ACommonWord BetweenUs:
Reflections of aMuslimFacultyMember at a JesuitUniversity

By Anas Malik

As a Muslim political scientist interested in Islam and politics, I have enjoyed numerous opportunities to participate in interreligious gatherings.On September 12, 2006, I delivered a talk to the Muslim- Catholic dialogue sponsored by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Islamic Society of North America, an ongoing dialogue founded in 1996.My topic in 2006 was the challenges in building trust and collective action between the two faith communities.

This is a topic I have addressed in depth in a chapter of a forthcoming book (“The Struggle to Constitute and Sustain Productive Orders,” edited by Sproule-Jones, Sabetti and Allen). Later in the day of my presentation to the dialogue, there were news reports about Pope Benedict's comments at Regensburg. An outcry followed and controversy erupted. I discussed the developments in classes and campus clubs, and with my colleagues. There was more demand for public forums on Islam and politics.A busy and sometimes contentious few months followed.

In his May 2007 graduation benediction, our university president referred to “the God in Whom Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad placed their trust.” Some audience members looked around, but most listened appreciatively. Coming after a somewhat tense period in Muslim-Catholic relations, this affirmation helped secure a comfortable space for Muslim community members.

In October 2007, 138 noted Muslim scholars representing many schools of interpretation published A Common Word Between Us and You, a letter to the world's Christian leaders (NJN, December 2007/January 2008). It stated that dialogue between the two communities should be based on the two greatest commandments: to love God and to love one's neighbor. The document is remarkable for bringing together noted authorities from so many Islamic interpretations. This approaches a potential scholarly consensus, an ijma, elevating its stature as an authoritative religious reading. However, as with any religious teaching, its significance is dependent on how people will implement it. Consequently, there is need for venues, gatherings and common endeavors where links may be forged.

Vatican II teachings spread quickly to the world Catholic community because bishops provided a structure for speedy dissemination. The Muslim world differs from this in part because Islam does not have the same centralized church structure. Furthermore, there has been erosion in traditional channels by which people receive religious instruction. In this context, the written word and news media present one channel for spreading A Common Word. A different method is prolonged, serious engagement in multi-religious contexts where people from different faith backgrounds interact regularly.

Civil society norms and institutions are in decline in the United States. As Robert Putnam put it in his often cited study by the same name, published in 2000, people are increasingly “bowling alone,” isolated even when apparently gathered in large numbers. Our gated communities and segregated neighborhoods are miniature reflections of a polarized world. Healthy democracy depends on good citizenship practice.Good citizenship is learned in civic spaces where people from diverse backgrounds interact regularly, develop trust, and learn how to disagree agreeably.

Universities are important for the civic space that they provide to students as well as the broader community. Xavier University provides such space through regular community forums and town hall meetings on public issues. Such formal, scheduled activities may be expected on most campuses, and particularly at Jesuit institutions seeking regular public inquiry into issues involving ethics, religion and society.

Less apparent are concrete,micro-level, individual interactions that show a community living up to the grand themes of love for one’s neighbor and shared humanity. My recent personal experience offers one illustration. I am writing this article from Karachi, Pakistan, where I have been for the past month on a Jesuit Community Faculty Fellowship. The country is tense from political violence, and Pakistan is making world news more than ever. In our interdependent world,what happens in Pakistan or elsewhere beyond our city, state or country of residence cannot be ignored.

I had originally intended to take this research leave next fall. However, late last semester I learned that my father had been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. It had been nearly two years since I'd seen him, due to a hold up in the immigration documentation I needed to travel.My colleagues at Xavier University put me in touch with a senator’s office, whose key staffer was a recent XU grad. The senator’s office inquired about my delayed paperwork. In addition, my department chair suggested that my research grant start in the spring semester rather than the following fall, allowing me to spend the semester with my family while working.Within days, the university concurred. Shortly thereafter, I received the travel documentation I needed to leave for Pakistan.

While Xavier is a Jesuit University, I find myself surrounded by diversity: the office next to mine belongs to a Catholic colleague, while on the other side I have a Jewish neighbor. Each reached out to offer help. Faced with a family emergency, I felt an outpouring of practical and social support from both colleagues and institution, regardless of our chosen faiths. Love thy neighbor is an exhortation found in all three monotheistic traditions, as well as many others. Here was a practical situation in which my neighbors and colleagues offered meaningful support, as humane individuals, and as an institution. It is thus that I find myself blessed to be with my father at this time.

Understanding complexities in Pakistan or in interreligious matters or anywhere else in our interdependent era requires dialogue and an appreciation for our common humanity. A Common Word calls for this; my recent experience with the Xavier community embodies it.

Malik teaches in the department of political science and sociology at Xavier University.

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