congregation.  I see the rays of truth when I watch the way my Muslim friends interact with one another in love.

And I hear the rays of truth in the azan, the Islamic call to prayer.  When I studied abroad in Amman, Jordan, I was constantly drawn into a state of prayer upon hearing the azan five times a day.  It was God calling me to dhikr, remembrance of God and the way he works in my life.

Nostra Aetate helped me realize that living a life of dialogue and interreligious engagement with Muslims was an inherently Catholic vocation, and it continues to challenge me today to live out that call in deeper ways:

The Church encourages all to “work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve, as well as to promote, together, social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom, for the benefit of all mankind.”

It’s particularly important for me to stand in solidarity with my Muslim brothers and sisters today, in light of the prejudices that Muslims face in the post-9/11 world.

Last month, anti-Muslim hate propaganda lined the walls of the D.C. metro, and a friend’s mosque was targeted in arson. And those are only two of myriad hate-filled and ignorance-driven acts that Muslims have had to cope with over the last few years.  When I worked at an Islamic advocacy organization, I’d read daily local news reports about hate crimes against Muslims, but never were they reported about on a national scale, despite the fact that between 2009 and 2010, hate crimes against Muslims in America rose by 50%.  As a Catholic, I can’t forget that our minority religious community too faced prejudice and scapegoating during an earlier time in American history.  Like Muslims, we Catholics were marginalized because we were “foreign” and “threatening to American law and way of life.”

Today, the same accusations—and worse—are leveled against Muslims. Because many Americans don’t know Muslims—62% claim to have never met a Muslim—the media’s negative portrayal allows the American public—and many Christians—to push Muslims to the margins.

Unfortunately, I saw this marginalization occurring in my own Catholic community back home in Indianapolis.  One afternoon during my junior year of high school, I opened my e-mail inbox to find a hateful, Islamophobic chain message, forwarded from a family friend.  The email contained inflammatory epithets about Muslims, who, according to the email, expressed tacit approval for terrorism and violence committed by a few radicals.  I was angry and sad that a family friend, someone from my own Catholic community, could espouse and promote this hateful sentiment—that she would lump terrorists together with people like my friend, Nadir, a Muslim who went to my high school, Brebeuf Jesuit, and now goes to Georgetown with me. He is an exceptional individual who exudes kindness and has committed his life to helping others.  I wondered how my family friend could put him in the same category as those who carried out the 9/11 attacks.

It was immediately apparent to me that my family friend was not a hateful woman; it was her ignorance that resulted in her prejudicial comments. Those in my Catholic community who had circulated this email did so because of their lack of understanding of Muslims.

I hope my own story, and the call of Nostra Aetate, can help remind Christians how much we need our Muslim neighbors—how much we can learn about God and each other by engaging with them.  We must be like the Samaritan, pulling up the stranger.  We must bring Muslims out of the margins, making clear that they too are our neighbors.

Every night, I go to Mass in the chapel of the North American Jesuit Martyrs at Georgetown.  It’s a habit that I never would have anticipated myself undertaking four years ago, when I came to college shaky about my Catholic identity.  During the Eucharist, I often think about the fact that I wouldn’t be at nightly Mass were it not for the group of believers on the other side of the chapel wall—the Georgetown Muslim community.  While the Catholics participate in their 10pm Mass, the Muslim students complete their nightly 10pm isha prayer in the musallah, or prayer room, next door.  When I come to Mass discouraged about the state of Muslim-Christian relations—when it seems that violence and bigotry will win out—I’m often strengthened by the quiet, Arabic words that echo from the musallah into the chapel every night: Allahu akbar—God is greater.

(End of speech)

Thoughts on King’s “radicalization” hearings

“I remember doing a number of radio interviews [right after 9/11] saying we can’t do to the Muslims what we did to the Japanese after Pearl Harbor.” (New York magazine)

Peter King at today's hearing

These are the words of Peter King, a long-time House representative from Long Island and the head of the House Homeland Security committee.  Before 9/11, he was an active supporter of his Muslim community; he even spoke and cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony of the Islamic Center of Long Island.  As his quote suggests, he was concerned that post-9/11 backlash would lead to unwarranted suspicion of Muslims and unjust government actions taken against the group as a whole.

However, today King seems to be encouraging the climate of mistrust he sought to avoid ten years ago.

This morning, the House committee on Homeland Security—of which King is the head— began a hearing to examine “the Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community’s Response.” King is concerned that Muslims in America are becoming more radicalized and that the Muslim community is doing little to counter that trend.

Are King’s concerns legitimate?

In one respect, yes.  We have seen an increase in the attempted domestic terror plots

Figure 2

committed by American Muslims in the years since 9/11 (Triangle Center on Terror and Homeland Security, Figure 2).  This attempted terrorism is considered a strong indicator of radicalization.  (It is important to note that the number of terror attempts dropped by half, despite the fact that the attempts received more media attention.)

An increase in radicalization, however, cannot only be ascribed to members of the Muslim community.   In 2010, the number of hate groups operating in the US reached its peak, topping 1,000.  Some of these groups include neo-Nazis, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, racist skinheads, Klansmen, and black separatists (Southern Poverty Law Center).  “Other hate groups on the list target gays or immigrants, and some specialize in producing racist music or propaganda denying the Holocaust,” the center’s report also says.

Individuals, often associated with these organizations, have attempted to carry out terror plots in the US as well.  “In an 11-day period this January, a neo-Nazi was arrested as he headed for the Arizona border with a dozen homemade grenades; a terrorist bomb attack on a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in Spokane, Wash., was averted when police dismantled a sophisticated bomb; and a man who officials said had a long history of antigovernment activities was arrested in a car filled with explosives outside a packed mosque in Dearborn, Mich.” (Southern Poverty Law Center .) (I am particularly troubled that these instances of terrorism, especially the last one in which Muslims were targeted, were hardly reported in the mainstream media, unlike terror plots undertaken by Muslims.)

Clearly, radicalization is not just a phenomenon we see in a small number of Muslim Americans; it is a phenomenon that has been seen among whites, blacks, Christians and others across America.  As Mississippi representative Bennie Thompson, a ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee said during the hearing, radicalization is a nation-wide problem affecting Americans in all ethnic and religious groups.  Because of this, he called on King to hold a hearing to address the radicalization of anti-government and white supremacist groups as well.

He, many others, and myself believe that pigeonholing one group, as King has done with this hearing, is dangerous.  It not only ignores important security threats (the 1,000 hate groups I just mentioned), but it has the potential to create further radicalization among American Muslim individuals, who may feel that their government does not trust them, simply because of their religious background.

Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, who agreed to testify but didn’t agree with the specificity of the hearings, said, “If you start to make a community feel besieged, they’re just going to feel more reticent. It’s just a natural human reaction to feel like a target.” (New York Magazine)

He also recognizes the need to investigate all forms of radicalism in order to better secure our country.  “If you took every Muslim in America and put them in a jail, it wouldn’t have stopped Gabby Giffords from being shot. It wouldn’t have saved the people in Oklahoma City. It wouldn’t have saved the guard at the Holocaust Museum. It wouldn’t have saved the students at Columbine or Virginia Tech. To me, it’s like he’s saying we’re going to deal with drugs, but we’re only going to deal with black drug dealers.”  (New York Magazine)

Even the title of the hearing itself is problematic, because it places the emphasis on the Muslim “community,” not on individuals.  This title only increases the perception that the US government is at war with Islam, and as Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf of the Cordoba Initiative has expressed, this perception has the potential to increase radicalization of Muslims abroad.

Now I’ll turn to King’s second concern: that the American Muslim community has not done enough to prevent radicalization and stop violence.

This claim, however, has been refuted by the Justice community and specifically by Attorney General Eric Holder, who asserts that the Muslim community has been highly helpful in providing tips that have resulted in the disruption of terror plots. (CBS)

According to the same Triangle Center study, fellow Muslims were most often those who provided initial information to law enforcement about Muslim American terror plots since 9/11 (48 out of 120 cases).

Though King disagrees, he has not produced any sources to support his claim that Muslims are uncooperative. (New York Magazine)

I also take issue with part of King’s list of witnesses.  He was right to ask Muslim representative Ellison to testify, yet he failed to invite the other Muslim representative, Andre Carson (who represents my district in Indiana.) No federal law enforcement officials were present; only a sheriff from Los Angeles was.  Thankfully, John Dingell, who represents Dearborn, Michigan, a city with a large Muslim population, was invited to speak, and reminded us that we can’t let a neo-McCarthyism—focused this time on Islam instead of Communism—take root.

I was also disappointed to see that mainstream Muslim leaders like Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf (of the Cordoba Initiative and the American Society for Muslim Advancement) and Imam Mohamed Magid (of the Islamic Society of North America—located outside Indianapolis!) were not asked to testify.  Only Zudhi Jasser (of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy), who was unknown to me until the hearings, was present.

Aside from Ellison and Dingell, it seems that the witnesses were brought in to back King’s own misguided positions, not to provide the full range of discourse needed.

It is hard to take King or this hearing seriously, not only because his list of witnesses, but also because of previous statements he’s made about American Muslims and his support of the Irish terrorist group, the IRA.

In 2004, King supported the claim that 80% of mosques in American were run by radical imams, and in 2007, he said that America had “too many mosques.”  The first statement is clearly unsubstantiated, false, and ultimately offensive to American Muslims and their supporters like me.  And his second statement questions Muslims’ First Amendment rights to express their religion by building places of worship.

King is strongly opposed to Islamic terrorism, yet he staunchly supported the IRA, a violent terrorist group that operated in Northern Ireland.  Tom Parker, a counterterrorism expert at Amnesty International, expresses my thoughts well: “My problem is with the hypocrisy.  If you say that terrorist violence is acceptable in one setting because you happen to agree with the cause, then you lose the authority to condemn it in another setting.” (Washington Post)

Why King decided to hold this hearing in unclear to me.  The reasons he cites are, as I hope I’ve shown, incomplete and misinformed.  While I do not have any definite answers, I fear politics may play a part.  As the Park 51 Center made headlines last summer in anticipation of the midterm elections, this hearing is making the news as talk of the 2012 elections begins.  The American Muslim community became a political pawn last summer, and I fear that the same will happen in the future, because of this hearing.  Sadly, the climate of fear of Muslims, created and sustained by politicians and the news media, can be easily exploited for political gain.

Through today’s hearing, King hoped to increase America’s security and protect its values.  However, I’m afraid the hearing chipped away at both, just as anti-Japanese policy did 70 years ago.  We cannot let the Muslim Americans of the 2000s become the Japanese Americans of the 1940s.

I don’t think it is overly dramatic to say that this hearing could be the first step down a dangerous and bigoted path that our country has unfortunately walked before.

Many people might counter me, saying, “That could never happen again. Today is different.  We are more tolerant now.”

Sadly, I’m not so sure.

For more reflections on the hearing, check out:

Religious leaders comment on the significance of the hearing on the Washington Post’s  “On Faith” blog.