Letter to the Editor


President Donald Trump retweeting anti-Muslim posts only further poisons the image that Americans have of Muslims. (Courtesy of Flickr)


President Donald Trump retweeting anti-Muslim posts only further poisons the image that Americans have of Muslims. (Courtesy of Flickr)

To The Editor,

Last week on Nov. 29, President Donald Trump retweeted three short videos which purported to show that Muslims were destructive and vicious terrorists. By implication, Muslims were a threat to the property, beliefs and physical safety of non-Muslim Americans. Investigations by multiple news organizations have shown that one of the videos is erroneously labeled and the other two are taken out of context in misleading ways. Since Fordham is a university in the Catholic tradition, what guidance does the Catholic tradition provide those at Fordham who are reflecting on this incident?

First, recent Catholic teaching stresses an obligation to respect and cooperate with “the good” as it is embodied in other world religions. The primary source here is a Vatican II document, Nostra Aetate. In paragraph three of that document, a positive relationship between Islam and Catholicism is stressed. The Church leaders declare their “esteem” for the Islamic religion, mentioning beliefs shared by Muslims and Catholics. As examples they refer to a belief in one, all just and all merciful God; a belief that the one God is the creator of humanity, earth and heaven; and the belief that, at a final time of judgment, God shall determine a just eternal reward or punishment for each person, according to their merits. The bishops point to moral practices praised in common by these two religions, such as helping the poor. The moral example provided by the bishops at Vatican II is an attitude which stresses dwelling on the shared, positive aspects of Islam and Catholicism and exhibiting a warm readiness to cooperate with Muslims to advance common moral aims.

The stance toward Islam adopted during Vatican II has characterized the Catholic Church’s position toward Islam since 1965. (The one deviation from this magisterial commitment to stress respect for Muslims and their Islamic faith might be Benedict XVI’s talk at Regensburg in 2006, where he included a negative Christian quote from the late Middle Ages.) Currently Pope Francis has made positive statements about Islam multiple times. Speaking to a group focused on interreligious relationships in Turkey, the pope said leaders of the various world religions, clearly in this Turkish context including Islam, needed to promote “mutual respect and friendship” among believers in diverse religions. Such respect and friendship would provide a firm foundation upon which leaders of the global religions could build a strong, shared commitment to respect for human dignity and to advocacy for human rights.

One of the videos that President Trump retweeted might be particularly disturbing to some Roman Catholics. In this video an extremist Muslim cleric is seen holding a statue of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The man quite deliberately raises the statue and flings it to the ground where it breaks into many pieces. Given the very high regard for the Blessed Virgin Mary within Roman Catholicism, this visual image might easily evoke visceral anger. The irony here is that Mary is not the mother of God in Islam. Since Allah is the one true God, than Allah can have neither a father nor a mother. Nonetheless, Mary the mother of Jesus is a respected human figure. This is indisputable because Mary appears in a positive light in the Koran, which is the final and most adequate revelation of God to humanity.

Deeper research by The New York Times has revealed that the cleric in the video is Abo Omar Ghabra, a Syrian religious leader on the outer fringe among Islamic theologians. One of the few words he speaks in this short clip is “icon.” One of the central principles of the Islamic faith is that human beings should never make any image of Allah. Many Muslims object to illustrations which claim to show the great, but human, prophet Mohammed. Some leaders of Islam object to making images (icons) of figures such as Jesus or Myriam, who are seen as completely human persons of spiritual significance. This has led to a controversy within Islam itself about whether any devout practice connected to icons of revered humans implies that these special humans are spiritually superior, even quasi-divine. It is possible that the video showing an extremist Muslim smashing an image of the Virgin Mary was targeted at other Muslims he considered to be worshiping idols or at other Muslims as well as Christians.

Catholic teaching today urges Catholics to respect and be friendly toward Muslims and to join with them in pursuing help for the poor, justice and peace. These are Jesuit values relevant to interpreting and responding to the videos the President of the United States retweeted on Nov. 29, 2017.


– Dr. Barbara H. Andolsen, the James and Nancy Buckman Chair-Holder in Applied Christian Ethics at Fordham.