Midwest Regional Dialogue of Catholics and Muslims Meets to ""Envision an American Future""

January 5, 2006 By Public Affairs Office

WASHINGTON (January 5, 2006)-- At a time of continuing public debate on the role of religion in American life, the Midwest Regional Dialogue of Catholics and Muslims met at the headquarters of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) in Plainfield, Indiana, on December 13 and 14, 2005, to identify core values and to seek creative ways to address the challenges of faithful living in the USA today.

Basing their convictions on divine revelation, Catholics and Muslims come together as bearers of living faith traditions that offer guidance in the way of peace, reconciliation, and the virtuous life.

Dialogue participants welcomed a new Catholic co-chair, Auxiliary BishopFrancis Reiss of Detroit. New participants in this ongoing dialogue included: Dr. Matt Hayes of the Archdiocese of Louisville, Kentucky; Dr. Michael Hovey of the Archdiocese of Detroit; Inshirah Farhoud of the Islamic Society of Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Rev. William Skudlarek, O.S.B. of St. John's Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota who is also Executive Director of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue (MID); Dr. Anas Malik of the Department of Political Science, Xavier University, Cincinnati, Ohio; and Dr. Louay Safi, Director of ISNA Leadership Training.

Examining the Qur'anic and Biblical narratives of Hagar (Arabic: Hajar),mother of Ishmael (Arabic: Ismail), Prof. Scott Alexander of the Catholic Theological Union explored the theme of freedom from oppressionto open up a conversation on core values transmitted by sacred narratives and rituals. Dr. Alexander saw the story of the Egyptian slave woman Hagar as an account of liberation, recognized by Jews, Christians, and Muslims in a long history of
commentaries, homiletic narrations, and ritual actions such as those performed during the Hajj at Mecca. The liberation of Hagar/Hajar is meant, despite ambiguities and elements of exclusion, to bring freedom to both captives and captors, thus defining the universality of the human spiritual journey to freedom in obedience to God. Discussion among the participants sought to clarify the nature of Hagar's freedom, which emerged in her discovery of her complete dependence on God. The symbolic ritual activities that commemorate Hajar at Mecca are part of the enactment of the Muslim teaching that God has intended, since the days of Adam, for the Ka'ba to be the universal center of human worship.Therefore, the theme of the liberation of Hajar within the frame of reference of prophetic history should not be read as limiting the universal message of her and Ismail's relationship to the Ka'ba and its symbolism.

Dr. Louay Safi's paper examined the American political situation, finding competing models for the reconciliation of the secular and the religious perspectives in public life. Ideally, the political system ofthe rule of law in a democratic society requires the same virtues and values that revealed religions espouse: morality, honesty, justice, human dignity. Legislation must not favor or disadvantage any segment of the political community on religious grounds; there is great risk that a misuse of power could give rise to reaction in the form of amoralsecularism.

Muslims in the US are challenged by the uneven application of the anti-terrorism laws. They are now redefining their identity by: challenging the misrepresentation of Islam in mass media; by developing as a united community; by sending "back home" a balanced message about life in a society that favors freedom and initiative; by identifying common values through dialogue with Christians and Jews; by affirming the positive interactions between Islam and modernity. The ongoing vision of the Islamic role in the US will be to emphasize the universal,humane principles of Islam; to reform the tendency to violence; to establish Islamic values and practices with US culture (cf. Jewish success with the wide availability of kosher food); to promote a vision of society in which cultural and religious diversity are cherished. These developments will support a strengthened commitment of the US to justice, civil rights, and a collaborative foreign policy. Respondents strongly affirmed this paper, urging Muslims and Catholics to make common cause, becoming a conscience for US society which is currently atmoral risk because of reactions to terrorism. One form proposed for such a common cause was to link our efforts in service and education so as to impact the public sphere in a positive way.

Fr. Francis Tiso's paper brought together the "ideal type" of a healthy city with the traditional American town model that prevailed up to the mid-nineteenth century east of the Mississippi. The model has roots in European town design going back to the great civilizations of the Mediterranean and Fertile Crescent. The city is a place where architecture shapes movement and communicates basic shared values. Rebuilding or renewing our towns and neighborhoods gives an opportunity for a multi-ethnic and multi-religious vision to become part of the landscape encountered by ordinary citizens in daily life. Interreligious organizations become part of a larger vision of "preventive peace making" and promotion of human values by participatingin town planning that enlarges the architectural vocabulary of Americanpublic life.

Discussion reflected concerns that town planning often fails to promote equality and justice, and tends to marginalize less economically powerful groups. There is still a need to re-articulate universal humanvalues within a distinctly American civil vocabulary. Also, the move of immigrant communities out of urban neighborhoods into small towns hasmade it harder for communities to stay united; it also underscores the need for interfaith cooperation on the local level. A survey of local initiatives among our participants helped to clarify the possibilities for progress suggested by Fr. Tiso's paper. In general, the dialogue brought to the fore the need to understand one another's positions and proposals with greater clarity and theological depth, to insure that we do not presume to be in agreement even when our respective narratives, values, and virtues seem to share common meanings.

The dialogue document, Revelation: Catholic and Muslim Perspectives, will be published by the USCCB in January, 2006. The Midwest Regional Dialogue expressed a common desire for a significant public event in which Catholics and Muslims could celebrate the publication, which is primarily a fruit of this dialogue group.

Future plans included a suggestion for a national level dialogue of Catholics and Muslims for 2007 at the Bernardin Center at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. A proposal for the Midwest Regional Dialogue to move towards permanent status was launched by Dr. Muhammad Shafiq of Rochester, New York, who offered a draft of structure and by-laws. Dr. Sayyid Syeed of ISNA urged participants to consider attending the annual ISNA convention over Labor Day weekend at Rosemont,Illinois, as guests of the Muslim community. A number of interfaith panels are planned; participants were invited to give papers and organize additional panels.

The next meeting of the Midwest Regional Dialogue will be on September 12 and 13, 2006, at the Retreat Center, St. John's, Plymouth, Michigan, at the invitation of Bishop Reiss. The topic will be: "Living as Muslims and Catholics in the USA Today" and presenters will be Dr. Anas Malik of Xavier University, and Dr. Donald Mitchell of Purdue University.

Participants in the 2005 meeting were: Auxiliary Bishop Francis Reiss ofDetroit; Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed, Islamic Society of North America (ISNA); Fr. David Bruning, Diocese of Toledo; Fr. Vincent Heier, Archdiocese of St. Louis; Dr. Matthew Hayes, Archdiocese of Louisville; Dr. Muhammad Shafiq, Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue, Rochester, NY; Dr. Donald W. Mitchell, Purdue University; Louay Safi, ISNA; Fr. Raymond Webb, Mundelein Seminary; Dr. Anas Malik, Xavier University; Michael Saahir, Nur-Allah Islamic Center; Dr. Ghouse A. Shareef, Islamic Cultural Center; Sr. Joan McGuire, OP, Archdiocese of Chicago; Fr. William Skudlarek, MID; Michael Hovey, Archdiocese of Detroit; Judith Longdin, Archdiocese of Milwaukee; Inshirah Farhoud, Islamic Society of Milwaukee; Fr. William Hammer, Archdiocese of Louisville; Dr. Scott Alexander, Catholic Theological Union; Fr. Francis Tiso of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.