Elmhurst College: Mistrust Hinders Cooperation Between Catholics and Muslims

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Mistrust Hinders Cooperation Between Catholics and Muslims

Catholics and Muslims have shared experiences and overlapping philosophies that should enable the faiths to work toward common goals. But theological and cultural differences, distrust and ignorance of each other’s traditions present formidable obstacles.

That was the message of R. Scott Appleby, a professor of history and director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Appleby, who also is director of Contending Modernities, a multi-year project to examine the interaction among Catholic, Muslim and secular forces in the modern world, delivered the Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Lecture on March 30.

“The problems facing the world are so complicated and global in nature that they require the cooperation and collaboration of all faiths and secular interests,” Appleby told an audience of more than 200 at the Frick Center. His lecture, “Can Catholics and Muslims find Common Ground,” also was part of Elmhurst’s yearlong series of events Still Speaking: Conversations on Faith.

People of different nationalities and faiths face similar problems such as violence, global migration, and human rights, Appleby said. And although they disagree on details, Catholics and Muslims also share fundamental agreement on key religious philosophies such as the sovereignty of God, a similar sense of history and common concern for social ethics. Both religions also date to pre-modern times.

However, significant barriers stand in the way of finding common ground, and in the U.S., the September 11 attacks loom large, Appleby said. Divisions with the U.S. surfaced in the 1979 Iranian revolution that resulted in fundamentalist Muslims taking control of the government. They continue today, with the recent House Homeland Security Committee conducting what Appleby called “a shameful investigation” of radicals in the American Muslim community. The War on Terror launched by the Bush administration after 9/11 helped foster the belief that parts of Islam are our enemies, he said.

Historic recriminations and indignities
Globally, Catholics and Muslims have waged bitter wars against each other, starting with the Christian Crusades launched in 1095 and continuing intermittently for centuries. Today, Palestinians say they are abused by a Jewish-Christian alliance, and a Christian minority in the Middle East complains it is persecuted by the Muslim majority.

Such differences, Appleby said, need to be part of the discussion because they unite Catholics and Muslims in an unpleasant but common history. “They have mutual historic recriminations and indignities,” he said. “That’s never going to be something we can ignore. It’s never going to go away.”

Lack of knowledge in the U.S. about Islam remains an obstacle as well. “There still is a baffling amount of ignorance among Americans of Islam, including among religious scholars and government officials,” Appleby said, a situation he described as “unbelievably obtuse” given the need for better understanding of Islam and Muslim traditions.

For example, when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, military and government leaders were unaware that Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq held sharply different views of the U.S. and adopted policies that treated both the same.

“Ignorance about Islam is a real problem,” he said, “and it’s much easier to form notions based on a grain of truth” than take the time to establish a deeper understanding.
Americans not only have a profound lack of understanding about Islam but even of their own religious traditions, Appleby said. During a question and answer session following his lecture, he suggested that offering more comparative religion classes at colleges and high schools would increase understanding.

“It’s challenging to get Catholic students to take religion seriously,” he said. “When you situate Catholicism among the world’s major religions, you can get a different angle. Comparisons are a way to deepen student’s interest in their own religion.”

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