The Catholic University of America

Professor Marshall Breger (at right) conceived and organized
"Islam and America: The Challenge of Expanding the Judeo-Christian Paradigm."

Islam's Incomplete Journey


It’s a mostly forgotten fact today, but the first Islamic ambassador to the United States represented Tunisia. He was received by President Thomas Jefferson, who also ordered that diplomatic protocols take Ramadan into account. 

There has been a Muslim presence in America from its beginning, and that simple fact helped to frame “Islam and America: The Challenge of Expanding the Judeo-Christian Paradigm,” a discussion sponsored by Catholic University’s law school on Oct. 5 and held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
Organized and moderated by CUA Law Professor Marshall Breger, the 90-minute program was the second in the law school’s 2010-2011 “Critical Insights into the Law and Law Practice” series. Media coverage included Voice of America television, which broadcasts overseas.
As Americans hotly debate the appropriateness of building a new mosque near Ground Zero in
Manhattan, it seems clear that the country still doesn’t quite know what to do with the growing number of Muslims within its borders. It begs the question: Will Islam ever be accorded a full seat at the nation’s religious, social and cultural table?
A powerhouse of panelists tackled the question from very different points of view.
Discussants included Ambassador Akbar Ahmed (above left) the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University in Washington D.C.; Rabbi Jack Bemporad, (middle) an internationally recognized theologian, scholar and interfaith advocate who currently serves as professor of interreligious studies at the Vatican's Angelicum University in Rome; Hannah Rosenthal (right) the Obama Administration’s special envoy and head of the Office to Monitor and CombatAnti-Semitism; and Dr. Chris Seiple (below, left) president of the Institute for Global Engagement and a recognized expert on religion and international affairs, Muslim-Christian relations and religious freedom.
Ambassador Ahmed recently published Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam, a book that set him on the road for a year speaking to Muslims across the country. He found it ironic that many Muslims are regarded with suspicion today, since so many of them told him during his research that “America is the best place in the world in which to be a Muslim.”
Dr. Seiple found the question of whether Islam fits into the Judeo-Christian cultural mode a moot one. “We’re past that question,” he said. “People don’t know Islam, therefore they fear it. But America is the last best bet for the world as a place that embraces pluralism, and it’s the place to engage Islam on its own terms.” 
For the most part, the discussion was learned and civil, shedding in the words of Professor Breger, “light but not heat.”
But the dialogue turned a bit tense over the widespread media use of the term “moderate” Muslims.
Hannah Rosenthal observed that Christians, Jews and Hindus are under no such pressure to identify themselves as members of a moderate, as opposed to extremist, wing of their faiths.
Rabbi Bemporad and Ambassador Ahmed pointedly disagreed over whether so-called moderate Muslims were obligated to renounce acts of terrorism as a condition for the full acceptance of Islam into the United States and western society at large.
“I don’t think Islam will be accepted until it is seen as not against America,” said Bemporad, who also noted that xenophobia in America is always exacerbated by difficult economic times.
Ahmed conceded that Islamic leaders have done a poor job of conveying the revulsion that most Muslims feel over gratuitous acts of political violence. Nonetheless, he said, it is time for non-Muslim Americans to better understand that the three Abrahamic faiths are united by more than what divides them.
“I go to the synagogue. I go to the church. I go to the mosque. And I see the same spirit,” said Ahmed.