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)

Talking about torture

On Sunday afternoon, I marched in downtown D.C. behind rows of black-hooded figures in orange jumpsuits, holding a sign that read, “Torture is always wrong.”  I was part of a procession commemorating the “National Week of Action Against Torture, Guantanamo, and the NDAA,” and the mock-prisoners walking ahead of me represented the many victims of torture who have suffered at the hands of the US military.

June 24, 2012

Torture is not a new phenomenon in war and conflict, but in recent years, its use by the US military and government has increased tremendously.  As a result of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US military has built prisons at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Afghanistan (e.g. Bagram), and Iraq, where many foreigners have been detained for years without trial and have little hope for release.  Even children, like Omar Khadr, an Afghan boy who was only fifteen when he was captured, have been imprisoned in Gitmo for the last ten years.

Despite promises that previous and current administrations have made to refrain from torture, those in Guantanamo and other US military facilities around the world have been subjected to electrocutions, beatings, sleep deprivation, and humiliation.

Murat Kurnaz, a German Turk studying in Pakistan who was detained by Americans at Bagram and eventually sent to Guantanamo, describes the torture techniques he endured after being interrogated about the “whereabouts of Osama bin Laden:”

During their interrogations, they dunked my head under water and punched me in the stomach; they don’t call this waterboarding but it amounts to the same thing. I was sure I would drown.  At one point, I was chained to the ceiling of a building and hung by my hands for days. A doctor sometimes checked if I was O.K.; then I would be strung up again. The pain was unbearable. (NYT)

For many of us, the immorality of torture is unquestionable.  Harming another human being, through physical torture or coercion, is morally disgusting.

But despite the immorality of torture, we must wonder, is it effective?  Doesn’t torture work to get information that will protect our country from terrorism, and don’t the ends often justify the means?

Matthew Alexander, a former US interrogator in Iraq, answers this question in his must-read book, How to Break a Terrorist.  He writes how he used “brains, not brutality” while interrogating terror suspects in Iraq, and thus tracked down the most dangerous man in the country, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

He describes the tension that existed among his fellow interrogators—one group was convinced that the old ways of intimidation and humiliation (asserting power over and breaking down one’s detainee) would succeed in producing information; the other group, Alexander’s, was convinced otherwise.  By building rapport with detainees, and showing respect for their culture, religion, and background, Alexander could establish trust, and was consequently able to more easily pry for information.

Not only does Alexander’s book argue successfully for the effectiveness of avoiding torture and coercion in interrogation, but he also reminds us that even those guilty of horrific crimes are people, full of contradictions.  One detainee, who ultimately confesses to building bombs for al-Qaeda, writes a love letter to his wife from prison.  “You will always be the first star in the night sky, my love.  I would endure ten thousand lashes to just to see your face again,” he wrote, “I am so sorry for everything that I have done” (Alexander, 130 – 131).

Alexander writes that while terrorists can’t be excused from the violence they committed—no matter the circumstances, their actions were wrong and punishable—, their motives for embracing terrorism are often complicated.  Many of the Iraqi detainees, Alexander describes, were motivated to join al-Qaeda not because they shared the group’s ideals and goals, but “out of economic need and out of fear” that their families would face reprisals if they did not join (220).

How to Break a Terrorist shows Americans what interrogation could look like if we abandon torture and coercion in dealing with foreign “enemies.”  I put the word “enemies” in quotations because not all those detained by the US military are enemies of America.  More often than not, detainees, like Murat Kurnaz, are the victims of bogus detainment operations, driven more by racism and sweeping capture policy than sound intelligence.

And, in recent years, the “enemies” that the US has detained haven’t simply been foreign ones.  Increasingly, US citizens have been detained without initial charge or trial and tortured. Many of the victims’ crimes seem to have simply been the exercising of free speech, or being a convenient scapegoat in a post-9/11 era defined by paranoia and fear.  Sami al-Arian and Ahmed Abu Ali, who have both experienced torture and indefinite detainment in the US, are two Ameircan citizens who have suffered US-sanctioned injustice often tinged with the influences of Islamophobia.

I’ve written about other American victims in the past, in my post “Why you should care about the National Defense Authorization Act” in which I describe in detail a problem that former President Jimmy Carter explains so succinctly:

Recent legislation has made legal the president’s right to detain a person indefinitely on suspicion of affiliation with terrorist organizations or “associated forces,” a broad, vague power that can be abused without meaningful oversight from the courts or Congress (the law is currently being blocked by a federal judge). This law violates the right to freedom of expression and to be presumed innocent until proved guilty, two other rights enshrined in the [Constitution]. (NYT)

At the time al-Arian and Abu Ali were detained, these practices were illegal—but that didn’t stop the government from using them.  The legalizing of them, then, likely means that more al-Arians and Abu Alis will be subjected to these injustices.  At the rally, we were marching for the repeal of the NDAA’s clauses that violate our constitutional guarantees and, more importantly, our collective American conscience.

To me, what is almost more appalling than the injustice itself, is that Americans are virtually ignorant of the problem.  As we passed tourists at the rally, one onlooker said to me: “It [torture] happens to us too, you know.”

Her short statement implied a few things: 1) that we, the protestors, were only concerned about foreign torture victims at the hands of the US, and not about our own, who have endured harsh treatment all over the world, in places like Vietnam; and 2) that we should meet torture with torture—“Why should we stop torturing, if our enemies will continue torturing our people?”

I wanted to answer her, “Yes, I know torture happens to us, as Americans, too, and that’s why we’re marching.”  She didn’t know that many, many Americans suffer torture at the hands of our own institutions, which should uphold the values they claim to possess.

So, once again, I want to reiterate a message that seems to constantly reappear in my writings: that ignorance of injustice is our biggest enemy.  I hope the few words I’ve provided here about torture and America’s complicity in it begin to chip away at that ignorance, which is the first enemy that must be broken.

Attentiveness in Advent

Every year during Advent, the four-week season leading up to Christmas, Catholics hear passages from Scripture that remind us to be watchful and ready for the coming of Christ.   These passages explain that we are not only awaiting the celebration of Jesus’ birth, but also for his second coming at the end of time.

Advent wreath in Georgetown's Dahlgren Chapel

Gabriel tells Mary about the birth of her son.
Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. (Luke 1)

John tells his critics that he is not the Messiah.
There is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me. (John 1)

And Jesus tells his disciples to prepare for his second coming at the end of time.
Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming. (Mark 13)

To be honest, every year during Advent I feel a bit bashed over the head with these constant reminders about Jesus’ coming.  ‘Ok, ok, I get it!’ I think after the third week. The message never seems all that surprising or relevant. We surely never forget to celebrate Jesus’ birth—even amid the red and green Christmas regalia—and the event of the second coming seems far away (and, in my mind, not quite as concrete as the way it’s described in Scripture.)

Thankfully, this year these concerns of mine were addressed by two Georgetown Jesuits, whose homilies on the Advent Scripture passages helped clarify what this season is all about.

These two events we hear about—Jesus’ first coming at Christmas and his second coming at the end of time—are at the ends of a very long timeline of history, a Jesuit said, and we are in the middle, distant from them.  What we really should be preparing ourselves for are the third, fourth, and fifth comings of Christ that happen in between.  The times when Jesus breaks into our lives in ordinary and unexpected ways.

As Christians, we believe in the Incarnation, the act of God taking on human form in the person of Jesus.  The Incarnation isn’t a singular event that happened two millennia ago, but rather a fundamental doctrine that tells us in quite simple terms about how we understand God: God wants to be with us, here and now, and reaches out to us through human experience. A belief in Jesus doesn’t ask us to remove ourselves from this world in order to be with God; it says that we can best achieve unity with God by engaging fully with our human reality.

The question is, do we notice Jesus’ third, fourth, fifth, and infinite comings, these expressions of the recurring Incarnation?

Unfortunately, the Jesuit said, we often don’t.  We’re too connected to our phones, music, and email.  And even when we put the technology away, our minds are running at 100 miles per hour, thinking ahead about the ways in which we can be as efficient as possible.  We don’t give ourselves time to reflect back on our days, to find the times in which Jesus has appeared to us.  During Advent then, we must be actively attentive to the Incarnation, to God’s countless attempts to push through the clutter of our lives.

Knowing that I’m guilty of this lack of attentiveness as much as the next person, I welcomed this challenge from the Jesuit.  It’s a challenge I have already been working on for much of my time at Georgetown: to slow down enough to notice Jesus in my life.

And, thankfully, I have begun to notice.

When a chaplain-in-residence passed me on campus several weeks back, he said, “Hey Jordan!” and gave me a quick fist bump. It was a simple, silly gesture, one that the chaplain probably forgot about two minutes later. But for me, it was a brief, yet powerful example of the way Jesus appears to me everyday.  With his short but enthusiastic hello, the chaplain reminded me of the great love God has for me, reflected through ordinary people and ordinary situations.

I recognized the significance of this small act because I wasn’t talking on my cell phone (as I often do when I walk) or mentally preoccupied with my next task.  By simply slowing down, I was also able to recognize that the jokes I shared with my friends, the music the choir sang at Mass, and the beautiful sunset that burst into view as I turned a corner in one of the most ugly parts of campus are all little third, fourth, and fifth comings of Christ.

Most if not all of the time, “finding Jesus” isn’t about having a mystical experience or undergoing a massive life change.  It’s about simply realizing that a hug from a mentor or a laugh with a friend is the mystery of Incarnation at work. 

It’s not always easy to realize, in the moment, that many of these everyday experiences are of God and from God.  It takes a moment of stepping back and reflecting.  In a homily later during Advent, another Georgetown Jesuit encouraged the congregation to reflect back on the ways Jesus has shown himself to us.  We closed our eyes.

Jesus “brings good tidings to the poor,” he said, quoting the day’s reading from Isaiah.  When you were down or depressed, how did others bring you up?  Recognize these moments, he said, and name Jesus as gift.

He continued: Jesus “heals the broken-hearted.” When you were broken-hearted or hurt, who helped you heal?  Jesus “proclaims liberty to the captives” and “releases the prisoners.”  When you were prisoner to your own habits or feelings of inadequacy, how did others free you from those things?  Be thankful for these moments, and name Jesus as gift.

When read in full, the Isaiah passage makes clear that the “good tidings” we hear from Jesus don’t come to us in abstract terms, but through the smiles and fist bumps of those around us. He says, “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me … he has sent me to bring good tidings…” We, humans, are the way in which God reaches out to the world.

This reflective exercise allowed me to think back on the at once simple and profound ways that I experienced love from friends, family, and mentors during past semester. When one part of my life felt empty, they (often times unknowingly) would rush in fill it up that hole to the point of overflowing.  Their outpouring of support and love was Jesus—God Incarnate.  It was a gift, and I must constantly reflect back in gratefulness in order not to miss it.

As we move into the Christmas season and begin the new year, we need not look for God outside of the normalcy of our everyday lives.  Instead we just to be more attentive to what’s already around us.  We must remember what we celebrate on Christmas: Emmanuel—“God is with us.”

This quote was cited by the first Jesuit during his Advent homily.