Media CenterCarolyn Woo's CNS Column - Let Us Encounter Our Muslim Neighbors

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A few months ago in this column, I wrote that "they" can be a dangerous word. Since then and after the tragedies of Paris and San Bernadino, the point is driven home by the consequences when some segments of global societies label Muslims as "they." 

In the United States, certain political candidates call for the banning of all Muslim immigrants and the establishment of a registry to track their whereabouts -- both of which are antithetical to the U.S. Constitution which provides for our religious freedom and forbids discrimination on the basis of religion.  Unthinkable in a society with a strong sense of decorum, Muslims have been spat on; fecal matters smeared at their places of worship; and the routine act of boarding a flight challenged by a fellow passenger because of prejudice. Where could this lead? 

Violence is a reality in the United States and globally. It is a daily concern for CRS 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 know we have all lost something when "jihadist" becomes part of our lexicon. But above all, 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, Chattanooga, Washington Navy Yard and many more unnamed here, we do not label all American males threats to society. We do not segregate nor banish them from our families and communities. We are able to distinguish an aberrant fringe which we do not allow to define our conception of white males at large. Why would we not do this for our Muslim neighbors? 

If we know Muslims better, we will have portrayals rather different than what we associate with jihadists and extremists which dominate western media and shape our perceptions. By various counts, there are about 7 million Muslims in the United States, a little over 2 percent of the population. They 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 which is perpetrated in the name of a religion or of God himself?” In the Gospel, fear is not countered by security, but by love.

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Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo is the president & CEO of Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. This article is part of her ongoing monthly column, Our Global Family, written for Catholic News Service. You can follow Dr. Woo on Twitter at @WooCRS.

Read Dr. Woo’s previous columns

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