Hoya Paxa

A Vigil for Chapel Hill and Dialogue: Implications for Religion, Race, and Understanding

During a brutal ethnic war dividing and crippling Sri Lanka over 20 years ago, Pope John Paul II delivered an address to Muslim and Hindu interreligious leaders in Colombo.  At the beginning of the meeting, the pope expressed his gratitude, unscripted, to these leaders, and his words remain as salient today as they did then: "I thank you for this meeting. 'Meeting' means we are together. It is necessary to be together; not being together is dangerous."
And dangerous it is.

In the wake of horrific events occurring at UNC Chapel Hill, we are scarily reminded of the extent of bigotry that still exists here in our own country against our own citizens, our own neighbors, today.

Even though the motives behind the shooting remain uncertain, depending on the news source—some news channels focused on "debunking” the claim that this shooting had any connection to race or religion—we must not overlook the underlying issue: the prevalence of Islamophobic sentiment still pervades American society.

Specifically, the burning of Qur’ans by the Dove World Outreach Center Church in Florida, the vicious assault on a New York City Sikh man who was mistaken for a Muslim by a truck driver, and the vitriolic response by Duke alumni when the university’s Muslim Student Association (MSA) requested a call-to-prayer all come to mind when considering the state of Islamophobia in post-9/11 America.

In my opinion, the "othering" in the United States against Muslim-Americans results from a falsely attributed, historically, and geographically biased mentality against Muslims.

From a historical perspective, many Americans conflate Osama bin Laden-inspired Islamic extremism with the everyday Islam that millions of Americans
—including over 400 Georgetown students—practice. There is evidence of sweeping generalizations and misconceptions about Islam in America’s public sphere, which is particularly prevalent in opposition to the building of mosques.

In a geographic context, there is simply a lack of interaction between Muslims and non-Muslims that enables these misconceptions. Muslims comprise 1 percent of the American population; consequentially, only 40 percent of Americans claim that they even know a Muslim. That means that three in five Americans have opinions about Muslims based entirely off of media, movies, and history.

In this context, dialogue could not be more important. According to the Jesuit priest Jacques Dupuis, S.J., who wrote the foundational Christianity and the Religions: From Confrontation to Dialogue, dialogue is a porous interaction among peoples with religious convictions that are committed to sharing and learning. True dialogue encourages people to treat the "other" as an equal and share mutual enrichment through discussions. True dialogue is achieved when equals share a space—such as a university—and work, worship, and pray together. In this permeable interaction, conversations of religious and ethical ideas between people from different faiths have the potential to enable us to see the "other" as more of a brother than a stranger.

And, on a diverse college campus like Georgetown, we interact with people of different backgrounds and faith traditions on a daily basis. What binds us together is not the God in which we believe, the culture that we come from, or the color of our skin; rather, it is the commitment to our fellow Hoyas that unites us on a much deeper level. Exemplifying this commitment to our fellow Hoyas, the vigil put together by the MSA drew a crowd of over 100 students, faculty, and chaplains, receiving notice of the vigil just hours before in quick response to the shooting.

Similar to American demography in general, Muslims were in the minority at this vigil. However, contrary to what this proportionality has led to in the American populace, the plurality of those of different faiths present at the vigil signified the unity stressed by the imam. Georgetown’s vigil, and the dozens of other vigils that occurred around the country in memory of this tragedy, shows the value of what it means to be together as a united community.


At the vigil held in Georgetown’s Red Square, a Catholic priest, a Protestant reverend, an imam, and a Jewish student all offered prayers for the community and families affected by the shooting. In these prayers, common themes emanated from a single thread laced with a sense of compassion and shared empathy. In the sixteenth century, St. Ignatius of Loyola called the Jesuits to go and find God in all things, and the unified response from all corners of the religious community at Georgetown exhibits this Ignatian belief in action.

Georgetown’s Imam Hendi emphasized that unity will move the American public sphere from disengagement and Islamophobia toward religious (and societal) harmony. He said, “Islam teaches that God loves those who love others. The fruits of religious convictions and our love of God are not achieved in a vacuum. They are achieved and found in the context of human relationships.” Religious unity, however, does not exhaust all of what the imam discussed. Just weeks after the vigil, Georgetown students held a town hall about race after the Voice posted a cartoon depicting students beating other students. At this discussion, the cartoonist stated “I invite you to please come up, introduce yourself to me… [and] teach me.” This represents a scenario of Georgetown students trying to cross over, recognizing the "other" and engaging in productive dialogue.

As poetically expressed by our Imam, and echoing the words of Pope John Paul II, the way forward will be through dialogue, a necessary commitment to learn, to teach, to share, and to know one’s brother and sister.

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