France, and Fraying Muslim-Christian Bonds?

The recent events in France, and the way they are reverberating around the world, have been heart-wrenching to watch. The horrific violence—and the collective blaming and punishment that is bound up with it—is an affront both to God and our common humanity.

In France, we have seen Christians killed by Muslim individuals, and Muslims attacked by Christians (or those from Christian backgrounds). Government leaders in France, the U.S., and some Muslim-majority countries have responded to these tragedies by scapegoating others for political gain, and by cracking down on entire communities who do not bear responsibility for the attacks that occurred. The violent episodes cannot be easily boiled down to religion or ‘religious motives,’ but rather are intertwined with broader problems in France and beyond: inequality, racism, harmful narratives and ideologies that dehumanize ‘the other,’ and—to use Christian theological language—sin. Despite the complexity, I fear these events will lead to the cementing of a simplistic ‘us versus them’ mentality, and further erode the already-frayed bonds between many Muslims and Christians (as well as secular folks) around the world.

I want my fellow Christians to know that the vast majority of Muslims see the recent killings in France as entirely antithetical to their religious convictions and the example set forth by the Prophet Muhammad. Muslims often voice this, but many Christian audiences are not exposed to it, either because the mainstream media doesn’t cover it or because they don’t know Muslims. As Muslims remember Muhammad’s birth this month, my social media feed is full of beautiful and inspiring remembrances of the Prophet. The negative impression we often get about the Prophet in Christian circles usually does not resemble the luminous individual that Muslims love.

The first line, in Arabic: “In the name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful.” The second line is a Qur’anic passage often interpreted as a reference to the Prophet Muhammad: “We [God] have sent you as nothing but a mercy to the world.”

Yes, Muhammad and Jesus have been invoked for ill, but we can model ourselves off of their generosity, forbearance, love, and passion for justice, which both of our traditions foreground. Fortunately, many people already do. Most of the Christians and Muslims whom I have the good fortune of knowing put this into practice every day, and by and large they are deeply frustrated by the hypocrisy they see when others fail to do so, especially their co-religionists.

My fellow Christians should also be aware of the fact that we in the West are often not exposed to news about violence and institutional Islamophobia that Muslim communities face in France and elsewhere. Rarely does it make headlines, yet it is a reality that is connected to the other events we do hear about. This lack of coverage means that many in the West see Muslims primarily as perpetrators, a view that does reflect the complex reality. Muslims are suffering, too.

Both of our communities could do a better job of opening our eyes to the ways that other groups are (or feel they are) victimized. Victimhood complexes make us unable to contemplate the ways that others do indeed suffer, sometimes at our hands. From both groups, I often find a narrative that “our groupis the most persecuted religious group, the ones most under siege globally.” Indeed, there is grave suffering going on around the world in both our communities. For global faith groups like ours, an event in one corner of the world resonates across oceans and shapes the experience of others who share their faith. This solidarity amid suffering is natural and important, but when it obscures our ability to see the suffering of others—and when it devolves into persecution complexes that are drawn across religious lines—it can be a recipe for further harm.

I hope that in response to all of this, we all can cultivate a real “spiritual solidarity,” where the sufferings of ‘others’ are also felt by ‘us,’ as if they were our own. What gives me hope right now is all the good work that so many Christians, Muslims, and non-religious folks are doing in their corners of the world, as well as the personal bonds that I as a Christian have with Muslim friends. Our friendships withstand these travails and even seem to be insulated from them much of the time. Last week, it was during a call with two Muslim friends that I was finally able to forget about the Muslim-Christian tension I was seeing online that day. We connected over our studies and the ordinary aspects of our everyday lives.

My reflections here are only partial, and there is certainly more to say (and more for me to learn). Below I share some recent, salient articles that give broader context beyond the major headlines.

Muslim women stabbed in park near Eiffel Tower

From The Evening Standard

“An attempted murder enquiry has been opened in Paris after two Muslim cousins were “stabbed repeatedly” underneath the Eiffel Tower, prosecutors revealed today.

French police have arrested two female suspects following the suspected racist attacks in which the women were subject to a racial slur.

The suspected in custody – who have not been named – are described as being white women of “European appearance”, who now face attempted murder charges.”

From Al-Jazeera

“Both victims claimed their attackers called them “dirty Arabs” and told them: “This is not your home.””

Man with allegiance to white nationalist group killed after assaults/threats in Avignon

From the Associated Press

“A man shot and killed by police in the French city of Avignon on Thursday claimed allegiance to an anti-immigrant group and had assaulted a merchant of North African descent, authorities said.”

From The Independent

“French media reports had initially suggested he had shouted “Allahu akbar”, suggesting it was an Islamist attack.

The man appeared to be wearing a jacket displaying a “Defend Europe” logo, which refers to a string of anti-refugee operations by the Generation Identity group.

The pan-Europe white nationalist network, which is called Génération identitaire in France, spreads a conspiracy claiming that white people are being “replaced” and calls for the “remigration” of Muslims from the continent.

The Christchurch attacker, who massacred 51 victims at mosques in New Zealand last year, used the name of Generation Identity’s core ideology as the title of his manifesto.

It later emerged that he had donated money to the group and exchanged friendly emails with Austrian leader Martin Sellner.”

Instead of fighting systemic racism, France wants to ‘reform Islam’

in The Washington Post

After Terror Attacks, Muslims Wonder About Their Place in France

in The New York Times

Deadly knife attacks at a church in France and its aftermath

in PRI’s The World

The Weaponization of Laicite

from Georgetown’s Berkley Center

St. Francis and the Sultan: Living Their Legacy Today

This fall, Catholics and Muslims around the world are commemorating the 800th anniversary of the encounter between St. Francis of Assisi and the sultan Al-Malik Al-Kamil in Damietta, Egypt in 1219. In September, St. Bonaventure University invited me to give a keynote lecture on campus to discuss not only its historical importance but also its significance for Catholic-Muslim interreligious relations today. What are the lessons we can learn from their encounter? How can we live their legacy today? Here are some of my thoughts, pared down from my talk at St. Bonaventure.

  1. Rethink our idea of interfaith dialogue: It’s not simply about conversion or solving societal problems, but instead about encountering God together. Francis might have initially sought to convert the sultan, but their dialogue ended up being one of spiritual fellowship, in which they learned about the other, themselves, and ultimately God.
  2. Practice spiritual solidarity: Interfaith relationship-building leaves us with the sense that ‘the other’ occupies a place within our heart, within our sense of self. That solidarity informs how we stand up for and with others. Francis and Al-Kamil’s encounter informed their later interactions with Muslims and Christians, treating ‘the other’ with more respect and hospitality than was typical in that place and time.
  3. Ready ourselves to see beauty in unexpected places: Dialogue offers us the opportunity to see beauty in another’s faith tradition, either in the aspects that are similar to our own faith or in facets that are radically different from our own practice. We might even come to incorporate new traditions into our own faith practice as a result. After spending time with the sultan, Francis pushed for the adoption of practices in his own Christian community that resembled ones he would have encountered among Muslims—namely, a public call to prayer (like Muslims’ adhan) and invoking the Divine by listing God’s many attributes (reminiscent of the recitation asmaa’ al-husna in the Islamic tradition).
  4. Acknowledge our own stereotypes about ‘the other’: It’s important to look inward and confront our own biases about other religious communities. Recognizing them is the first step in moving beyond them. When Francis first met the sultan, he no doubt held on to the stereotypes about Muslims that had long circulated in Christian Europe. The sultan, who had Christian colleagues and subjects, may still have had reservations about European Christian Crusaders. Their encounter would have broken down many of those misperceptions, but only because both men were willing to truly see the humanity of the person before them.
  5. Hold our own faith community accountable, help it live up to our core values: We must work to break down bigotry toward ‘the other’ in our own religious community, drawing on our highest ideals of love of God and neighbor. Francis urged his fellow Christians toward peace, calling them to end the Crusade. And he laid out rules for his order that would ensure Christians respect the Muslims they came into contact with in their ministry.

Ultimately, to follow in the footsteps of St. Francis and Sultan Al-Malik Al-Kamil, we must do what Pope Francis calls us to—the recognition that “the other could be you.”

To learn more about St. Francis and the Sultan, check out the following resources:

Muslims and Catholics: ‘We believe in the same God’

Recently, I wrote for Catholic News Service about Catholic-Muslim dialogue and the important strides we’ve made since the promulgation of Nostra Aetate during the Second Vatican Council in 1965.

In the article, I draw attention to the Church’s teaching that Catholics and Muslims, despite their differences, believe in the same God. Read an excerpt of the piece below, and find the full article here.

St. John Paul II was a pioneer … seeking to communicate the Catholic esteem for Muslims and the commonalities we share in his audiences with them around the world.

The Vatican and national bishops’ conferences have also instituted regular, formal dialogues between Catholic and Muslim leaders, which serve as contexts for mutual learning and improved understanding.

This push for dialogue has been welcomed by Muslims and met with enthusiasm, who themselves find the impetus for interfaith collaboration in the Quran’s affirmation that God created humanity so that they could “get to know one another.”

“Catholics and Muslims: We believe in the same God” (CNS)

Video: Catholics and Muslims in relationship

How should Catholics relate to Muslims? What does the Catholic Church say about Muslims and their faith? What can we do to combat misunderstanding and discrimination that often faces Muslims in Christian communities?

I talked to Catholic News Service about these questions for a new video on Catholic-Muslim dialogue, part of their series of videos about interreligious dialogue fifty years after Vatican II:

Here are excerpts from the Second Vatican Council’s documents that have to do with Muslims:

“…the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Muslims, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind…” (Lumen Gentium 16)

“The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.” (Nostra Aetate 3)


Finding Jesus among Muslims

Do Christians and Muslims believe in the same God? How are Christianity and Islam similar, and how are they different? What is the point of interfaith dialogue?

These are just some of the questions addressed in Finding Jesus among Muslims, an urgent and award-winning book from Catholic author Jordan Denari Duffner. Drawing from church teaching, the stories of saints and martyrs, and her extensive professional and personal experience living among Muslims in both the United States and the Middle East, Duffner introduces readers to Islam and tackles key issues in Muslim-Christian relations. She demonstrates that, rather than pulling Christians away from their faith, dialogue with Muslims can help Christians deepen their relationship with God.

Learn more about Finding Jesus among Muslims: How Loving Islam Makes Me a Better Catholic on this site.

FJAM cover