Catholic Social Teaching and Islamophobia

By: Jordan Denari Duffner

May 24, 2021

Responding to: Healing Muslim-Christian Relations in the United States

Catholic Social Teaching and Islamophobia

This essay has been adapted from Jordan Denari Duffner’s book, Islamophobia: What Christians Should Know (and Do) about Anti-Muslim Discrimination.

At the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church declared that “in every age, the Church carries the responsibility of reading the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel” (Gaudium et spes, no. 4). In our own time, one of the realities that Catholics are called to address is the scourge of anti-Muslim prejudice and discrimination, or Islamophobia. In recent years in the United States, Muslims have faced surging hate crimes, political scapegoating, demonization in the media, and more subtle and institutionalized forms of discrimination. As a Catholic Christian, my faith tradition calls me to break down Islamophobia and build up a better world. I find this impetus particularly in the principles of Catholic social teaching (CST).

As a Catholic Christian, my faith tradition calls me to break down Islamophobia and build up a better world. I find this impetus particularly in the principles of Catholic social teaching.

Emerging out of the scriptures and the Church’s tradition, CST is a rich and evolving framework for living the Christian faith in public life. Drawing from a wide range of Church documents, CST deals with a broad array of human issues, from the economy to human rights, from family and community relations to the environment. Catholic leaders and scholars have identified a number of principles that undergird these teachings. Three of these, which I apply below to the problem of Islamophobia, are: human dignity; solidarity; and subsidiarity. 

Though Islamophobia has been frequently addressed in Catholic interreligious dialogue settings, CST has rarely if ever been applied in a concerted way to the problem of Islamophobia. This is a missed opportunity, because of the many ways that CST can be a helpful aid in crafting a Christian response to Islamophobia. 

Protecting Human Life and Dignity

The dignity of each human person is the cornerstone of Catholic social teaching. This inherent and universal human dignity stems from the fact that all people are created in “God’s image” (Gen 1:27), and it means we are entitled to “certain basic goods: life, knowledge, sociability, reason, religion, and such like.” Mere toleration of each other does not do justice to God’s love and plan for each person; rather, we are called to honor each person to the fullest, doing as much as we can to enable all people to flourish. When the Catholic Church, in Nostra aetate, declares that it “holds Muslims in high regard,” it is not just because Catholics have similarities with them on the level of religion. More fundamentally, it is because they are human beings, each of whom is created in God’s image and likeness. God loves each and every Muslim—all 1.8 billion of them—beyond measure. 

Protecting human life is a core part of acknowledging human dignity. Tragically, Islamophobia can kill, whether in the form of individual hate crimes or as the result of unjust wars abroad. Even when there is not loss of life, anti-Muslim prejudice and discrimination directly harm the well-being of Muslims. Physical hurt, psychological trauma, and persistent dehumanization of Muslims are affronts to their human dignity, whether they are carried out by individual actors, communal bodies, or governments. 

Physical hurt, psychological trauma, and persistent dehumanization of Muslims are affronts to their human dignity, whether they are carried out by individual actors, communal bodies, or governments.

The right to religious freedom is also a natural extension of the principle of human dignity. In the declaration Dignitatis humanae, promulgated at Vatican II, the Church states that no persons should be “forced to act against their convictions nor...be restrained from acting in accordance with their convictions in religious matters in private or in public, alone or in association with others.” Through this lens, many forms of Islamophobia are infringements on Muslims’ religious freedom. When Muslims are unable to assemble in safety at their houses of worship, when they are denied by governments the ability to dress in accordance with their religious convictions, when they are barred or expelled from countries because of their faith—all of these curtail Muslims’ religious freedom. This is not just about government persecution but also forms of more subtle coercion and pressure from the broader society. 

Additionally, impingements on Muslims’ religious freedom hampers Muslims’ ability to live out their faith in ways that benefit the rest of society. Dignitatis humanae says that societies should work to “create conditions favorable to the fostering of religious life so that...society itself may enjoy the benefits of justice and peace, which result from people’s faithfulness to God and his holy will.” This reminds me of the experience of Asad Dandia, a young man whose Muslim charity group was spied on by the New York Police Department several years ago. Of the experience, Asad wrote, “As a Muslim, I feel it is my duty to help the needy members of my community, Muslims and non-Muslims alike…The NYPD surveillance program has made it harder for me to practice my religion, even though I have done nothing wrong.” 

Solidarity

Solidarity is a buzzword today, but it has long and deep roots in the Catholic tradition. The principle says that, even amid our differences with others, we stand with them. Solidarity assumes an equality between people—it is not an attitude of pity or condescension, but a recognition of others as equals. 

Solidarity can be enacted in myriad ways. One way is to express our support for Muslims during hard times. When anti-Muslim hate crimes occur in our local communities, we can reach out to Muslims and offer our help, whether it be tangible or emotional aid. But living in solidarity with Muslims does not mean just waiting until tragedy strikes. The Catholic Church, under the papacy of Pope Saint John Paul II, outlined four types of interreligious dialogue that it promotes. The most important of these is the dialogue of life, in which people of different religions simply live alongside one another. This is what solidarity is—relationships of mutuality, in which people support one another in good times and bad. 

Solidarity also involves standing up for Muslims in the public sphere, and working toward dismantling institutional and structural forms of Islamophobia.

Solidarity also involves standing up for Muslims in the public sphere, and working toward dismantling institutional and structural forms of Islamophobia. When Christians and those of other faiths protested against the Trump administration’s Muslim ban at airports in 2017, it was not only a public gesture of solidarity that was meaningful to Muslims, but it sent a powerful message that politicians and the rest of the public could not ignore. 

This principle of solidarity even informs the kinds of causes we support financially and how we vote. When we give to charities and political causes, and when we enter the ballot box, Muslims—like so many other people—should be on our minds. The principle of solidarity and our concern for the common good mean that we should consider Islamophobia among the many other issues that drive and inform our political activism and civic action. The human dignity of Muslims is not something that can be written off flippantly. 

Subsidiarity

The principle of subsidiarity has to do with seeking solutions to problems at the most local, personal level possible. It rests on the recognition that there are unique challenges in different contexts, and that universal problems have different manifestations depending on their setting. Islamophobia is such a problem, and the principle of subsidiarity can empower us to take actions in our local communities.

While drawing on resources and expertise from broad-based entities, local communities can effect great change by focusing their efforts close to home. When there are movements to block the building of a neighborhood mosque or to slander local Muslim political candidates, grassroots efforts can have a big impact in pushing back. 

When there are movements to block the building of a neighborhood mosque or to slander local Muslim political candidates, grassroots efforts can have a big impact in pushing back.

Additionally, the principle of subsidiarity acknowledges the importance of limiting undue government interference in people’s lives. The theologian William Byron, S.J., writes that “oppressive governments are always in violation of the principle of subsidiarity.” Islamophobia is often perpetuated by government entities that spy on and unjustly incarcerate Muslims; infringe on their freedom of movement, dress, and worship; and invade and bomb foreign countries. Thus, prioritizing subsidiarity can be an important corrective for this abusive government treatment of Muslims. 

Sometimes, the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity are mistakenly taken to be at odds. But if we think about them instead as being in a kind of creative tension, it opens up new possibilities for how we might address the challenges that Islamophobia poses in different contexts. Subsidiarity also helps ensure that our solidarity is not just for show. Marching at a protest is a worthwhile action, but so is pairing that with tangible work in one’s community. 

Doing the Work

As we have seen, the principles of Catholic social teaching speak powerfully to the problem of Islamophobia. They help us recognize that Islamophobia is both a social justice issue and a religious freedom issue, and they inspire concrete actions that we can carry into our own lives. The next step is for us to do the work.

From Islamophobia: What Christians Should Know (and Do) about Anti-Muslim Discrimination © 2021 Jordan Denari Duffner (Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY)

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