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).

 

Happy holidays!

To all of my fellow Catholics, Happy Feast of St. Ignatius Loyola!

“Every good Christian ought to be more disposed to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement than to condemn it.” –St. Ignatius

St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits

To all of my Muslim friends, Ramadan Karim!

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” –Rumi, Muslim Sufi mystic

Muslim mystic and poet, Rumi

Once again, I thank the Jesuits and the Muslim community, who have taught me so much about loving my neighbor.

(Coming soon: a post on the Oslo terror attack and its implications)

A sacrificial feast

Written  November 2010.

Today, Muslims are celebrating Eid al-Adha, the holiest holiday in the Islamic calendar. It is similar to Christians’ Easter celebrations, in that it is the most important holiday of the year, yet the worldwide festivities and preparations are less extensive than those during the month of Ramadan (which is similar to Christmastime in terms of the scope of celebration.) However, in Mecca, where over two million Muslims have traveled on pilgrimage, or hajj, the celebrations and rituals could not be grander, as I expect is also true in Jerusalem during Easter.

Muslims circle the Holy Kaba in Mecca
Orthodox Christians in Jerusalem during Easter

Eid al-Adha celebrates the sacrifice Abraham (Ibrahim) was willing to make when God asked him to slaughter his son (Ismaeel/Ishmael).  The story is quite similar to the Christian one, but with notable changes that speak to the differences between the two faiths.  In the Bible, the story focuses solely on Abraham, and his willingness to give up his son in order to serve God.  We never hear from Isaac, who, at least in my mind, is likely scared and confused.  In the Islamic story, the focus too is on Ibrahim, but we also hear from Ismaeel, who is about to be killed.  Understanding what his father is about to do, Ishmael welcomes the action, telling his father to kill him if that is God’s will.  Luckily, in the end, both boys survive thanks to a ram caught in the bushes sent by God, who is pleased by his followers’ faithfulness.

Depiction of Christian story

When I first heard the Islamic version of the story, I was struck by the emphasis on Ismaeel and his willingness to submit to the will of God.  His faithful trust in God’s plan is emblematic of the attitude that I’ve witnessed in so many of my Muslim friends and teachers.  So often I hear the phrase, “In ‘sha Allah” muttered by my friends in the place where Christians might say, “hopefully.”  The Arabic phrase translates to “God willing,” and is used when discussing anything that may happen in the future.  My friends work hard to detach themselves from their own wishes and instead try to accept whatever God places in their way.  This core quality is even expressed in the name “Islam,” which means “submission to God,” and “Muslim,” literally means “the one who submits.”

A few weeks ago, I participated in the Muslim Students Association annual Fast-a-thon, an event in which Georgetown students fasted in solidarity with their Muslim friends and classmates in order to raise money and awareness for a cause.  We fasted from sunrise to sunset, without food or water, as if it were the month of Ramadan (which took place earlier in the year.)  At the iftaar meal at the end of the day, I was fortunate enough to give a reflection on fasting and sacrifice in Islam.  The following is what shared:

Hi, my name is Jordan Denari.  I’m a member of the Muslim Students Association; I live in the Muslim Interest Living Community on campus; and I’m a Catholic.  A lot of people have asked me if I’m converting to Islam, which is not surprising given my involvement.  But no, I’m not converting.

However, learning about Islam here on campus has been crucial to my religious growth and has in many ways brought me back to my Catholicism.  Through my attendance at and participation in MSA events, I’ve seen the beauty in Islam, which helped me to find the beauty in my own faith, which I had been unable to see for a long time.

Last year’s Fast-a-thon is really where all of that learning began.  Two of the biggest things I noticed about fasting in Islam—as I hope you’ve also noticed—are the emphases on sacrifice and community.  Fasting from food, drink, and negative thoughts all day for a month is clearly a sacrifice, especially when compared to the less intense forms of fasting I’m familiar with in Catholicism.  To my surprise, I quickly realized that Muslims were excited to fast, not only because their sacrifice was giving glory to God, but also because of the sense of community at the iftaar dinners, where Muslims gather together every night to celebrate their daily sacrifices.

I was struck by the power of these themes, and wondered why I wasn’t seeing them in my own faith.  That encouraged me to take a closer look at Catholicism and find those themes—sacrifice and community—that are so prevalent in Islam.  Through a lot of exploration last year, I found those things, but it was only while reflecting for this talk that I was able to see how similarly these themes intersect in Catholicism as they do in Islam.

That intersection is found in the Eucharist, the communion meal that occurs during Mass, in which we commemorate Jesus’ sacrifice.  As Catholics, we too are called to sacrifice as Jesus did by serving the marginalized in our communities in order to bring God’s goodness into the world.  Every week, when we gather as a community for the Eucharist, we are celebrating the sacrifices we live out every day in our own way.  We may not be sacrificing food or water, but we are sacrificing our own time, our own goals, to follow the will of God.  In that way, the Eucharist is very much like the iftaar meal we are sharing in tonight.  At both meals we join in community to celebrate the sacrifices we make for God.

Finding this intersection point in the Eucharist makes the communion ritual that much more meaningful for me.

Last year’s Fast-a-thon was for me the unconscious beginning of a process of religious learning here at Georgetown.  I hope all of you make this meal a conscious start to your own growth.  I encourage you, whether you adhere to a specific faith or not, whether you believe in God or not, to take advantage of the opportunities you have here to learn from people of other faiths.  It not only fosters inter-religious and cultural understanding, but it also has the potential to increase your understanding of yourself and God.

I want to thank the Muslim community on campus for its support and for bringing us here tonight.  And especially, for helping me become a better Catholic.”

While Muslims today are slaughtering animals in remembrance of Abraham and Ishmael’s sacrifice, I am reminded of the Church’s own ritual slaughtering—the Eucharist—in which Jesus is offered up as a sacrificial animal, so that we, like Isaac and Ishmael, can be spared.  Unlike my Muslim brothers and sisters, I don’t have to wait another year to engage in my faith’s sacrificial ritual.  Fortunately, I just have to wait until Sunday.

Want to read and hear the Qur’anic passage from which the Ibrahim and Ishmael story comes? Qur’an, Chapter 37 (As-Saffaat), Verse 103

Want to learn more about Eid al-Adha and see pictures from the Hajj in Mecca?

 

 

Click here to see photos from the Washington Post.

 

 

Summary of the holy day

Al-Jazeera Special Report: Hajj 2010

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Also, today is the 21st anniversary of the murder of 6 Jesuits at the University of Central America in San Salvador.  This weekend at the Teach-In we celebrated their lives and their sacrifice.

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.


A bit disappointed; Jon’s brilliance; and our Sufi allies

A bit disappointed with Brian, Harry, and Barack

A segment on tonight’s NBC Nightly News urked me a little bit.  The segment was about Obama’s statements regarding the construction of the Cordoba House in Lower Manhattan, and how Muslims have the same religious rights as anyone else.  When introducing the story, Brian Williams describes the situation as a “fight” into which Obama waded.  Why use this word?  True, combativeness does hike up ratings, butit does not help us to better understand the nuances and details of the situation.  It further perpetuates the simplified “us vs. them” mentality that infects important and complicated political, societal, and cultural debates happening within our country.

As the piece continues, the “mosque” in question is not referred to correctly.  It is not simply a mosque–and even if it was a mosque, big deal!  The Cordoba House (it is hardly referred to by its proper name) is a cultural and community center, dedicated to bringing people of all faiths together, as well as providing swimming pool, workout facilities, and a place of worship.  Basically, it is a beefed up YMCA or JCC open to anyone.

Major news outlets must begin referring to this place as the Cordoba House.  Generalizing the Corboda House as a “mosque” or “Islamic center” only mystifies it and allows people to place their own views or ideas onto it.

I am also sad to see that Harry Reid is against the Cordoba House.  Many Democrats look up to him for guidance about their political and social views, and his denouncement of the Cordoba House encourages more Americans to do the same.

I was initially thrilled with Obama’s remarks at the White House Iftaar this past weekend.  (An iftaar is the meal with which Muslims break their fast during the holy month of Ramadan.)  But since he expressed his support for the Cordoba House and received backlash from some politicians and pundits about it, he has moved backward on that statement of support.  Obama has tried before to distance himself from the Muslim community when conservatives claimed he was Muslim during the 2008 election.  That was an opportunity to have an important national discussion about Muslims in America, and he failed to take it.  Again, Obama is missing an opportunity to play a key part in a dialogue that must happen in our country.  I am disappointed by his choice to back-off his support of the Cordoba House, and I hope he chooses to reverse that position soon.  If he truly wants to see Americans’ religious rights protected, he must step in.

Jon’s brilliance

The Daily Show recently did an awesome segment about the opposition to mosque construction in the U.S.  I’ll let the video speak for itself.

Our Sufi allies

This op-ed contribution discusses how as Americans we must work with those within Islam, particularly those in the Sufi tradition, to fight extremism.  One of these Sufis is Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Muslim whose initiative is building the Cordoba House. Sufism is a version of Islamic mysticism, not a separate religion.

16th-Century Miniature Painting Depicting Dancing Dervishes, Image by © Archivo Iconografico, S.A./CORBIS

This line of poetry, written by the famous Sufi saint, Rumi, is crucial for us to remember and implement during this time.

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.

In today’s America, those barriers are fear and misunderstanding.  Only when we recognize them can we begin understanding, befriending, and loving our neighbors.