“We Belong to Each Other”: Catholics and Muslims in Today’s America

By Henry Millstein, PhD., Content Manager and Analyst.

This opinion appeared at the ING blog.

This Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, hit home to me with special force. I found myself at a gathering of some 400 Muslims and Catholics coming together to celebrate their commonalities and pledge to cooperate in protecting civil liberties and promoting social justice. In particular, we Catholics committed ourselves to have Muslims’ back in the face of Islamophobia, hate crimes, and possible discriminatory Federal action.

I’m a Jew by birth, and Catholic by religion, and I work for a Muslim-founded organization, Islamic Networks Group, so this event hit me on several levels. My Jewish heritage sensitizes me to attacks on any minority—we know anyone could be next. As a Catholic, I rejoice to see my faith community standing up for Muslims. And working as I do for ING, an organization that educates about Islam and other world religions (including Islam’s Abrahamic siblings, Judaism and Christianity), I have to take the current climate of Islamophobia as touching me very personally.

So I was glad to see our own Bishop Patrick McGrath of the Diocese of San Jose coming together with several leading local imams, Imam Tahir Anwar of the Islamic Center of San Jose and Imam Dr. Nabi Raza Abidi of the SABA Islamic Center, with lay members from both faiths, to explore the fundamental values we hold in common and commit ourselves to get to know one another better and to work together for the betterment of our community and our world.

Though there are real theological differences between Islam and Christianity, there is much that holds us together. As several speakers reminded us, including the Bishop, we both honor many of the same people, including Abraham, the progenitor of our two faiths and of Judaism as well, and Mary and Jesus, revered by Catholics and Muslims alike as models of life well lived. As Dr. Ejaz Naqvi, author of The Quran: With or Against the Bible? pointed out, even the common Muslim greeting, “Assalaamu aleikum”—“Peace be with you”—echoes the words of Jesus’ greeting to his disciples after his resurrection. Above all, as Muslim leaders emphasized in their open letter to the Christian community, A Common Word Between You and Us, Christians and Muslims agree in two fundamental affirmations and values: love of the One God and love of neighbor as the foundations of our lives; and as St. John Paul II pointed out, Christians and Muslims are at one in affirming mercy and compassion as central attributes of the One God we both worship. These common affirmations cannot help but drive us together as we confront a fractured and fractious country and world.

Though it’s easy to forget in today’s America, we Catholics have our own experiences of hatred and bigotry; anti-Catholicism, sometimes quietly in pervasive discrimination, and sometimes erupting into open violence, marked our country until just a few decades ago, and I am old enough to remember the suspicion with which John F. Kennedy was met with from some—by no means marginal or insignificant—Protestant quarters. In face of this history, I am deeply disturbed and disappointed that many Catholics in the U.S. share the rampant Islamophobia; a recent study by Jordan Duffner of the Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University reveals that only 14% of U.S. Catholics have favorable views of Muslims, despite the clear statement in the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate that the Catholic Church has “high regard” for them. Indeed, what American Muslims are now going through has clear parallels in the experience of both my Jewish and my Catholic forebears in this country.

Bishop McGrath put all our commonalities in experience as well as in theology and ethics most poignantly when he urged us to “take the first step in dismantling the structures of violence and hate by affirming that we belong to each other.” On a day when we celebrated a leader who taught us the value of building community in diversity, and at a time when the American—and Christian and Muslim—values of pluralism, inclusion, and brother- and sisterhood are being sorely tested, that simple reminder could not be more urgently needed.