Guest Columnists

Encountering Our Muslim Neighbors

By Carolyn Y. Woo

A few months ago, I wrote a column about the word “they” and how it can be a dangerous word. Since then and after the tragedies in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., the point is driven home by the consequences when some segments of global societies label Muslims as “they.”

In the U.S., some political candidates have called for banning all Muslim immigrants and the establishment of a registry to track their whereabouts – both are antithetical to the U.S. Constitution, which provides for religious freedom and forbids discrimination on the basis of religion.

In a society with a strong sense of decorum, we’ve heard reports of people spitting on Muslims; feces have been smeared at their places of worship; and the routine act of boarding a flight has been challenged by a fellow passenger because of prejudice.

Where could this lead? Violence is a reality in the U.S. and globally. It is a daily concern for Catholic Relief Service colleagues, partners and beneficiaries from different faith traditions who work in countries torn asunder by acts of annihilation.

I deplore that mass shootings have invaded our society. I grieve the poverty in spirits that bleeds hearts of all love and fills them with the desire to kill. I fear most what fear can do to us as people: how it can rob us of compassion, harden us, hijack our ability to think rationally, diminish our openness to different cultures and dull our sense of optimism.

Fear, however, does not always have the upper hand. Despite the mass shootings and bombings in Oklahoma City, Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Charleston, Colorado Springs, Roseburg, Washington’s Navy Yard, and many more unnamed shootings here in the U.S., we do not label all American males as threats to society. We do not segregate nor banish them from our families and communities.

We are able to distinguish an aberrant fringe that we do not allow to define our conception of males at large. Why would we not do this for our Muslim neighbors?

If we get to know Muslims better, we will have an image rather different from the one that dominates Western media and that shapes our perception. Muslims are part of U.S. history from the early days with Bampett Muhammad, Yusuf Ben Ali and Peter Buckminster serving in battles under George Washington.

Muslims continue to be part of the U.S. military. They contributed innovations that built America: Fazlur Rahman Khan devised the structural system of frame tubes that enabled skyscrapers including the Sears Tower and Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago; Ayub Ommaya invented the intraventricular catheter system for relieving cerebrospinal fluid; Ernest Hamwi concocted the first edible waffle cone that makes ice cream street vending something we all enjoy; Ahmed Zewail, Nobel Laureate in chemistry, situates his research and teaching at a leading U.S. university.

And in the sporting culture of America, who would not know Muhammad Ali? Shaquille O’Neal? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?

Extremism is a scourge, but let us fight this by reaching out to and encountering Muslims. Isn’t this the point that Pope Francis made at a mosque during his trip to the Central Africa Republic, “Together, we must say no to hatred, to revenge and to violence, particularly that violence that is perpetrated in the name of a religion or of God himself.”

In the Gospel, fear is not countered by security, but by love.

Carolyn Y. Woo is president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services.