Why Catholics must speak out against Islamophobia

by Jeanne Clark

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Dominican Sr. Jeanne Clark


Political spectacles and demagoguery are all too common in Washington. My Congressman, Rep. Peter King (R-NY), continues this shameful tradition by sponsoring hearings on Capitol Hill this week that will demonize Muslim Americans, undermine interfaith dialogue and distract us from practical efforts to confront violent extremism.

As a Catholic sister from Long Island, I stand with a broad spectrum of faith leaders who believe that fighting terrorism must never mean compromising our nation's core values and highest ideals.

King’s sweeping investigation of “radicalization” in the American Muslim community should be especially denounced by Catholics, whose ancestors here battled vile stereotypes and even charges of disloyalty.

While it may seem like ancient history these days, natavist mobs once burned Catholic churches. Political cartoons such as Thomas Nast’s “The American River Ganges” savaged Catholic bishops as suspicious pawns of Rome. Signs in shop windows reminding Irish that they need not apply for work were a visible reminder of Catholic immigrants’ second-class status.

Today, a toxic climate of Islamophobia stigmatizes Muslims. Many women on Long Island who because of their faith wear the hijab (head covering) are afraid to go to the grocery store alone.

Recently, in an affluent Long Island community, an email circulated throughout the neighborhood warning people that a terrorist had moved into the area. Muslim children in a local school were shunned by students. Across the country, hate crimes against Muslims are on the rise and many communities have opposed mosques.

This prejudice diminishes us all and undermines our nation’s commitment to equality and religious pluralism. In my experience relating to and working with Muslims on Long Island, I’m inspired by my neighbors' commitment to worship in peace and teach their children to love America. I have seen their dedication to serve others, especially those with few resources, and a desire to work in solidarity with Christians and Jews for nonviolent solutions to conflicts.

Muslims are doctors and teachers, police officers and business owners. They are a part of our American family and should be treated with dignity.

As King convenes his misguided hearings this week, Pax Christi Long Island is preparing to present out 2011 Pax Christi Peace Award to Habeed U. Ahmed -- the board chairman of the Islamic Center of Long Island and a member of the Nassau County Human Rights Commission -- and his wife Seemi Ahmed, the New York State co-chair of the Muslim Peace Coalition, which works to counter Islamophobia in our country.

These inspiring leaders give back to their community and serve the common good. At this time of division and fear, we hope this honor will serve as a reminder that our nation is stronger when we unite behind shared values in a spirit of respect and cooperation.

Despite false perceptions shaped by stereotypes, Muslim-American leaders have consistently denounced terrorism and worked with law enforcement to prevent violence.

In recent months, Muslims foiled attempted bombings in Times Square and a Portland, Ore. building. Maintaining trust with the Muslim community is crucial to furthering this cooperation.

King should choose a more constructive approach to strengthening the bonds of trust that bolster our security and protect our values by convening a dialogue between faith leaders, law enforcement and elected officials.

Over 80 religious leaders, social justice advocates and people of faith on Long Island sent the congressman a letter urging him to cancel these misguided hearings. Many of us recently gathered in prayerful protest in front of his office.

Although Congressman King has insisted that his hearings will focus on Islamic extremism, his own rhetoric suggests that he will cast a cloud of suspicion over the entire Muslim community. He told a radio host that radicals lead 80 percent of mosques and once described Muslims as "an enemy living amongst us."

Leaders across the political spectrum agree that we must work together to prevent terrorist attacks. My opposition to King's hearings isn't motivated by "political correctness" or a naïve belief that evil does not exist in the world.

Rather, we need a different approach because I fear these hearings will undermine practical approaches to confronting violent extremism in all its forms and threaten our most inspiring ideals as a nation.

[Dominican Sr. Jeanne Clark is coordinator of Pax Christi Long Island.]

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