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A Deacon's Journey Through Islam
By
Deacon George Dardess
Source: St. Anthony Messenger magazine
Published: Tuesday, September 20, 2011
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Deacon George Dardess at Nazareth College in Pittsford, New York, last May.
Becoming a Roman Catholic deacon led me into Islam—not by embracing Islam itself, but by embracing it as a sign of the Other whom the deacon has come to serve. The path has been so full of surprises that I can truly say, “God writes straight with crooked lines.”

Yet it’s not only as a deacon that I speak of Islam. I also speak of it as an ordinary American who one day realized that he knew nothing about this “foreign” religion: nothing of its holy book, the Quran, nothing of its teachings, the people who embraced it, their languages and cultures or even the countries where Muslims live. For example, I couldn’t at that time have found Iraq on the map.

The change began in February 1991. I had been watching with horror televised reports of our first Iraq war, “Desert Storm.” As a recently baptized (1983) Catholic Christian, I had absorbed Thomas Merton’s writings on nonviolence; I had been inspired by the U.S. bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace. I also felt deeply that Desert Storm was portrayed unjustly: as a triumphant exercise of American goodness over the darkest evil and a war that had been cleansed of its violence through “surgical strikes” and “smart bombs.”

Much as I wanted to, however, I could not demonize the war makers. What restrained me was a painful consciousness that I was complicit in my ignorance. This war had been allowed to go forward, I believed, because people like me, who ought to have known something about Islam and the Muslim world, knew nothing. Because of that, we were easy victims of the propaganda that made killing Iraqis, both soldiers and civilians, a smoothly justifiable action, almost a sacred duty.

To ease my conscience, I said out loud as my wife, Peggy, and I watched videos of American missiles presumably hitting precisely focused Iraqi targets (while avoiding all civilians): “I’m going to learn Arabic.” I said these words a bit braggingly, as if just saying them aloud would make a difference. But I said them fearfully as well, because something warned me that fulfilling this promise would change my life.

I delayed as long as I could. But finally, one fall day in 1993, my excuses and evasions dried up. When I began a course in Arabic at Rochester’s Islamic Center, I entered a different world. As I had feared, that short step changed me.

I became different, first of all, because within the space of five minutes I left behind a world where Muslims had been a scary, undifferentiated mass and entered a new world where Muslims were human beings with distinct names, bodies, personalities and histories. Moving beyond a world of stereotypes, I entered flesh-and-blood human reality.

The change began once I had taken off my shoes, put them in a cubbyhole and padded upstairs to the classroom. From knowing no Muslims for the first 50 years of my life, I suddenly knew 30—the 30 class members gathered on that fall day to learn Arabic.

Only one fifth of Muslims are native Arabic-speakers. The rest have to learn their faith’s language slowly and painfully, just as I was doing. My new Muslim friends and I were suddenly linked together in a common struggle. Besides sharing a desire to learn, we shared a common humanity.

Click here for the full article.


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