In 2016 Pope Francis made headlines when he answered a journalist’s question with a pointed reply: “It is not right to identify Islam with violence. This is not right and this is not true.”
Anti-Muslim prejudice is not only unfair and untrue—it’s also a social sin, argues Jordan Denari Duffner, a scholar on Muslim–Christian relations, interreligious dialogue, and Islamophobia. Defining Islamophobia as such, Duffner argues that Christians should be at the forefront of efforts to work against it.
Her newest book, Islamophobia: What Christians Should Know (and Do) About Anti-Muslim Discrimination (Orbis Books), was published this year, but Duffner has been answering this call since young adulthood. After spotting a chain email that advanced anti-Muslim stereotypes circling her Catholic community as a teen, Duffner says she felt called to work for change. “I saw this strange disconnect,” she says. “[Catholics] talked about love, hospitality, and treating others how we want to be treated—yet we weren’t carrying those values over.”
Duffner’s first book about interreligious understanding, Finding Jesus among Muslims (Liturgical Press), examined her Catholic faith, which Duffner says is strengthened by interfaith relationships. Islamophobia is an examination of the outward action Duffner says we are called to as Christians.
“I think we can have a warped sense of self and also of the Muslim other when we don’t recognize that, yes, both of our communities have done harm to one another,” Duffner says. “And ultimately that means we both have the responsibility to stand up for each other today and to work for peace.”
When did you first become aware of Islamophobia?
My journey really goes back to high school and my early years of college. I was, in many ways, a child of 9/11: That was the first world event that was really on my radar. Islam was in the news all the time when I was a child and young adult. I became curious about what this religion was that the media portrayed so negatively. Then, as I got older, I got to know Muslims through more informal settings—through interreligious dialogue and by making friends who are Muslim. The pictures I saw in the media didn’t match the people I came to know and the religious tradition I came to study in school.
On one hand, I had these positive relationships with Muslims. Yet I also recognized that people in my own Catholic faith community had a lot of stereotypes and prejudice toward Muslims. I write in my new book, Islamophobia, about receiving this chain email that circulated through my parish and basically advanced anti-Muslim stereotypes by reducing the entire Islamic religious tradition to the terrorists we hear about on TV. Receiving that email was a moment of calling: I saw this strange disconnect between the values my Catholic community professes—love, hospitality, welcome, and treating others how we want to be treated—and the complete lack of these values in the way people were thinking about and treating Muslims.
My writing—both this book and my previous work—really grew out of these twin experiences. I realized I could use my passion for writing to remedy the disconnect between the Islamophobia that exists in Christian communities and the values that are important to us. That’s what I’m trying to do in Islamophobia: point out the tools we have within the Christian tradition to combat the Islamophobia we find in our world.
You mention that 9/11 was this defining moment for you and others in noticing Islamophobia in the media. Did anti-Muslim prejudice exist before 9/11?
I think Islamophobia is certainly different now than it was before 9/11, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. In the 1950s and ’60s the government targeted Black Muslim groups because it saw them as a threat. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, during the Iranian Revolution, plenty of stereotypes circulated through the media. So yes, there were already stereotypes about Muslims that were kind of latent. Then we all went through this really traumatic experience, and these stereotypes exploded. People had a new awareness of Islam, and these latent stereotypes became more actively held as conscious ideas or conventional wisdom. We didn’t question them because they confirmed what we were hearing in the media. We heard a lot about the violence Muslims commit, but few of us knew Muslims on a personal level or saw ordinary expressions of Muslim religious life.
In other words, Muslims became kind of a scapegoat for American fears about terrorism.
Yes. The same has been true throughout U.S. history: Recent immigrant communities or religious minorities are often easy targets. The majority group can look at these groups and say, “OK, we’re going to blame these outsiders for our problems.” That’s a lot easier to do than to reflect in a broader way on our own complicity in societal problems.
As part of my work at Georgetown’s Bridge Initiative, we put together a Buzzfeed quiz that took quotes that were said about American Jews, Catholics, or Muslims and asked people to guess which of the statements was about which group. The point was that it’s almost impossible to get all the answers right. At different periods in history, the same tropes have been leveled against all of these groups in the same ways. I think a lot of Catholics forget that our own community was scapegoated for things, whether or not we had anything to do with them. We were viewed as a threatening group that didn’t fit in American society.
It’s important when educating Christians about Islamophobia not to spend time unpacking specific stereotypes. Rather, it’s important to remind people that we use common tactics to otherize people: calling other groups threatening, oppressive to women, and subversive. All of these claims have been leveled against us in the past. When we recognize this, it’s easier to see Islamophobia for what it is rather than having to learn all this information about Islam so that we can debunk the random charges people level against the entire religion.
When we talk about Islamophobia, many people think of acts of violence such as mosques being vandalized or individuals being assaulted. But you explain that it’s actually far more insidious. How so?
Yes, people tend to be more aware of vandalism or hate crimes or even the Muslim ban or the very blatant Islamophobic rhetoric that President Trump engaged in. But Islamophobia is not simply that kind of blatant discrimination or prejudicial commentary.
The stereotypes that justify Muslims’ mistreatment circulate freely in our public discourse on both the right and left of the political spectrum. Sure, after 9/11 the Republican administration under President George W. Bush instituted a number of anti-Muslim policies and initiated a global war on terror that ended up targeting Muslims both domestically and abroad. But President Obama continued many of these policies.
There’s a government counter-terrorism policy called “Countering Violent Extremism” that sounds sort of innocuous. The idea is that Americans can report people to law enforcement for acts that should be covered under our basic rights. For example, the policy says that acts such as praying more often, becoming more religious, or growing a beard are cause for concern—almost like a conveyor belt to terrorism. So Muslims who fit these categories are at risk of being reported to law enforcement long before they ever commit a crime.
It’s important that Catholics expand our notions of what it means to protect religious liberty.
Another example is that both federal and local law enforcement agencies often infiltrate mosques or Muslim civic organizations either to spy on the members or sometimes even to stir up trouble and entrap people into committing crimes that can be charged as terrorism. In my book I write about a young man who ran a Muslim charity in college. He found out after a few months that one of the charity’s new members was an informant for the New York Police Department who was reporting on the work he and this organization were doing. That is such a betrayal of our religious freedom.
It’s important that Catholics expand our notions of what it means to protect religious liberty. Whether it’s vandalism of a mosque or surveillance of Muslim communities that threatens people’s basic rights, this is something that needs to be part of Catholic conversations about advocating for religious freedom.
Is there a way to help more Catholics see Islamophobia as a religious liberty issue?
One thing I found in my research is that during Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, hate crimes against Muslims in the United States tend to spike. This may be because Muslims are more visible during that month—there may be positive news coverage of Ramadan, for example. But there are so many stories about vandalism or arson or people shooting the exterior of mosques.
So I put myself in their shoes and asked: What would it be like to experience this during my holy season—Advent, for example? Or, even if I never experienced this myself, what would it be like to know that other churches and communities throughout the country experience this sort of violence? Would I not want to go to church? Would I not feel safe celebrating my holy days?
This again speaks to the question of religious liberty: If Muslims can’t go to their houses of worship and feel safe there, that should concern all of us. It’s such a disturbing thing to think about, but I think this mental exercise really puts into perspective some of our own concerns about religious freedom. There are Christians in parts of the world who experience this, but in the United States most of us don’t feel unsafe in our places of worship. We need to reframe things to realize that when Muslims or Jews or Sikhs—or people of any religious tradition—face these sorts of threats in their houses of worship, that should be on our religious freedom agenda.
Talk a little about the history of Catholic and Muslim relations. How far back does Islamophobia go?
The history of Catholic–Muslim relations goes back to the very early days of the rise of Islam and emergence of the Muslim community. That relationship has been marked by everything from all-out war to active peacemaking. It’s also marked by the ordinary experiences of people living alongside one another in ways that didn’t get written down in the history books.
This history isn’t what I grew up learning about in Catholic school.
One thing I didn’t know about before researching for my book was the way some of the ecumenical councils in the Middle Ages advocated for the subordinate treatment of Muslims who lived in Christian empires. Some church leaders advised that Muslims should be forced to wear different kinds of clothing to identify themselves, that they should have a subordinate status in Christian households, or that they shouldn’t marry Christians. And that’s not even going into the Crusades.
This history isn’t what I grew up learning about in Catholic school. Sometimes we have a rosy view of our own history and how we have engaged with people of other faith traditions. Yet it’s important that we are aware of our history, because what we tend to hear in the media are the ways Muslims have mistreated us throughout history, not the other way around. It’s important to recognize that both communities have harmed each other and, ultimately, both have a responsibility to stand up for each other today and work for peace.
Are there any stories from Christian scripture or hagiography that suggest another way of relating to Muslims?
In 1219, when St. Francis journeyed to Egypt, he met with a Muslim leader in the hope of ending one of the ongoing Crusades. Despite the fact that St. Francis is so beloved, Catholics don’t hear this story very often. And when we do, it’s in ways that bolster a sense of Christian superiority or is framed as “Francis went to convert the sultan, and he didn’t succeed, but look how brave he was.”
Actually, the lesson of the story is that St. Francis, although he may have initially gone with the intention of ending a war and converting the sultan, ended up having this really transformative dialogue. The sultan remained Muslim, Francis remained Christian, but that didn’t mean they didn’t connect on a spiritual level. Perhaps they were even positively influenced by the other’s spirituality.
I think this encounter can be a model for Catholics and Muslims today. It allows us to buck the trend of wanting to pit our religious communities against each other and shows us an alternative path. We’re so fortunate that this Catholic saint, who is already so important to us, can teach us this lesson that’s so relevant today.
The Good Samaritan story isn’t so much about what we do but how we see. It’s a story that challenges us to see people differently.
Another story I draw on is that of the Good Samaritan. Again, this story is often taken to mean “do good for other people, even if they’re strangers.” But it can also be read as Jesus reminding us that people of other faiths sometimes live out the demands of our own faith better than we do. The Samaritan was not part of Jesus’ faith community, yet Jesus lifts him up as a model of what it means to have eternal life.
The priest at my parents’ parish gave a homily where he revamped the Good Samaritan story to be about a Muslim protagonist and placed it in our present day. He asked us to imagine a sick person who’s been beaten or is otherwise not well on the street. A Catholic priest walks by because he is hurrying to be on time for Mass. Someone who works in the parish office rushes by because she has to get to a meeting. But a Muslim woman stops and takes this poor man to the hospital and ensures his medical bills are paid.
The story upsets our notion of who’s inside or outside our faith communities and sets new standards for inclusion and exclusion. It opens up who’s included in the we when we talk about our faith communities. It also reminds us to look for the good in Muslims and to realize that they are sometimes living out the same demands of our faith as we are.
When you put it in those terms, I think the message about the virtues of the religious other really come through. That makes us, perhaps, a little more clear-eyed about our own failings. It’s like Pope Francis writes in the 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti (On Fraternity and Social Friendship): The Good Samaritan story isn’t so much about what we do but how we see. It’s a story that challenges us to see people differently.
Speaking of Pope Francis, has he challenged how Catholics think of Muslims or Muslim spirituality?
Pope Francis quotes a Muslim mystic in the 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ (On Care for Our Common Home). To my knowledge this is the first time a pope has ever cited a Muslim in any encyclical. Unfortunately, I don’t think many Catholics are aware of this, so I don’t think it has changed how many ordinary Catholics perceive their relationships with Muslims.
That said, this is hugely significant. It challenges our notion of boundaries between our religious traditions. We have this Muslim source who is being cited within an authoritative Catholic teaching document: A Muslim’s perspective is now included within Catholic teaching.
Pope Francis did something similar in Fratelli Tutti, where he writes that he was inspired to write the document because of his relationship with the imam of a major Muslim institution in Egypt. Pope Francis’ actions remind us that the divisions between our communities and our conception of what it means to be Catholic are a lot more porous than we sometimes think they are.
The pope helps us recognize that people of other faiths can have a positive impact on our own expression of Catholicism, that friendships with and learning from Muslims don’t threaten what it means to be Catholic. Instead, they can be really enriching.
Have you personally deepened your faith through relationships with Muslims?
When I got to college, I was craving a deeper relationship with God but wasn’t sure I wanted to find that relationship within the Catholic fold anymore. I grew up going to Catholic school and valued my Jesuit education, but I was also disillusioned with Catholicism in a lot of respects. Then I got to college and made friends with people who are Muslim. It was through talking to them about religion and seeing what their relationship with God was like that I decided to try to cultivate a similar sense of God in my home tradition.
My Muslim friends are constantly making me reflect on my prayer life. I saw Muslim friends, particularly in college, who would pray five times a day, and I was really inspired by their dedication. I could see that it had a positive benefit on their lives. By the time I finished college, I was going to nightly Mass every single day, and that’s not the type of thing I ever would have imagined myself doing. I wasn’t the type of young person who wanted to go to church every day.
There’s this recognition that even though we profess different things about God or practice our religions in different ways, we are directing out prayers and our devotions to the same source.
What was really beautiful is that the chapel where I went to Mass at Georgetown shares a wall with the Muslim prayer space on campus. There were nights when I could hear the Muslims praying in the next room while we were having Mass. It was this beautiful symbolic reminder of the influence Muslims have had on me: I wouldn’t have been in that church every night if it hadn’t been for my Muslim friends.
More recently, as a current Ph.D. student, it’s been really fruitful to talk to Muslim students as we all grapple with similar questions, uncertainties, and confusion. We talk about the Trinity and all these heady theological topics together. Sometimes we realize we don’t even fully understand the position our own community takes on these dense theological questions—we can’t articulate them in language. That kind of grappling together is something I really value.
I also value knowing that my Muslim friends are praying for me and vice versa. There’s this recognition that even though we profess different things about God or practice our religions in different ways, we are directing our prayers and our devotion to the same source. And we can see how that flows out into the way we are living.
When I see my Muslim friends living generously or in a loving way, that for me is what God is or is the kind of love and qualities that God wants us to have. So who else would Muslims be worshipping if not the same God I do? The fruits of the Spirit are present in our Muslim friends. They must also be in relationship with God. If not, then I don’t know what it is.
This article also appears in the October 2021 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 86, No. 10, pages 10-14). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Images: Courtesy of Jordan Denari Duffner