Oasis of hope

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

It’s an odd setting for an interreligious discussion of Christianity and Islam: a barroom on the campus of a Catholic university 11 days into the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Alcohol, after all, is forbidden to Muslims, and the man whom Campus Ministry has invited to lead this session of its Theology on Tap speaker series is one of Notre Dame’s leading scholars of Islam and an imam at the local mosque.

As far as he knows, Professor A. Rashied Omar, who is sipping ice water, is the only Muslim in the room. But for some reason—courtesy? pre-midterm jitters?—no one is drinking beer tonight. Instead, the 50 or so students have come to Legends of Notre Dame to hear Omar’s take on the question in the title of his talk: “Can Catholics and Muslims get along?"

“The simple answer,” Omar declares to the mainly Catholic group of students, “is yes. In fact, Muslims and Catholics on balance have been getting along pretty well historically, and in recent times we have been getting along even better.”

Those recent times, however, included controversial remarks delivered three weeks earlier at the University of Regensburg in Germany by Pope Benedict XVI. The pope’s references to Islam in a Sept. 12 address on faith and reason in academia had ignited weeks of angry protest in the Islamic world.

As feelings cooled, the apparent low point in Catholic-Muslim relations seemed to open new opportunities for dialogue. While Benedict issued apologies and invitations to Muslim leaders, countless conversations also were taking place among ordinary believers.

In this particular conversation at Notre Dame, Omar is well aware that his words may not at first ring true in the post-September 11 world, with grim news reports of the war in Iraq and anti-American sentiment across the Islamic world building a deep suspicion among Americans. But Omar isn’t talking about politics or governments or even religion as it is abused in the hands of the triumphalist and the violent radical.

Instead the Kroc Institute research scholar, whose work focuses on Islamic ethics and the practical problems of peacebuilding, is talking about faith and belief, hope and fear as they inform the lives of billions of people every day. He is also thinking specifically of Pope John Paul II, the first pope to visit and speak inside a mosque, a man whose death was mourned widely by Muslims, a man who, Omar says, is “emblematic to me of what is needed in our time.”

Regensburg prompted Campus Ministry to bump forward its Theology on Tap presentation on Islam, a topic students had already requested. The students are curious about many issues. They ask Omar to size up the lingering effects of the crusades and outline possible paths to healing. One asks whether official Church statements about other religions smack of Catholic supremacy. Another is curious about passages in the Koran that he finds threatening.

Omar talks about building trust and the need to avoid both unhelpful stereotypes and naïve dismissals of genuine differences. He calls for rituals of prayer and charity, fasting and forgiveness that may lead to what he calls the “healing of memories.” He also points the students to a Vatican document that encourages the faithful to reach out to people of other backgrounds, not at the level of theology or even social justice but in a dialogue of life, “where people strive to live in an open and neighborly spirit, sharing their joys and sorrows, their human problems and preoccupations.”

“I don’t think it is a luxury to get along,” he tells the students. “It is an imperative.”

Lost in translation

If September 11 pushed the need for interreligious dialogue to the top of the global agenda, Regensburg and its aftermath—the anger the pope’s speech stirred up worldwide turned violent and, in one case, deadly—put a special emphasis on the relationship between Roman Catholics and Muslims.

At Notre Dame, where the Muslim population is small, faculty and students responded to the controversy with commentaries in the campus newspaper and a handful of major U.S. dailies. Those published remarks and a late September faculty panel co-sponsored by the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and the Nanovic Institute for European Studies turned on a range of tightly intertwined questions.

The first was the implications of the controversy for a world in which most people take either the Bible or the Koran as their primary religious reference point. A second pair of questions was more specific: What does it mean for a man regarded in the Catholic tradition as the servant of the servants of God to quote an embattled Byzantine emperor whose experience of Islam in the 14th century was of something “evil and inhuman"? And what does it mean when people take offense and respond in evil and inhuman ways?

Several commentators questioned whether anyone could have read Benedict’s lecture and still reacted angrily. Yet even among those who digested the text and understood the larger argument, few saw a need for the pope to quote the words of Manuel II Palaeologus, whose empire in the 1390s was in deep twilight and about to lose its foothold in Asia Minor to the expanding Ottoman Empire.

Others challenged the pope’s portrayal of Islam as monolithic and his assertion that “for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent” and not bound by human rationality.

Theories about Benedict’s rhetorical intentions cast them as anything from foolish oversight to a planned coup designed to mobilize a more vigorous discussion between the Church and moderate Muslim leaders.

Paul Cobb, an associate professor of Islamic history, argued that the essential problem with Benedict’s speech was the unhealthy climate in which it was delivered. “The fact that the vast majority of the world’s Muslims live without the privileges of income, education, literacy, human rights, statehood and health care that Benedict’s audience takes for granted renders even an invitation to converse worthy of suspicion,” he wrote in the Chicago Tribune.

Calls for moderate Muslims to condemn the violence met with evidence that many already had. Rashied Omar, for instance, began his remarks at the September 28 faculty panel with an apology.

“I would like to apologize to my Catholic brothers and sisters for the undignified and deplorable manner in which some of my co-religionists have responded to the comments on Islam of His Holiness,” he said to a crowd flowing out the doors of the Hesburgh Center auditorium.

Citing the Koran, Omar continued. “The cowardly and senseless gunning down of Sister Leonella Sgorbati and her Somalian bodyguard, and the desecration of churches in Palestine are abominations that clearly violate Islamic ethics, which call for respect for the sanctity of life, the holiness of all places of worship and for dignified responses to hurtful remarks.”

Students weighed in as well. Picking up on a vitriolic pre-Regensburg debate on the nature of Islam published serially on the opinion page of The Observer, senior Jonathan Klingler, president of the College Republicans, pressed his peers to learn more about the diversity of thought, culture and religious belief within the Islamic world.

“As Notre Dame students and educated citizens, we must demarcate the distinction between the religion of Islam and the political ideology of Islamism, particularly radical Islamism,” Klingler wrote, outlining the implications for American foreign policy.

Privately, however, students reported a reluctance or lack of interest in discussing Regensburg among friends. “It doesn’t come up much,” said senior John Burke, a Catholic who said he doesn’t know many Muslim students.

The reaction of Muslim students varied from forgiveness and conciliation to disappointment. Shawn Ahmed, a graduate sociology student, said he based his perception on his understanding of Islam as an intention-based religion.

“I might want to make amends, of course, but if my intention is not to insult you, the sin is not as great,” he said. “When Pope Benedict [spoke] and people were insulted, my first reaction was that it clearly wasn’t his intention to insult.”

However, Danyal Kareem, a junior finance major, questioned the pope’s intentions. The pope said he did not share the emperor’s view of Islam, Kareem noted, “but there must have been a reason why he used such a quote.”

“A pope can and does make mistakes when he is not speaking infallibly or solemnly,” said Kroc Institute director Scott Appleby, a Catholic historian and scholar of comparative religion. “If the pope was intending to ‘open a dialogue with Islam’ with this speech, as the Vatican claimed after the fact, one must acknowledge with humility that this was a less than artful . . . way to do so.”

‘Blessed are the peacemakers’

Modern Church teaching on the relationship between Catholicism and other religions stems from Nostra Aetate, a Second Vatican Council document. It affirms in Christianity and Islam the shared worship of God as the almighty and merciful creator and notes common ground on key theological and moral points such as the resurrection of the dead and the obligation to care for the poor.

“Over the centuries many quarrels . . . have arisen between Christians and Muslims,” the document acknowledges. “The sacred council now pleads with all to forget the past, and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding.”

Judged by that broad standard, Notre Dame gets high marks from Muslims in the community. Senior Ryan Harris, a Muslim convert, values the atmosphere of faith pervading the campus.

“It’s not weird if I want to go pray,” the football player says. “The understanding of how faith fits into daily life here is wonderful to me. I would be comfortable praying on the quad on a nice day, and I don’t think anyone would have a problem with that.”

Other Muslims confirm that they feel welcome and comfortable at Notre Dame. Several say they have attended Mass in the Basilica. Ahmed, the Canadian Muslim who is as passionate about Notre Dame football and the rights of graduate students as he is about religious harmony, says he loves being at a university that honors Mary atop a golden dome in the center of its campus.

“I understand and respect the Christian religion,” he says. “I can understand why you would have statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. The fact that Christians show reminders of their faith so openly is comforting and endearing.”

University President Emeritus Father Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, says that was the message he received when the Muslim Student Association (MSA) invited him to an _iftaar_—the dinner at which Muslims break their daily Ramadan fast. Hesburgh says he asked several students whether they felt welcome at Notre Dame and their response was unanimous: “We’re grateful for an oasis in a rather tough world.”

“We want them to be successful as students,” says Priscilla Wong, the Campus Ministry administrator who serves as the Muslim group’s adviser. “Hospitality is an important part of helping them to be successful.” That hospitality includes the provision of a meditation room at the Coleman-Morse Center where students from a wide range of religious backgrounds may gather for prayer.

Notre Dame’s Catholic image does deter many prospective Muslim students before they have a chance to experience that welcome. University statistics report eight Muslim undergraduates, less than 0.1 percent of the undergraduate student body, for the beginning of the fall term. Graduate students, for whom no figures are kept, are slightly more numerous. MSA president Sarah Shafiq, a graduate student in the sociology department, knows of roughly 30 Muslims in the Graduate School.

Wong believes the official numbers are low and that the reluctance of some students to identify themselves as Muslim is a long-term consequence of Sept. 11.

Asma Afsaruddin, a classics professor who teaches courses on Islam and the Middle East, says the tolerant atmosphere at Notre Dame is partly due to the low visibility of the Muslim students.

It also may owe something to the success of her courses and others on Islam taught by Muslim and non-Muslim scholars. Enrollment in these classes and in Arabic language courses has spiked. Afsaruddin says she tries to “challenge the notion of a great cultural divide between the Islamic world and the West” and emphasize the internal diversity of the Islamic tradition.

Judging by their papers and classroom discussions, Afsaruddin says her students seem to understand. “They begin to see that terrorists who commit their atrocities in the name of Islam thrive in this atmosphere of ignorance, and that these militants benefit from the perception that the West, particularly the United States, is waging a war on Islam by waging a war on terrorism.”

The debate over the violent nature of selected verses in the Koran is highly contentious, even by the standards of academic disagreement. One of the messages Rashied Omar tries to convey is the need for new interpretive mechanisms for such verses as the one that begins, “Kill them wherever you encounter them, and drive them out from where they drove you out, for persecution is more serious than killing.” The reference point for the passage is the violent conflict between the first Muslims and the pagan Meccans. The pagans forced the Muslims to flee to Medina, where they flourished.

Rarely emphasized among Christians are the verses in which the Koran recognizes bonds with Jews and Christians as “People of the Book.”

“It’s a hard time to be a Muslim, because you have to explain to people who already have an idea in their head,” Ryan Harris says. “As soon as you think there is peace and progress, something else happens.”

Reaching out

One month after Regensburg, a small group of students attended prayer and the breaking of the daily Ramadan fast at the mosque of the Islamic Society of Michiana, two miles east of campus. Invited to participate in the fast by their peers in the Muslim Student Association, they were greeted at the door of the basement hall by Sarah Shafiq, who offered each guest dried dates and a cup of orange juice. As hosts and visitors introduced themselves, the call for prayer beckoned them to slip out of their shoes and head upstairs.

The prayer was solemn but tolerant of the wanderings of a small child in blue coveralls who moved back and forth around the partition separating the men from the women. After several minutes of intoning in Arabic, Imam Mohammad Sirajuddin switched to English to extend greetings of peace and offer a blessing. He thanked his visitors for their show of solidarity with his community and Muslims everywhere.

“This is a very difficult time for Muslims,” Sirajuddin said. “It is important that we reach out and try to understand each other’s beliefs and practices.”

Back downstairs, the community and its guests gathered for a potluck dinner featuring Mediterranean, South Asian and American foods. Men and women sat down to eat separated once again by a partition, but the flow of the room softened the divide.

Built in 1995, the mosque on Hepler Street is the prayer home to Notre Dame Muslims and the 300 Muslim families who drive in from as far away as Sturgis, Michigan. Many in the congregation are American-born, but the students met immigrants from Europe, Central and South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, Saudi Arabia and other corners of the Islamic world.

For Notre Dame senior Burke, the visit to the mosque was a first. “I found the community itself amazing,” he says. “They clearly wanted us there. In the news media, they feel they don’t get a fair shake.”

Shafiq says her only disappointment with the evening was that she had expected more people but the gathering did fulfill her idea: “People sitting together to talk to each other and get an experience of how so many Muslims practice their faith.”

Shafiq says that being at Notre Dame is helping her learn about Catholics and Protestants as well. She praises Campus Ministry for its support but acknowledges that open conversations about religious and cultural differences are rare at Notre Dame.

“People don’t want to discuss sensitive issues. Nobody really challenges each other.” Motioning to her head scarf, she says, “I wish they would ask more because there is so much to tell.”

John Nagy is an associate editor of Notre Dame Magazine.