Islamophobia will get us nowhere

I recently attended a meeting of a Polish Roman Catholic organization on the East Side. Neighborhood revitalization was a major goal of all in attendance. However, toward the end of the meeting a leader in the organization made a statement that greatly disturbed me. ¨In two generations, the Broadway Fillmore area is projected to be predominantly Islamic.¨

It was not the content of this statement that concerned me. That was just a prediction of a fact.It is well known that many South Asian immigrants are moving into the neighborhood and starting new lives there – just as our great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents did over a hundred years ago.  No, what worried me was the tone of the leader’s statement. As the discussion progressed, it became clear that the perspective of most members of this organization was not, ¨How wonderful! Newcomers are moving into the neighborhood! Maybe they will breathe new life into it!¨ Instead, the attitude quickly became one of fear laced with contempt. ¨The Quran tells Muslims to kill Christians,¨ one person said. ¨They are deliberately having large families in the hope of taking over,¨ said another. Both of these statements reflect an ignorance that is rampant in US society…a kind of prejudice that will get us nowhere in trying to build strong communities – whether on the East Side of Buffalo or anywhere else.

I am no expert on Islam. However, over the past years I have been trying to learn – mostly due to a general interest in all the major world religions. In my twelve years of Catholic education, I was never once taught that my religion was true and all others were false. This does not mean that I am a relativist. I do believe in the existence of objective truth, and Catholicism offers what looks like the path I can follow in pursuit of that truth.However, the answers to the big questions – about God, the nature of reality, and human destiny – are more complex than any one person or culture can grasp. I believe that we are all pilgrims on a spiritual journey, and that people of all faith traditions can learn from one another.

During the past year I have begun learning about the Muslim faith and the diverse cultures associated with it. I have read AJ Arberry’s traslation of the Quran and Sufi mystic Hafez’s poetry; I have visited mosques in Buffalo and my new community of Dubuque; I am slowly trying to learn Arabic. This past semester I had the privilege of teaching English as a second language to 35 students from Saudi Arabia. They are among the most polite, respectful students I have ever worked with. When asked about their religion, the main message they want to convey is that they believe in a God of mercy, and they try to show this mercy in the way they treat others.

From a spiritual standpoint, the most significant moment for me on this encounter with Islam was last August, when I visited the Ibrahim Mosque at Hebron in Palestine – the home of the patriarch Abraham, who is seen as the founding father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. As I offered a prayer beside his tomb, I felt a profound sense of God´s presence – the same presence I feel during the Catholic Mass. ¨All religions are one,¨ the great English poet William Blake declared in his Marriage of Heaven and Hell. My own spiritual experiences suggest that this is true.

Thus far, my limited encounters with Islam have painted a very different picture than the one we see in the news. Yes, Islam has a lot to answer for – not only in the present day, but throughout its history. However, the same is true of Christianity. What are we Christians – particularly Catholic Christians – to say about the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Wars of Religion, the violence of colonialism, the genocide of native peoples in the Americas and the institution of the trans-Atlantic slave trade? In the present day, what are we to say to those who have been victimized by pedophile priests?

I would like to answer this is simply by saying that these actions do not reflect the true spirit of religion or the reality of God as experienced by most of those who call themselves believers. All humans succumb to hypocrisy. This is not what God wants for us. Unfortunately, violence has been and continues to be present in all societies, and at times, it has been sanctioned by our holy books. Those Christians who are eager to pull out violent quotations from the Quran – and yes, there are some scary ones – should look at the scary statements in our own holy book. ¨Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword¨ (Matthew 10:34-35). It should come as no surprise that this statement of Jesus has led many secularists to write Christianity off as a violent religion that historically has caused many more problems than it has solved. But this is all the more reason why those of us who adhere to a religion know that we cannot take our Scriptures literally. For two thousand years Christian thinkers have been interpreting them, producing volumes of theological and philosophical writings that we use as lenses to interpret our faith.

The same is true of Islam. In fact, last spring when I visited Masjid Zakariyah on Sobieski Street and met teacher and imam Asim Ahmad, he told me that the Islamic sacred texts must be read through the lens of scholarly interpretation. When people try to interpret them on their own, fundamentalism can result. ¨Extremism occurs when individuals interpret the sacred texts out of context,¨ he said when I interviewed him last year. ¨It is impossible to know the Quran without studying the interpretations of it.¨

Speaking to my co-ethnic Polish Americans, I will say that if we want to build up the East Side, we must not give in to fear or negative stereotyping. We must not generalize whole groups of people based on reports we hear on the news (remember that the greatest number of terrorist attacks have occurred in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan; indeed, statistics suggest that the greatest numbers of victims of terrorism are indeed Muslim. It is generally politics rather than religion that is motivating them).

We must also let go of any misplaced nostalgia for the past. We are not going to recreate the Broadway Fillmore area of the 1950´s. If we are to preserve the Polish-American heritage of the East Side – our churches, our Broadway Market, our beloved Easter traditions – we must do so in a pluralistic, multicultural context. In the future relationships between different groups on the East Side  must go beyond polite, estranged coexistence; they must consist of more than tolerance for people whose beliefs we do not understand. My hope is that eventually Christians and Muslims on the East Side will find genuine kinship and come to know the commonalities between our related faith traditions.

I currently live in Dubuque, IA, a community that is overwhelmingly Christian (predominantly Roman Catholic) with small Jewish and Muslim minorities. Various individuals from each group have jointly organized Children of Abraham, an interfaith discussion group held at different houses of worship around town. This includes Scripture study (Torah, New Testament, and Quran) as well as events where leaders from all three faiths share their perspectives on such relevant issues as life ethics (abortion, euthanasian and capital punishment), ecology/environment, and politics. Wouldn’t it be amazing if a similar initiative could be developed on Buffalo’s East Side?

Instead of fear, I would urge us to approach our Muslim brothers and sisters with respectful curiosity. When I went to visit Masjid Zakariyah last spring, I was naturally nervous. What would the people there think of me? Would they see me as a threat or an outsider? Admittedly, I was not surprised that when one neighbor saw me taking pictures of the mosque, her reaction was guarded – as mine would most likely be if a stranger came into my neighborhood to take photos. But once we talked, her manner quickly warmed. She introduced me to neighbors who immediately let me know I was welcome; they invited me into the mosque and were eager to talk about their faith in an open, respectful way. I learned that many of the members moving into the area are doctors, dentists, lawyers, and others we see every day in Western New York. There is nothing we need to fear…and so much that we can learn.