Start bridge-building now

March 1, 2016 -- Living City

Start bridge-building now
Only 1% of the U.S. population is Muslim, and according to a study by Pew Research, the vast majority of them are against violence. But the unknown is often scary, and American Muslims are facing discrimination and misunderstanding more than ever before. Terrorists who use religion to justify their criminal acts make things worse. How do regular Muslims respond to this challenge? And what can non-Muslims do to overcome these divisions?

Great respect in the Quran for other religions
By David Shaheed

The civil war in Syria and the rise of daesh (more often referred to in the media as ISIS or ISIL) are recent events that have led to tensions in the Middle East and a distortion of Islam. Unfortunately, for me and all common Muslims, this situation is like being in crossfire.

On one hand, these extremists distort Islam beyond all recognition in order to justify the domination and slaughter of innocent people, while they pursue territorial victories and material gain. On the other, people condemn us as Muslims for being part of this terrorism.

The media often doesn’t help to distinguish between what is true and what is merely rhetoric used to advance the ideas of the writer. Furthermore, daesh has an agenda that is contrary to the basic tenets of Islam. In September 2014, more than 120 Islamic scholars from around the world condemned daesh and have urged others to join them (see However, most people are unaware of this blanket condemnation since it didn’t make headlines in the major news media. Also, there are many YouTube videos of ordinary Muslims condemning the atrocities of these extremists.

The reasons why the Muslim world rejects these extremists’ ideologies can be found by a simple examination of the basics of Islam. All Muslims recognize as the ultimate authorities for Muslims: 1) the Quran (book of revealed scripture for Muslims) and 2) the life example of Prophet Muhammad, who established the religion of Islam nearly 1400 years ago. One particular important passage of the Quran is this: “There shall be no compulsion (no coercion) in matters of faith. Truth stands out clear from error: whoever rejects the powers of evil and believes in God has indeed grasped the most trustworthy handhold, that never breaks. And God heareth and knoweth all things” (Yusuf Ali translation of the Holy Quran, 2:256).

Many examples can be cited of Prophet Muhammad’s tolerance and respect for Christians and other faith traditions, and in 628  C.E., his Charter of Privileges to the Monks of St. Catherine Monastery in Mt. Sinai is well noted in the history of Christians and Muslims. The charter states:

“This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them.

“Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them.

“No compulsion is to be on them.

“Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries.

“No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses.

“Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate.

“No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight.

“The Muslims are to fight for them.

“If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray.

“Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants.

“No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last.”

The medieval territory of Al-Andalus at its peak occupying most of today’s Spain and Portugal could be a model of these principles being applied by Muslims after the time of Prophet Muhammad. From 711 to 1492, Muslims were the leaders of the government there; most of the time, Christians, Jews and Muslims lived together harmoniously, and each community flourished and enjoyed much success. Al-Andalus was considered a cultural and educational center in the world during this period.

Given this background, there is no rational explanation for the current distortions of Islam and the brutality practiced by daesh and similar organizations. However, a 2015 book entitled Countering ISIS: The Power of Spiritual Friendship, written by Professor David Carlson of Franklin College in Indiana, gives many insights regarding the background and motivations behind the organization.

It becomes clear from reading Carlson’s book that the leaders of this organization are exploiting historical missteps by Western powers, such as colonialism and suppression of traditional values, to justify the abuse of innocent people in the name of religion. I believe that these actions have never been successful and that they will fail in this instance as well. Instead, relationships built in true dialogue and with mutual trust, will last.

Judge David Shaheed has been working on the Marion County Superior Court in Indiana since 1994.


How can Christians respond to Islamophobia?
By Jordan Denari

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
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. 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
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
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.”                            

A Catholic voice on Muslim-Christian relations, Jordan Denari is a researcher with the Bridge Initiative, the  Georgetown University research project on Islamophobia.


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