Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Can We Talk? Even the Best-Laid Plans-And Dialogues-Can Go Awry. Lessons from an Embarrassing Event

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Can We Talk? Even the Best-Laid Plans-And Dialogues-Can Go Awry. Lessons from an Embarrassing Event

Article excerpt

ON THIS CRISP, CLOUDLESS AFTERNOON I'M IN A ROOM full of some 60 fellow Catholics at Chicago's Navy Pier for a "Festival of Faith." The only obviously Muslim person among us is a young woman in her hijab--the traditional headscarf worn by Muslim women. Saba M. Baig had been asked to join me in facilitating an interreligious dialogue workshop titled "Understanding Islam."

We decided to begin by sharing our stories--Baig as a young New Jersey-born Muslim woman who teaches U.S. government and philosophy in high school, and I as a middle-aged Italian American Catholic who has spent the past 20 years studying and teaching Islam at the university level. Baig agreed to talk about both the fear and blessings of goodwill she had experienced as a U.S. Muslim after Sept. 11, 2001. As for me, I would briefly review the Second Vatican Council's teachings on interreligious dialogue. We thought this would invite the group into a spirit of respectful and mutually enlightening exchange.

Unfortunately we were wrong. As soon as we opened the floor for dialogue, participants started to grill Baig: "You claim Islam respects women, then why are more women being stoned for committing adultery than men?" "Doesn't the Qur'an say it's OK for Muslims to kill Jews and Christians?" "Why don't more Muslims condemn 9/11 and other terrorist acts?" And finally, "Why do Muslims want to conquer the world in the name of Islam and make all people Muslims?"

It seems to me there are at least two deeply flawed assumptions that these honest but combative and problematic questions about Islam--or any religion other than one's own--tend to have in common. The first is: When I spy something "wrong" with your religion, my perspective as an outsider is more objective-which is then confirmed in my mind if you cannot explain or defend the defect to my satisfaction. The second is: No religion worth having can have something wrong with it, therefore when I find something wrong with your religion, I've discovered one of the many reasons your religion is not worth having, and inversely, one of the many reasons mine is.

Our workshop was supposed to be an opportunity for Catholic-Muslim dialogue, but this opportunity was being squandered because we allowed Islamophobia to intrude. …

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