Midwest Muslim-Catholic Dialogue Explores
"In the Public Square: Catholics and Muslims on Religious Freedom"
The latest meeting of the Midwest Muslim-Catholic Dialogue took place in Northwest Indiana, on October 26-28, 2008 at Calumet College of St. Joseph, at the Pastoral Center of the Diocese of Gary and at the Northwest Indiana Islamic Center. The topic examined was: "In the Public Square:Â Catholics and Muslims on Religious Freedom."
Bishop Dale Melczek of Gary and Shayk Mongy El-Quesny of the Islamic Center welcomed participants to an enthusiastic public session and potluck supper on Sunday evening, October 26. The Northwest Indiana Islamic Center is a multi-cultural Muslim community that has distinguished itself by undertaking, together with the local Methodist and Catholic communities, the collection and distribution of surplus medicines to hospitals in various parts of the world. Over twenty shipping containers of surplus medical supplies have already been sent abroad through this model program.
Among the participants in the opening public session were a group of eleven Muslim and Catholic high school students, representing the Valparaiso High School Muslim Students' Association and the Bishop Noll Institute Service Club, who assisted with hosting the guests of the Islamic Center.
The dialogue session on Monday opened with a message from the President of Calumet College of St. Joseph, Dr. Dennis Rittenmeyer, who described the programs of this small but very diverse Catholic college. Rev. Thomas Baima, Provost of the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, Illinois, presented a paper entitled: "The Logic of Why: What the Declaration on Religious Freedom Contributes to the Idea of Religion in the Public Square." Basing his observations on the Vatican II document, Dignitatis Humanae, and on American Constitutional law, Fr. Baima showed how the development of Catholic thought on natural law and revelation led to the conviction that human persons are by their very nature endowed with fundamental rights, even apart from the question of whether their ideas are true or false. Thus, religious freedom is based on the dignity of the human person and cannot be denied by actions on the part of governments. In actual practice, when there is a conflict between religious practices and civil laws, the principle of accommodation has been applied in American history; thus from time to time, and where the public good is not damaged, "some people may be exempted from generally applicable laws for reasons of conscience." The principle of accommodation has had many practical consequences, not all of which have been welcomed by the US Supreme Court. Particularly when religious minorities have divergent notions of what religion is, the future of accommodation in American law is likely to be the subject of much debate.
Mohamed Elsanousi, Director of Communications and Community Outreach of the Islamic Society of North America, continued the discussion of accommodation and religious freedom in American law with a chapter from his forthcoming dissertation, "Comparative Analysis of the American Legal Structure as it Relates to Integration and Religious Accommodation with Islamic Law." Mr. Elsanousi examined some recent controversial cases in which the courts and the US Congress have vied to extend and to restrain the principle of accommodation for religious minorities. In effect, the law seems to allow for degrees of accommodation, depending on compelling interests of the common good.
The dialogue pursued some of the perennially challenging themes of American law such as the question of whether rights are inherent or "inalienable" to persons, or whether rights are conferred by consent of the governed. If rights are inalienable, what is their ultimate source? If that source is God, then the law risks enshrining a theological perspective. If the source is the consent of the governed, then a constitution no longer exists to "protect" rights that already exist, but rather to extend or to limit rights in accordance with the will of the majority.
Both Catholic and Islamic notions of law and the human person presuppose a set of basic rights conferred by the Creator. From their theological perspectives, Muslims and Catholics will tend to support the notion of "inalienable rights" and the role of the state as a means by which human rights are protected and fostered. As a result, there is the possibility of a genuinely creative tension between these two religious communities on the one hand, and the more secular perspective that envisions rights as conferred through common consent. The two perspectives promise to influence the ongoing evolution of legislation here in the United States and in other parts of the world in the course of the present century. In particular, the immigrant experience of Muslims in the United States is likely to have repercussions in majority-Muslim states abroad as applications of religious law (Shariah) evolve towards a greater acceptance of human rights.
The immigration experience of Catholics and Muslims in the United States offers a broad range of comparative elements, as examined in the paper, "Can the Immigration of Catholics from Europe Be Instructive for Muslim-Americans?" by Dr. Daniel Lowery, Vice President for Academic Affairs of Calumet College of St. Joseph. Themes of demographics, work ethic, degree of religious observance, willingness to impart one's cultural heritage to one's children, and degree of assimilation into United States social norms were examined from a sociological perspective. Participants correlated the data in Dr. Lowery's paper with concerns about ethical behavior and the transmission of the faith in their respective communities. As in the discussion of legal support for human rights, the discussion of immigration disclosed some of the dynamism with which religious communities resist raw assimilation and contribute unpredictable values to a host society over long periods of time.
Participants also visited Masjid Al-Amin in downtown Gary, one of the oldest mosques in the U.S. In the 1970's, this mosque served as the first headquarters of the Muslim students' organization which became the Islamic Society of North America. Participants were welcomed by Leon Smith, a member of the board, and Imam Hanif Hasan. Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed recounted the beginnings of ISNA and his experiences at the mosque.
During the evening public session attended by Catholics and Muslims from the local communities, Dr. Syeed, who is National Director of ISNA, spoke on the recent document "A Common Word" emanating from a distinguished group of Muslim scholars and directed to a broad spectrum of Christian leaders. This document is a plea that Muslims and Christians engage in a dialogue on the love of God and love of neighbor that will bear fruit in a new era of world peace. The many responses to "A Common Word" suggest that it has awakened hopes for an enhanced dialogue at all levels. Dr. Syeed hopes that these responses will generate a lively debate on the grassroots level and will stimulate ongoing cooperative efforts among Christians and Muslims.
The planning session determined that the topic for the next dialogue, which will take place in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on October 25-27, 2009, will be: "The Nature of the Human Person." The public session will highlight a presentation on "Faithful Citizenship: Catholic and Muslim engagement in civic life".Participants in the 2008 meeting were: Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed, Islamic Society of North America (ISNA); Bishop Dale Melczek of the Diocese of Gary; Msgr. Patrick Halfpenny, Archdiocese of Detroit; Dr. Dennis Rittenmeyer, President, Calumet College of St. Joseph; Shayk Mongy El-Quesny of the Northwest Indiana Islamic Center; Dr. Daniel Lowery, Vice President of Academic Affairs, Calumet College of St. Joseph; Rev. Thomas Baima, University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein Seminary;Â Mohammed Elsanousi of the National Office of ISNA; Rev. David Bruning, Diocese of Toledo; Dr. Donald W. Mitchell, Purdue University; Rev. Raymond Webb, University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein Seminary; Sr. Joan McGuire, OP, Archdiocese of Chicago; Sr. Barbara Austin, O.S.B., Monastic Interreligious Dialogue; Judith Longdin, Archdiocese of Milwaukee; Inshirah Farhoud, Islamic Society of Milwaukee; Joan Crist, Diocese of Gary, Indiana; Dr. Gulam Haider Aasi, American Islamic College, Chicago, Illinois; Rev. Francis Tiso, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.