I get a lot of questions about why I am in Cairo and why I’d be at all interested in studying Islam. And my first gut reaction is always defensive…why not?! ::breathe:: Behind the question, I guess I always hear a bit of shade being thrown at Islam, and at Muslims. Or, as if to do so, somehow makes me a bad Catholic, a bad priest, or is a sin against patriotism. Maybe that’s just me and my sensitivity. But I grew up in the same United States of America as some of the people asking the question. I experienced the same tragedy of September 11th, 2001 as everyone else, and I seem to fall in a group that doesn’t fit an American religious or cultural narrative (or at least one I seem to run into).
My freshmen year at Purdue University (West Lafayette, IN) began in the Fall of 2001, and therefore my development as a young American man was necessarily in the shadow of September 11th. Everyone remembers the fear of those first few years; that from then on “Muslims/Islam” was the threat. How could I not be curious about what drives a religion, a group to such violence? Such perceived perversion to what seems to be basic human instincts toward charity, love, and virtue? Particularly a group that I had NO experience with: I had never known a Muslim, had never seen, let alone been in a mosque, nor knew a single word in Arabic…
When I switched majors from Aerospace Engineering to Philosophy/Religious Studies in 2004, I was exposed to Islamic thought for the first time. It was interesting. I also became part of a “dialogue group” composed mostly of Christian undergrads and Turkish Muslim grad students. Over tea and Turkish desserts, we got to talking…and became friends. I always say, with a bit of pride, that it was a Muslim couple that made me fall in love with the Mass. Their daily devotion to the Divine made me recognize and desire the Divine solemnity of the Mass; I became a daily Mass goer.
When I graduated from Purdue in 2006, I moved to Washington, DC to work at the USCCB (US Conference of Catholic Bishops) in their Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs (SEIA). Though I was a bit of a lackey (doing everything from making coffee to being a research assistant), I was exposed to how the Catholic Church (both nationally and world-wide) spoke of and engaged our Muslim brethren; I was edified. As a Dominican, my trips to Egypt, my relationship with IDEO (Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies), and other studies only seemed to reinforce the idea that one need not automatically approach Islam ready to battle.
My whole experience of and encounter with Islam, especially as a young man, was never reactionary. I was formed in a space of intellectual and spiritual curiosity. I never personally encountered (either in the US or abroad) the “Muslim” or “Islam” that the rest of the US was portraying or that everyone seemed to fear. Not to say that it does not exist, but I found that, for my own intellectual and personal integrity, I HAD to leave a space open for distinguishing between real Islam and Muslims and to ask what exactly comprises extremism, recognizing that I really had no idea what the roots of either were (religious, cultural, historical, or otherwise).
And that’s why I am here…to really LEARN, for integrity’s sake. And ultimately, I want what I learn to be at the service of my Church and my country…if they so desire to use me.