Bobbi Omo, a third-grade and religion teacher at St. Agatha School in Southeast Portland, hugs student Jannah-Rae Mike. The Mike family, who are Muslim, chose St. Agatha for its strong academics and commitment to character formation, said Jannah-Rae’s mother, Ranya. Fellow school parent Sarah Lax said the presence of a Muslim family has been “nothing but a benefit for the school.” (Courtesy Ranya Mike)
Bobbi Omo, a third-grade and religion teacher at St. Agatha School in Southeast Portland, hugs student Jannah-Rae Mike. The Mike family, who are Muslim, chose St. Agatha for its strong academics and commitment to character formation, said Jannah-Rae’s mother, Ranya. Fellow school parent Sarah Lax said the presence of a Muslim family has been “nothing but a benefit for the school.” (Courtesy Ranya Mike)

"We cannot truly pray to God the Father of all if we treat any people as other than sisters and brothers, for all are created in God’s image."

 Vatican II’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions

Jawad Khan’s 3-year-old daughter was at his side when a motorist in the family-friendly Portland suburb of Beaverton rolled down a window and shouted, “Sand N-word!”

Confused, the little girl asked her father what it meant.

“What are you supposed to say?” asked Khan quietly, the sadness audible.

It was not the first time he’d been the recipient of a slur — far from it. But that afternoon several years ago remains especially painful.

The share of U.S. Muslims who’ve experienced such harassment is trending upward according to recent reports, as are the number of violent assaults against Muslims.

The complex but overall distressing picture of anti-Muslim behavior in the United States should alarm Catholics, whose faith holds Muslims in high regard.

Todd Cooper oversees Christian and ecumenical relations for the Portland Archdiocese. He said unfortunately “we as Catholics have a long way to go on this issue of Islamophobia. There is a lot of fear and lack of understanding.”

A study released in 2016 by a Georgetown University research group found one-third of U.S. Catholics admit that their overall impression of Muslims is unfavorable; only 14 percent say they have favorable views.

Cooper said education but foremost friendship and dialogue help overcome not only hatred but also the misperceptions some Catholics hold.

“Muslims go to work, pay taxes, care for their children, have similar concerns as we do,” he said. “We need to get to know them as human beings.”

‘Go back to your country'

In the spring of 2017, 53-year-old Ricky Best, a Catholic, was one of three men who stepped forward to defend two teens in a Portland commuter train. The teens — one wearing a Muslim headscarf, the other black — were victims of anti-Muslim and racist verbal assaults from a fellow passenger. When Best and the young men spoke up, the attacker slashed at them with a knife, killing Best and 23-year-old Taliesin Namkai-Meche.

Khan, a teacher at the Muslim Educational Trust in Tigard, said that, in general, Muslims in Portland feel “safe and comfortable.”

The train stabbing “was eye-opening,” he said, a reminder that Muslims in the area aren’t immune from violent Islamophobic behavior.

Ahmed Ali said the stabbing was heartbreaking and “terrifying” for his wife,  Rasha. Ali is a Muslim who fled Iraq in 2014 because his Western-linked journalism career made him a target of al-Qaida.

“Because my wife wears a hijab, she was worried after the stabbing that someone would threaten her, maybe attack her also,” said Ali, a former Catholic Charities Oregon employee who now works as a community liaison for the Beaverton School District.

Beaverton contains a large population of Muslims, who number nearly 30,000 in the Portland metro region, estimates Khan. There are approximately 1.8 billion worldwide (compared with 1.28 billion Catholics).

In a Pew survey released last year based on FBI hate crime statistics, the number of assaults against Muslims in the United States rose significantly between 2015 and 2016, surpassing the modern peak in 2001, the year of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Anti-Muslim hate crimes rose 19 percent.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group known as CAIR, recorded a 17 percent increase in what it termed “anti-Muslim bias incidents” in 2017 over 2016. Incidents included verbal harassment, property damage and physical violence.

“Statistics are definitely pointing toward a broader trend of Islamophobia,” said Jordan Denari Duffner. Duffner authored the recent Bridge Initiative report out of Georgetown, which looked at Catholic views of Muslims and how they are portrayed by Catholic media.

Duffner said FBI hate crime statistics do not fully capture the extent of hate crimes nationally. The figures depend on a number of factors, including local policereporting such crimes and what kinds of hate crime laws are in place. Currently 45 states and the District of Columbia have statutes criminalizing various types of bias-motivated violence or intimidation.

Another 2017 Pew study illuminated a positive, albeit counterintuitive, trend. Although nearly half of American Muslims said they’d experienced some form of discrimination in the past 12 months, a similar 49 percent said they had experienced support for being Muslim.

“Some research shows that as Islamophobia gets worse, public opinion gets better,” Duffner said. Part of that enigma likely is explained by political shifts tied to the 2016 election and the current administration, but there also have been cultural changes. “In clothing brands, in restaurants, we’re seeing there’s a push to portray Muslims more positively,” said Duffner.

She said it’s important to note that Islamophobia is not something new and was playing into electoral politics long before the most recent presidential election. Yet “never so blatantly,” Duffner said.

As a presidential front-runner, Donald Trump called for banning all Muslims from entering the United States. This past June, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the latest version of his ban, which blocks travel from several countries, most of which are predominately Muslim.

CAIR suggests the ban plays a role in the rise of Islamophobia, although no studies have yet proved a clear correlation.

Khan said the ban conveys the message that Muslims are to be feared. “Plus the rhetoric thrown around about Muslims has allowed people who might have felt a certain way in the past to now feel more at ease saying it online or out loud,” he said.

Ali feels Islamophobic views have trickled into children’s careless schoolyard insults.

Last year, a classmate of his son, Mustafa, then 12, told him: “Go back to your country so Trump can bomb you.”

The school and parents took action, and the child apologized. “But it affected Mustafa a lot,” said Ali. “He sat crying, saying, ‘I’m not guilty, I’m not guilty.’”

The Muslim Educational Trust — which houses a pre-K-12 school as well as community education programs for Muslims and non-Muslims — has organized workshops on Islamophobia for the local police department, public schools and government agencies.

Helping with the workshops, Khan found Islamophobia usually is linked to inaccurate information, some of it traced to what’s known as the “Islamophobia network” or “industry.”

“Disinformation campaigns about Muslims are prevalent,” said Peter Bechtold, a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Southwest Portland who has lived and worked in 26 Muslim-majority countries and taught at several universities.

The network, often given voice in online blogs, exaggerates and manufactures threats of Muslims in order to drum up a climate of fear against Muslims living in the West.

Duffner said American Catholic institutions and media outlets also provide platforms for views of the so-called network.

The Catholic Church and Islam

The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (“Lumen Gentium”), approved by the Second Vatican Council, says that, along with the influence of the Jewish people, the “plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place among whom are the Muslims.”

In an address to young Muslims of Morocco in 1985, St. John Paul II said Muslims and Catholics “believe in the same God, the one God, the living God, the God who created the world and brings his creatures to their perfection.”

Pope Francis reminded Catholics in 2013 that “our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalizations.” He’s said it is neither accurate nor fair to identify Islam with violence.

In spite of church teaching, the Bridge Initiative study found 1 in 5 Catholics believe there are no similarities between Catholicism and Islam.

Many people “simply aren’t sufficiently educated,” said Bechtold, now adjunct professor of political science at Portland State University. For three decades he served at the U.S. State Department diplomatic academy, where he prepared senior U.S. officials for work related to the Middle East.

Bechtold said similarities between Catholicism and Islam include the importance of Jesus and a reverence for Mary.

Muslims do not believe Jesus is God but that he holds an elevated role in Islam as a super-messenger alongside Abraham, Moses and Mohammad, said Bechtold. The Quran says Jesus “will sit at the right hand of God on Judgement Day.”

Mary, Bechtold continued, is “the single most revered woman in Islam,” with an entire chapter written about her.

Duffner said she’s long been struck by how “for Muslims, like Catholics, belief and how we act are so intimately bound together.”

“Not to reduce them — there is diversity in both traditions,” she said — but both stress the importance of faith coupled with good works; both ask, “What is our faith calling us to do for our neighbor and what can we do for the world?”

Bechtold said that among the many common inaccuracies Americans, including Catholics, have about Islam is the meaning of the word “jihad.”

“It does not mean holy war, even though media for decades have been describing it that way,” said Bechtold. “It means making a big effort.”

The professor said there are two kinds of jihad, a lesser and a greater. “The greater requires a Muslim to be more prayerful and to care more about their neighbors,” he said. It also includes working for social justice and overcoming greed.

The lesser jihad is the source of the long-perpetuated misunderstanding, said Bechtold. 

“In the Quran it states that if the Muslim community is under attack by non-Muslims, then it’s the duty of able-bodied males to come to the defense of the community,” Bechtold explained.

'Circle of understanding'

There are individuals like Ricky Best who are willing to risk their lives to defend Muslims under attack. Duffner points out, however, that Catholics’ opinions about Muslims — 3 in 10 hold a negative view — are similar to the general American public. At the same time, Catholics are less likely than the American public to know a Muslim personally, according to he Bridge Initiative report.

And that is problematic, said Duffner.

Echoing Cooper, she said personal knowledge is critical to understanding the Muslim community. Catholics can learn about Islam, learn about church teaching and similarities between the faiths. But then there’s the powerful human level of comprehension that comes from dialogue and friendship.

“If you don’t have personal relationships with people then you view different ideas in an abstract form and it’s easy to misinterpret them,” observed Msgr. Charles Lienert, a recently retired Portland archdiocesan priest who for years was active in Portland’s Metropolitan Alliance for Common Good, a coalition of faith groups, unions and social service agencies.

Msgr. Lienert said people should not be afraid to ask questions. “If you are generally interested and it’s not an attempt to trip them up or convert them, I’ve found people are interested in sharing about their faith.”

He added that working together on common social issues, such as poverty or homelessness, is a “wonderful way to come together and learn about Muslims and people of other faiths.”

The benefits of interfaith relationships can have spiritual repercussions, contends Duffner in her 2017 book, “Finding Jesus Among Muslims: How Loving Islam Makes Me a Better Catholic.”

“Through our exposure to Muslims’ religion, Islam, we realize that God can be found in many beautiful aspects of a religion that is not our own,” she writes. “And in revisiting our own religion with fresh eyes, we find that God is waiting for us at home, in our own faith tradition, challenging us to live out our Christianity in new ways.”

Two Portland moms would likely agree.

Sarah Lax and Ranya Mike both send their children to St. Agatha School in Southeast Portland.

“It was a natural, easy friendship from the beginning,” said Lax, a lifelong Catholic. Mike, originally from Lebanon, is Muslim.

St. Agatha appealed to Mike because of its strong academics, focus on building character, and the individualized attention children receive. She found a community that was “so loving, every last person in it.”

The differences between Catholicism and Islam give her and her husband an entry point to discuss and deepen their two children’s understanding of Islam, said Mike, who also points to the faiths’ similarities.

“There are similarities about God, respect, loving thy neighbor and helping others,” Mike said.

A commitment to charity is an overlap that especially stands out for her.

Islam stipulates that Muslims must donate 2.5 percent of their wealth once a year to help the poor and needy. “At St. Agatha we see a lot of focus on charity,” said Mike, describing how her children join classmates as they deliver items to a food bank near Christian holidays.

Lax said her friend “personifies the best in a school parent,” volunteering for committees, showing up for school events. “Ranya knows how to truly be of service,” said Lax.

She said Mike has inspired her in other ways, too. Lax recalled how during Ramadan Mike stopped by for a few hours to chat while the children played. Mike hadn’t eaten all day — the Ramadan fast lasts from dawn to sunset — and Lax was moved by the challenge of the commitment. “As kids we would give up TV for Lent, fish on Friday — but that kind of intensity of diving deeper into her faith, it was moving,” said Lax.

She said it prompted her to consider how she might “dig a bit more into Lent and create some daily intentionality that didn’t exist before.”

Because not everyone stumbles upon such organic friendships, however, Ali encourages Muslims and Catholics alike to take personal, deliberate steps toward interfaith understanding.

“Each of us has a responsibility to try to know each other,” he said. “It’s a circle of understanding that gets bigger and bigger until, one day, everyone is inside it.”



Ways to reach out to Muslims

— Connect with local interfaith organizations. In Portland there’s the Institute for Christian-Muslim Understanding and the Interfaith Coalition for Dignity

— Visit Mosques and Muslim student groups at colleges, which often are open to the public.

— Follow local Muslim groups’ Facebook pages to discover upcoming events.

— Read “Finding Jesus Among Muslims: How Loving Islam Makes Me a Better Catholic,” by Jordan Denari Duffner.

— Volunteer with Catholic Charities’ Refugee Resettlement program, which works with Muslim families.

— Attend a Muslim Educational Trust event, such as its monthly forum and potluck dinner.

List includes suggestions from Todd Cooper of the Portland Archdiocese and author Jordan Denari Duffner, an expert on Muslim-Christian relations.