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Catholic college students benefit from Muslim presence
Dialogue on ‘complex’ and ‘personal’ issues is challenging, but important, professor says
Gretchen R. Crowe | Catholic Herald
Courtesy of Jordan Denari | CNS
Georgetown University senior Jordan Denari (right), a Catholic, said the strong faith of her former roommate Wardah Athar (left), a Muslim and also a senior, inspired her to become more committed in her Catholic faith.

With Muslim-centered anti-American protests raging across the world this week, it’s hard to imagine anywhere where the relationships between Muslims and Christians are thriving.

But at local Catholic universities, where the number of Muslims reportedly has increased dramatically during the last several years, these two groups constantly are learning from one another in classrooms, in meetings and through personal interactions. Professors, spiritual leaders and students all say this proximity has resulted in increased understanding and interreligious dialogue — and even in the strengthening of Muslims’ and Christians’ individual faiths.

A Catholic setting

Catholic campuses provide ideal locations for students to engage in and grow from discussions of different kinds of faith, according to professors and students.

“Addressing spiritual life is part of our mission, so it’s easy to bring up in the classroom,” said Kathleen Garces-Foley, associate professor of religious studies at Marymount University in Arlington.

In the classroom setting, theology and religion subjects offer an opportunity for Muslims to explain their customs to non-Muslims and for non-Muslims, such as Catholics, to respond in kind.

Garces-Foley said she sets the groundwork on the first day of each semester to have “civil dialogue about really important issues where we both are respectful about each other, but also are free to ask the hard questions.”

It’s a “balancing act” between being respectful and still being able to say what’s on a student’s mind, she said, calling it “a skill we practice all semester.”

And the presence of Muslims — who make up an estimated 6 to 7 percent of the student population, according to Brian Flanagan, assistant professor of theology at Marymount — only adds meaning to the conversation.

“When I have Muslim students in the classroom, they can bring in the personal experience and it stops being abstract,” Garces-Foley said. “It’s so much easier to teach these religion classes with a diverse student body.”

Flanagan said in his four years at the university he has never taught a theology class without a Muslim in it. This diversity has led to “really good conversations” about where Muslims and Christians differ, where they agree and “where we could do more to work for justice, peace and respect for the dignity of each person.”

Muslims in his classes “bring a different perspective to the issues, and it’s one that is invaluable to have,” agreed Bill Barbieri, associate professor in the School of Theology and Religious Studies at Catholic University in Washington. “It’s often very eye-opening to American students who may not have traveled that much or who may not be as informed about other religions.”

Imam Yahya Hendi, Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University in Washington, said he is part of an interfaith panel that teaches a three-credit undergraduate theology course called Interreligious Encounter and Dialogue.

“We also do a lot of interfaith discussions on sexuality, on God, on abortion … on the environment,” he said. “People discover that we have much more in common than we have differences.”

The primary mission of every faith is the same, Imam Hendi said: to “discover the face of God.”

“God does not act as if God is Catholic or Protestant or Muslim or Jewish,” he said. “God is the God who created the whole universe in all of its diversity. We come to know the great, majestic, embracing God when we learn about each other.”

Personal relationships

Both Muslim and Catholic students say that living and learning together on Catholic campuses has helped them better understand the similarities between their two faiths — as well as helped them grow individually in their own.

Sangida Nafisa, a 19-year-old junior at Marymount and president of the campus’ Muslim Student Association, said that attending a Catholic university has given her a better understanding and appreciation for Catholicism.

“I have seen so many similarities with Islam,” she said. “You learn more and you learn to appreciate your religion as you’re respecting the other religion.

“After coming to Marymount, my faith has actually gotten stronger,” Nafisa added.

The same was true for Jordan Denari, a Catholic senior at Georgetown. After becoming close friends with a Muslim girl her freshman year, Denari decided to live with her in the Muslim Interest Living-Learning community. This experience, Denari said, changed her life and made a “massive impact” in terms of her own faith.

“When (my friend) would get up and pray early in the morning and pray late at night, it definitely made me want to have that kind of commitment in my own prayer life,” Denari said. “I really credit her and the Muslim community for my desire to re-engage in my Catholic community.”

On weeknights, Catholics gather for Mass and Muslims gather for evening prayer in adjacent rooms at the same time on the Georgetown campus, said Denari, who is co-president of the interfaith council.

“That’s a really powerful thing knowing that they’re on the other side of that wall and knowing that it’s really because of that community that I’m even sitting in the Catholic chapel,” she said.

She hopes to bring the two groups together on occasional evenings to further advance interreligious dialogue and understanding.

A global scale

The violence that began Sept. 11 across the globe is being attributed to a YouTube-broadcast movie trailer, “Innocence of Muslims,” which mocks the prophet Muhammad. Imam Hendi said the film was meant to “provoke us against each other.”

“Some people who have their own agenda of provoking should not be listened to,” he said. “Muslims have to stand up and say, ‘I disagree with the movie … but I am too spiritual, too loving, too embracing to even respond.’”

In her classes, Garces-Foley tries to create a haven where it’s possible for Muslims and Christians to comfortably talk about these serious issues — what she called “so complex, but also so personal.”

“It’s a challenge, but I think it’s important in all religious studies courses that we not turn away from these very disturbing global events,” she said.

Denari said the escalating violence only bonds her and her Muslim friends closer together in their mutual search for peace and understanding.

“We’re all sort of on the same page when it comes to this stuff,” she said. “We’re equally upset and frustrated by this. It motivates us to not only deepen the relationships we already have with one another, but to make sure those don’t get lost in all of this negative news.”

And it’s these relationships that really count, Imam Hendi said.

“Violence begets violence and hate begets hate,” he said. “Only love can change hearts and souls. And we are in the business of transforming hearts and minds on campuses.”

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