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Anti-Islam slurs remind Catholics of the past

Islam and Roman Catholicism, each billions strong, are the equivalent of religious superpowers.

“Superpower” then is one of the contexts into which TV preacher Pat Robertson’s latest salvo -- accusing Islam of being “a religion of violence” bent on world domination -- should be placed. (Russian Orthodox protestations against the Vatican’s establishing dioceses in that vast nation are, in a way, reverberations of this religious “superpower” fear.)

The second context for considering Robertson’s remark is that of the United States itself. And here, Catholicism in the United States can offer some historic pointers to Islam in the United States.

First, it isn’t sufficient to note that America constitutionally enshrines religious freedoms. Whatever the document says, the American populace retains its own reservations until convinced otherwise.

Two hundred years ago, the Irish swarmed into New York City. They were entering a city in which an American flag once raised in Manhattan had the U.S. colors on one side, and “No popery” on the other.

The anti-Catholicism of the early decades of the 19th century was very much rooted in Protestant fears that immigration would turn this into a Catholic country dictated to by the pope in Rome.

As the century proceeded, the anti-Catholicism worsened.

Not until the mid 20th century -- urged on by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and the example of John F. Kennedy’s presidency -- did Catholics prove themselves and explain themselves as Americans to the bulk of Protestant America.

Through their good works they had also simultaneously developed a track record that offset much of the suspicion.

Even then, something else had to be cleared up first. It wasn’t sufficient to be a good Catholic citizen. Catholicism had to reveal itself to be a “good” religion. “Good” meaning tolerant.

That hadn’t been the case before. Catholicism’s disdain for Protestants and its “Christ-killer” charges and intolerance toward Jews won it no friends in either religious camp.

Gradually, publicly, through word and deed, Catholicism began to reform itself, to explain itself and -- certainly where the Jews were concerned -- to finally apologize.

Worldwide and domestically, Islam contends with the shadows cast by the World Trade Center. Say what one might, these are shadows that refuse to dissolve themselves in those Western and American minds suspicious about Islam’s intent. Robertson’s remarks reflect more than Robertson.

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee rightly called Robertson’s remarks “anti-Semitism” with Muslims in the place of Jews (See story, Page 9).

But the anti-discrimination committee might equally have equated those remarks with the “No popery” of two centuries ago as Robertson’s fundamentalist forbears -- simultaneously occupied with closing down New York’s theaters -- busily lobbied their anti-Catholicism wherever they could get an audience.

Robertson is not tolerant. He is lobbying his anti-Islamic views wherever he has an audience. And he has an audience because many people in it aren’t quite sure what Islam actually is about.

We might lament this ignorance, this not-knowing, but we cannot deny it exists.

American Muslims and their supporters, and those supporters include the U.S Catholic church, need to acknowledge and then deal with the fact that just as there is a lingering yet not predominant anti-Catholicism today, and a lingering but not predominant anti-Semitism, there will be a lingering anti-Islamic sentiment.

Islam, however, as a recently arrived religion in this country still has to convince some of the populace at large it is benign. Proving that does not mean it has to alter its essential tenets.

It means that Islam in America has to keep proving itself in word and deed. Just as other religions have done, and continue to do.

This proof is necessary because the basis of religious toleration in the United States among everyday Americans is a factor called “show me.”

Americans don’t know about Islam.

Americans are learning, but only a little bit at a time.

And that allows nonsense-spewers like Robertson a larger audience than they deserve for preaching that reflects demagoguery not rare in the American religion story.

Our Muslim American friends and neighbors need our support. And they have it. They also need to know that the trials they are experiencing are not new to them, nor new to the American religion scene.

National Catholic Reporter, March 8, 2002