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.

Searching for our own Edward R. Murrow

Today, New York Representative Peter King held a second round of Congressional hearings concerning “Muslim radicalization in the U.S.” In an era when anti-Muslim rhetoric continues to spew unchecked from the mouths of presidential hopefuls and talking heads on cable, many others and I fear that these hearings are evidence that a new McCarthyism, one targeting Muslim-Americans, is taking root in America.

Generally, when my generation learned in school about McCarthyism in the 40s and 50s, we understood it to be a shameful period in our country’s history.  Looking back now on the McCarthy hearings, (which unfairly targeted thousands of Americans, labeling them falsely as Communists,) and the general tone suspicion that permeated our political and civil environment, we recognize that American leadership was acting in response to fears that were purposefully manufactured and inflated in order to be exploited for political gain.

But at Monday night’s GOP debate, the McCarthy hearings were referenced in quite a positive light as Newt Gingrich implied that the U.S. government should subject Muslim-Americans to the same kind of scrutiny that so-called Communist sympathizers experienced decades ago:

“We did this when dealing with the Nazis, and we did this when dealing with the Communists, and it was controversial both times, and both times we discovered after a while, ‘You know, there are some generally bad people who would like to infiltrate our country, and we have gotta have the guts to say, No.’”

In this context, as fear mongering and McCarthy-style hearings seem to be coming back in vogue, the words of Edward R. Murrow are all the more important to share and remember (see below).  Advocating for a return to reason and the abandonment of unnecessary fear, Murrow, a journalist, spoke out against the fear and suspicion encouraged by Sen. McCarthy and other public figures.  If we substitute Rep. King’s name for Sen. McCarthy’s in the following clip, Murrow could just as easily be speaking to us, the Americans of 2011, instead of the Americans of 1954.  Take a listen–let’s hope our own Murrow shows up soon.

Illustrations of Islamophobia Part II (and a little bit of hope)

On another blog, I just came upon this speech given by Newt Gingrich.  He discusses America’s major security threats, namely “radical Islamists”.  He says clearly that we are not at war with terrorism–which is news to me.  He claims that we are endangered by an Islamic threat.

I obviously do understand that America has been attacked by terrorists who claim to adhere to Islam.  (The version of Islam I know, the version that some of my best friends practice, is not the bastardization of religion that the terrorists believe in.)  But Newt seems to be implying that we are at war with Islam as a religion.  He says that we need to uproot the mosques that teach violence and hatred.  Yes, I’m sure there are mosques that teach hate, as there are churches and synagogues that do so, but the vast majority of these places of worship do not.  Newt does not make that distinction; he generalizes, making it appear that all mosques teach violence.

He also demonizes sharia law, which is something that he, and much of the West, greatly misunderstand.  The term has come to be seen as synonymous with oppression of women and denial of religious freedom, so when Newt uses it in that context, if further embeds that misunderstood view in the minds of Americans.

In order to avoid a Shirley Sherrod issue, I have posted two videos.  The first is the shorter, clipped version that just shows Newt’s comments relating to Islam.  Here is the full video to make clear that the first clips are not taken out of context and painting a picture of Newt’s remarks that he did not intend.  Sadly, Newt did intend what he said…

Lastly, like the blogger I got this video from, I find it ironic that he says we must stop the Islamization of the U.S. and Europe and then criticizes the “secular” Democrats.  So both Islam (religion) and secularism (no religion) are bad…? What is acceptable then?  Though he wouldn’t admit it, it is clear his answer would only include Christianity.

On a happier note, I came across a post today about how it is our religious duty as Christians to support our Muslims friends and fight the kind of prejudice that people like Newt are spewing.  Here is a quote from Amanda’s post that echoes my own feelings, I say loving my Muslim neighbors as myself is the highest articulation of my Faith and its most convincing moment. Check out her awesome blog here.  Sometimes I get discouraged by people who perpetrate Islamophobia, but it is posts like these that give me hope that change is possible.  (Sorry for all the “hope-y, change-y stuff.”) 🙂