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Ferdinand Oertel {*}

Attempts to Build Bridges

Catholics and Muslims in the USA

 

From: Herder-Korrespondenz, 12/2010, P. 634-638
webmaster's own, not authorized translation

 

    It was possibly a surprise that in September at the anniversary of the terrorist attack on World Trade Center the Archbishop of New York offered to act as mediator in the fierce controversy over the planned construction of a Muslim center in the vicinity of Ground Zero. But since the Second Vatican Council, the dialogue between Muslims and Catholics has a tradition in America.

 

Under the heading "mosques hysteria", in September the Jesuit magazine "America" analyzed the events which were triggered by the building of a new Islamic community center with a large mosque in the neighbourhood of the former World Trade Center in Manhattan and escalated into a scandal when the pastor of a small sectarian Christian community in Florida announced that he would publicly burn an exemplar of the Koran at the 9th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

In fact, after 9/11 a downright "Islamophobia" had developed in America. In the run-up to the midterm elections for U.S. Congress in early November 2010 it was politically psyched up to one of the most controversial issues. It threw the whole nation into turmoil and split it. In August the Republican representative Newt Gingrich qualified the Islamic project "as an attempt of radicals to prove victoriously that they were able to build a mosque next to the place where 3000 Americans were killed." By contrast, the Democratic New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg justified the planning and building permission, which had previously been granted by his city administration, as a sign that the community center was a "test for the separation of church and state".

President Barack Obama sided with him in Washington on the occasion of a dinner at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, "As a citizen, and as President, I believe," these were his exact words, "that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country". He would understand the emotions of those affected by the terror attack, but America's commitment to religious freedom was "unshakeable". Political opponents of the center (and of Obama), as e.g. the New York gubernatorial candidate Rick A. Lazio, had maintained that it was not about religious freedom but about safety. The President replied that it was necessary to distinguish between Islamic terrorists and peaceful Muslims.

In late 2009 the Islamic Center was planned as an inter-religious peace center to be built at the site of an old factory building, which is a few blocks away from the twin towers and in which Muslim prayer meetings had already previously taken place. In the terrorist attack it had partly been damaged and was bought up by a group of Muslim investors. They planned to build there a community center, based on the model of the recognized Jewish Community Center in Midtown Manhattan. The initiators deliberately wanted to shape it as "a platform for multi-religious dialogue" and to build up as an inter-religious "Peace Center for Tolerance and Understanding in New York, across Americas, and around the world."

 


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Through the original name "Cordoba House" the initiators wanted to draw attention to the peaceful coexistence of Muslims, Christians and Jews during the eighth to eleventh century in the Spanish city of Córdoba. But when in mid-May first public criticism of the project arose, because of its proximity to Ground Zero, and the name of the Cordoba Initiative was interpreted as an expression of the Muslim conquest of Europe, the initiators changed the name of the project into "Park51", due to its location.

At that time the majority of the population in the State of New York still said in surveys that those Muslims who - in the commentary of the magazine "America" - are considered to be "moderate" would have the right to build such a place of peaceful coexistence, and that the Americans had to prove their commitment to tolerance and to the diversity of cultures.

At the height of the anti-Islam sentiment the Catholic church voiced, unexpectedly for the public, her opinion in the now politically charged debate. Before a meeting with Governor David Paterson, the New York Archbishop Dolan Timothy said at a press conference that the intense debate about a Muslim community center with a mosque next to Ground Zero was contrary to New York's people's appreciation of tolerance and unity. He worried himself about the fact that "these noble values are called into question by the way in which the debate about the place of the mosque is conducted." The Archbishop sympathised with the views of both sides and agreed, if desired, to participate in the discussions of the project between the authorities and the Cordoba-initiators and to contribute to a compromise based on a "very civil, rational, loving, and respectful discussion."

In an analysis of the background of Islamophobia Chester Gilles, professor of theology at the Jesuit Georgetown University in Washington, referred to the "cycles of mistrust" against the faith of certain immigrants in the history of the United States. What Muslims are experiencing now was the same thing that Catholics had experienced until 100 years ago. In the center there would be "misunderstandings and xenophobia." The prejudice had been applied to Catholics they would follow a foreign power, the Holy See, more than the American ideals of freedom; today one feared that Muslims followed a Muslim government or a terrorist organization.

After a meeting on the occasion of the anniversary of the terrorist attack representatives of more than 40 religious communities in America finally published in Washington a joint statement titled "Beyond Park51". It condemns the anti-Muslim fanaticism and demands respect for the American tradition of religious freedom. The representatives of Jews, Muslims, Protestants, Evangelicals and Catholics, including the chairmen of the Committees for Interreligious affairs, justice and development and international peace, announced "a new era of inter-religious cooperation". As a result, in future religious differences should no longer lead hostility or division between communities. Rather, we believe that such diversity can serve to enrich our public discourse about the great moral challenges that face our nation and our planet."

Referring to the partnerships "between synagogues and churches, mosques and synagogues, churches and mosques" already existing or initiated in many places in America, these should provide a foundation for new forms of collaboration in interfaith education, inter-congregational visitations, and service programs that redress social ills like homelessness and drug abuse.

The two key sentences of this first inter-religious statement in the United States read: "All forms of intolerance directed against religious communities, should no longer exist in our world, let alone in our nation that was founded on the principle of religious freedom." And, "Silence is not an option. Only by taking this stand, can spiritual leaders fulfill the highest calling of our respective faiths, and thereby help to create a safer and stronger America for all of our people."

 

Three million Muslims among 300 million Americans

In the context of the dispute on the project "Park51", Iman Feisal Abdul Rauf, one of the initiators of the Cordoba project, expressed the hope that the American people could in this way find out more about Islam and the Muslims in their country. Anyway, the Muslim population in the U.S. has virtually come to the fore only after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. To date, the number of Muslims living in the United States can only be estimated. Not before 2007, the major Pew Research Center conducted a survey of American-born and immigrant Muslims. After that the number of about 2.35 million Muslims was assumed. Meanwhile, the number is estimated at three million, at least.

The majority of Muslims living in America are Arabs, almost half of them are African-Americans. Two-thirds of adult Muslims were born outside America. They therefore belong still to the first-generation immigrants. Although many migrated only when they were already grown up, the survey found that most of them have very well assimilated into American society and are of the opinion that Muslim immigrants should integrate themselves into American society and not dissociate themselves from it.

 


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This corresponds to the result that the majority is well educated and belongs financially to the middle class. They are merged in the mainstream, feel well in American society, and "believe in the American dream" that in this country everybody can do and achieve what he wants. When asked whether they see themselves first as Americans or as Muslims, 47 percent answer: first as Muslims, and another 18 percent as both. The Survey Institute underlines that the Muslims living in the U.S. much less label themselves first as "religious" than those who live in France, Germany or Spain.

Due to the greatly increased immigration of Muslims in the last two decades the number of mosques in America has risen from 1209 in 2000 to 1897 in 2010. There are more than 100 mosques and Muslim prayer rooms in the urban area of New York alone. After 2001 the Americans' fear of Muslim terrorist attacks has become so great that, according to an information of the U.S. Justice Department since May of this year in several States a total of eleven actions against the acquisition of land by Muslim groups to build additional mosques are pending.

This might have contributed to the fact that this year the mood in the overall population has turned radically against the Muslims. In a recent poll by Pew Research, in August only 30 percent generally spoke out in favour of the Muslims, in 2005 there were still 41 percent. However, only few people hold the view that from the Muslims living in America a greater terrorist threat comes than from other religious communities.

 

Stimuli by John Paul II

This may be due to the fact that both the local Muslim communities and the representatives of their regional organizations have right from the outset striven to be recognized as an equivalent religious community like the other ones in America. This in turn is based on different conditions than in Europe, because in the United States the constitutional separation of church and state guarantees all religious groups the free development. The voluntary nature of membership in religious communities has not only the result that they are financially kept alive, but also the participation in the religious life is more active.

In America this original position led to the fact that the first alone represented and still dominant Christian denominations initially came together at the ecumenical level, and then they extended their contacts inter-denominationally to the Jews and later to the other non-Christian minorities of Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus. This became just visible worldwide after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 on the occasion of the big memorial ceremonies for the victims in New York and Washington.

In the USA contacts between Muslims and the Catholic Church have been established 20 years ago. They had been inspired by John Paul II's initiatives to implement the decisions of the Second Vatican Council. They included especially the improvement of relations with the Jews and the Muslims, which has its foundation in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church and the Declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions.

In 1990 the U.S. Bishops' Conference has started the direct dialogue with Muslims in various cities, and in collaboration with the American Muslim Council organized conferences on international and national issues of common interest. Since in America, too, no central Muslim umbrella organization exists, the church has then begun regular meetings with regional organizations. In 1996 in Indianapolis the first "Midwest Dialog" with the "Islamic Society of North America" was conducted. Since 1998 an annual "Mid-Atlantic Dialogue" with the Islamic Circle of North America takes place in New York, and since 2000 there are regular "West-Coast-dialogs" in California with various local "Islamic Councils".

At a supraregional level, there was in 1995 a first contact between the Bishops' Conference and the spiritual leader of the Afro-American Muslims, Imam W. D. Mohammed. Its result was a joint pilgrimage to Rome, which was organized there in the partnership with the Focolare Movement. At the inter-religious meeting in preparation for the Holy Year 2000 in Rome Iman Mohammed was the spokesman of the Muslims.

At the regional meetings on the one hand it is about pragmatic issues such as inter-religious education and strengthening the family, on the other hand it is about theological issues. The participants in the "Midwest Dialogue" of last year in Chicago discussed e.g. issues of participation in shaping the public life, and in May this year in New Jersey issues of the political attitude as a U.S. citizen regarding controversial ethical problems. The participants in this year's "West-Coast Dialogue" discussed in June in Orange, California, the interpretation of the Seven Sleepers story.

Despite the anti-Islamic climate in the USA after 9/11, the regional Catholic-Muslim dialogues are continued, after the joint statement by the U.S. Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs and the National Council of Synagogues was signed also by the five representatives of the Muslim Councils co-operating with the Catholic Church. In the declaration the terrorist attacks have strongly been condemned, and the Muslims were invited to pray with Christians and Jews for unity and peace.

While the Pew poll from 2007 found that Muslim Americans more severely condemn Islamist terrorism than Muslim minorities in Western European countries, two other results troubled the public and the leaders of the Muslim councils in the U.S.:

 


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Younger America-born African-American Muslims do not necessarily disapprove of the Al-Qaeda movement, and among young Muslims suicide bombings "in defense of Islam" are regarded as justified at least in special cases. This had the consequence that several Muslim Councils have started youth programs in their communities, in order to promote the understanding of citizens of a different faith, and to find and go common ways of peaceful coexistence.

 

Joint Youth Initiatives

On 14 September of this year the Committee of the U.S. Congress researching the consequences of the terrorist attacks of 2001 published a report. In it youth programs of the Muslim American Society and the Muslim Public Affairs Council are mentioned as "positive examples of serious efforts by the Muslims in the U.S." in the struggle against violence and religious extremism. Both organizations describe it as their main objectives to train and to continue the training of executives who motivate religious young people to civic commitment, as e.g. the commitment to social and economic justice, and more recently the fight against violence and extremism. The "Straight Path Youth Initiative" wants to especially warn young Muslims against allowing to be seduced by "destructive influences from outside" to go dangerous and counter-productive paths that do harm to them and the community.

Benedict XVI's statements on the occasion of a meeting with representatives of other religions during his U.S. visit in 2008 have been estimated as a major support for its peace efforts by the "American Muslim Council", which is after a reorganization regarded as moderate. The Pope had designated "the clear exposition of our respective religious tenets" as the "higher goal" of inter-religious dialogue, and identified in this context "the colleges, universities and study centers" as "important forums for a candid exchange of religious ideas."

The in 1998 in Chicago founded initiative Interfaith Youth Core (instead of "Corps" it is deliberately labelled "Core") attends to this goal in an exemplary fashion. At the beginning of the digital age of global communications it wanted to set interactions between religious young people going. They are "not based on conflict but on cooperation," discover common values, and introduce them into their respective society. A main objective of the initiators, which is now mainly communicated through the chat on the Internet, is the training of youth leaders who establish inter-religious partnership groups at colleges and universities.

 


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In an interview with the American Jesuit magazine "America" one of the founders of the Initiative, the Muslim Eboo Patel, reported that such core groups already exist today in the U.S. alone at more than 150 colleges and universities, including 30 Catholic universities, as e.g. Loyola and DePaul in Chicago, Saint Mary near San Francisco, and Xavier in Cincinnati. After the outbreak of Islamophobia, so Patel, particularly the protests against the project "Park51" in Manhattan, it was necessary that young men and women of different faiths come together to learn from each other and to discover the similarities of their faith, as e.g. mercy, charity and compassion. "There are resources within our faith communities and a call from the divine to build a bridge to diversity."

The Core Initiative wants to convey to young people that it is not about regarding all religions as "equal" but about discovering the values in their own religion and about fighting against intolerance and bigotry. The essential question is, "How does your tradition help you to help others?" Eboo Patel, who meanwhile also appears in the famous television program "Good Morning, America" as an expert on Islamic issues, told that he as a young Muslim during his studies has been inspired by the social activities of the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, Dorothy Day, to work for others out of his faith. What matters for Patel is to tell each other such success stories, to get into conversation, and to remain in constant dialogue.

The magazine "America" published the article on the Core Initiative under the headline "The Talking Cure". The Muslim Cordoba House initiators are currently still discussing the project "Park51" with the municipal authorities of New York, politicians and representatives of local churches. At the beginning of the public debate about the Islamic center near Ground Zero the church newspaper Long Island Catholic pointed to a similar political debate on a different religious project, the construction of a convent of the Carmelites at the gates of the death camp Auschwitz. At that time there had been no concerns about the sisters' peaceful attitude of faith, but John Paul II had suggested they should build the convent in a slightly greater distance - out of respect for the Holocaust victims.

 

    {*} Ferdinand Oertel (born in 1927) gained his doctorate by a thesis on Thomas Wolfe. His professional career in Catholic journalism led him to the Katholischen Nachrichtenagentur, the journal "Die christliche Familie", the "KirchenZeitung für das Bistum Aachen", and to "Leben und Erziehen". Since his studies in St. Louis regularly stays in the U.S.. Many years of work with the Herder Korrespondenz.

 

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