Imagine you are sitting in Mass. During the sign of peace, you wave to your friend across the crowded sanctuary and shake hands with the fidgety kids in the row behind you. Suddenly, the congregation breaks out in gasps. Amid the confusion, you learn there is someone outside shooting at the building with a firearm.
Imagine, too, that this is not an isolated incident. Across the country, many churches have been vandalized in anti-Catholic attacks. You have also heard about harassment, assaults and even murders of your fellow Catholics. All the while, political candidates have won elections by proposing to ban Catholics from the country, and the news is filled with overwhelmingly negative coverage of your religion. In the back of your mind is the knowledge that the government and police are keeping a special eye on your community, not just at airports but in churches and restaurants owned by your relatives.
For Muslims in the United States, these scenarios are not hypotheticals; it is their reality. In 2015, hate crimes against Muslims jumped 67 percent from the previous year, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, reaching a post-Sept. 11 high, and the number of anti-Muslim physical assaults was on par with 2001. I know people whose mosques have been burned down, whose children have been bullied at school and who have been harassed on the street because they wear a headscarf. In our political discourse, Muslims are a convenient scapegoat. They and their religion are cast as the source of terrorism and a threat to American values. So it is no surprise that Muslims have been profiled by law enforcement and that many Americans approve of discriminatory policies.
It should not be difficult for Catholics to acknowledge the reality of Islamophobia and its impact on our fellow Americans. In previous generations, Catholic immigrants were considered a threat to American values—foreigners and papists who wanted to impose religious law on the United States. Many Catholics seem to have forgotten (or have never learned) this history. According to research conducted by the Bridge Initiative, where I work, three in 10 American Catholics admit to having negative views of Muslims. Only 14 percent say they have favorable views of the group. Other polls have found that a majority of Catholics believe Islamic values are at odds with American values; almost half of white Catholics agree with banning Muslim immigrants from the United States.
Catholics must critically examine their own prejudices and stereotypes of Muslims. Pope Francis has called on us to not generalize about Muslims, to avoid conflating Islam with terrorism and to stop spreading misinformation. We must have the courage to charitably confront Islamophobia in our communities, our Catholic institutions and in ourselves.
Our faith also compels us to reach out to Muslims in love and hospitality. Simply striking up a conversation with a Muslim colleague, neighbor, classmate or parent at your child’s school can go a long way. Invite them to get coffee or organize a playdate with your kids. If there are not any Muslims in your immediate circles, work with your pastor and parish leaders to extend an invitation to a Muslim guest speaker from a nearby mosque or university. Parishes making a public statement of solidarity, whether on a sign outside the church or an online forum, can be a meaningful first step.
The most important thing is to let the Muslim community know you want to be supportive; then, ask them how you can help, whether by hosting a dinner at your church, holding an educational event or organizing a joint community service opportunity. The best ally you can be is the one your new Muslim friends need you to be.