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Caring is Critical (with Catherine Orsborn) [Podcast]

Shoulder-to-Shoulder is an interfaith organization dedicated to ending anti-Muslim sentiment by strengthening the voice of freedom and peace. In this episode, Catherine Orsborn joins us to help us understand what “anti-Muslim bigotry” is, why it harms everyone (not just Muslims), and how everyday people can participate in building and maintaining and more robust and diverse civic space.

In her experiencing working alongside communities combating hatred, terrorism, and lack of understanding, Orborn brings an understanding of how Muslim Americans are working to better their communities, how non-Muslims can be good neighbors and allies, and how religious and ethical leaders can provide advocacy at the national level.

Episode Transcription

Stephanie:      You’re listening to In Times Like These, a production of CLU Live at Claremont, Lincoln University. In Times Like These explores the difficult spaces we humans navigate in culture and religion, in dialogue and doubt. Catherine Osborn is the campaign director of Shoulder to Shoulder, a national campaign of religious and interfaith organizations dedicated to ending anti-Muslim bigotry in The United States and around the world.  In this episode of In Times Like These, we talk about bigotry and solidarity and how ethical people are building movements of peace and civil rights across the U.S.

Catherine:        Shoulder to Shoulder was founded actually back in 2010 and I was not there at the founding but, it was founded in response, a multi-faith response to rising anti-Muslim bigotry in the public square, which reached a certain level in 2010 that folks had not seen prior to that.

Catherine:        Looking at that now, it sort of feels like it pales in comparison to what we’re seeing right now but, at that time, it felt very dramatic and new in many ways and so, a couple of the incidents that folks will remember are, the pastor in Florida threatening to burn the Quran, the sort of very public fight over the so called Ground Zero Mosque in New York and, attacks on the Mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, which really reached the national stage and was covered quite a bit by the national media.

Catherine:        And so, in response to all of this, Jewish and Christian institutions, so denominations, that had existing relationships with the Islamic Society of North America and other Muslim partners with whom they had been, you know, working on interfaith dialogue and relationship building but also had been working on a number of social and political issues together for a long time.

Catherine:        A number of these Jewish and Christian leaders in these institutions came to the leadership of the Islamic Society of North America and some of them with some partners and said, “We want to be doing more. We feel like we need to be acting more collectively at this time and really helping define this as an issue that impacts all Americans not just the Muslim communities.”

Catherine:        So that, in a nutshell, is sort of the founding of Shoulder to Shoulder was really this public multi-faith response to anti-Muslim bigotry with the message that this is a problem for all of us. That this is a problem for anybody who cares about their own religious freedom and the commitment of this country to being a safe place for religious diversity and religious pluralism equally for all people.

Catherine:        So, since 2010, we’ve been doing work in a lot of spaces. I came on board in 2014 so there was quite a bit of groundwork done in those early days of the campaign to both establish deeper relationships between the campaign and the national denominations involved as well as connecting with some of the interfaith efforts happening on the ground across the country and, noting that how important those are, that the people really doing work in the local communities are these local groups and organizations, sometimes congregations that are, that have taken this on as part of the work that they’re doing.  And so, we started to establish a community membership network for Shoulder to Shoulder of people that were doing work in various ways on this issue in local communities.

Catherine:        So, fast forward to now, we have 34 national member organizations. Most of them are religious denominations that have joined at the institutional level. A few of them are national interfaith organizations and that sort of thing and then we also have 46, always growing, different groups at local levels doing work in their communities that we connect on a regular basis through community membership calls, through sharing information on our list serve and through social media networks and really just kind of trying to, sometimes it’s giving one-on-one mentoring and coaching to some of those. Sometimes it’s just providing the resources and many times it’s uplifting the work that they’re doing at the local levels and making sure people are hearing about it across the country and so, that’s a little bit of what the network looks like.

Catherine:        So, we are in many ways, very grateful that this network existed and had the time to be built between 2010 and now when it’s needed in a whole different way than it has been over the last several years. So I would say that, you know, it’s not necessarily that these issues have changed dramatically, there has been this issue of anti-Muslim bigotry and discrimination from, you know, in this sort of person-to-person way but also coming from government in certain ways and, especially in state legislature there had been, there’s been waves of these anti-foreign law or anti-Sharia bills that have come up over time. There’s lots of other sorts of ways that this has manifested well before this election cycle.

Catherine:        But this election cycle obviously brought a lot of this to the surface and, in certain ways, mainstreamed some of what was happening. So, you know, fringe sort of hate, anti-Muslim hate groups were getting bigger microphones and, were having a lot more, a lot bigger platform to share their views.

Catherine:        And then, you know, the current administration, during the election, during the campaign and now, have, in many ways, served to validate some of those hateful voices and actors in many ways by further sort of criminalizing or demonizing the Muslim community in various ways. And so, in that way, our work has somewhat shifted because before we weren’t having to kind of fight policy fights quite as much. They were fewer and further between but now, that has changed in many ways. But I would say, with that, the engagement on this issue has increased and so that’s, you know, has had negative consequences in certain ways but, it’s also had a hugely positive consequences because people are paying attention to this issue. So, hopefully I didn’t go on too long there but, that’s the gist of where we came from and how our work has shifted a bit.

Stephanie:       Thank you.

Stephanie:       Why do you use the term anti-Muslim bigotry and not Islamophobia

Catherine:        So, I actually use both terms but, as an organization we adopted the term anti-Muslim bigotry, anti-Muslim hate early on as our way of talking about this and, there are debates within the community on what words are best for talking about it.

Catherine:        I think that Islamophobia is an important term and, it’s a term that people now know and understand. At the time that Shoulder to Shoulder was founded it did not have as much traction in the general public plus, I think, some of the concerns people have around the word, Islamophobia is that it implies this sort of incurable disease, almost. Thinking about phobia’s and, you know, people have had these debates within other, at other social justice issues as well where they’re using the term phobia like, homophobia, that it sometimes implies that somebody can’t help it if you have a phobia.

Catherine:        And actually, I think that there is some truth to that when it comes to Islamophobia that there are many people across the country that have negative views of Islam and Muslims because they have just been consuming certain types of media and maybe they aren’t necessarily choosing to harbor hatred towards Islam or Muslims but, by virtue of the type of media they’re consuming and the lack of effort to get other information or to build relationships or, the other things that might counter the narrative that they’re receiving, they end up with these very negative views.

Catherine:        And so I wouldn’t say that those people can’t help it but I think the term Islamophobia does make a bit more sense there whereas anti-Muslim bigotry or anti-Muslim hate is speaking to some of the more direct efforts to demonize the Muslim community and to marginalize the Muslim community and those are really, those are really the efforts that we are working to fight.

Catherine:        So, I use both of those terms in different spaces and depending on some of the specifics of what I’m talking about and sometimes, just based on who I’m talking to and sometimes I use them interchangeably but, that’s a little bit of the thought behind the terminology for me.

Stephanie:       Thank you.

Stephanie:       I saw a presentation a few weeks ago on looking at racism as a public health crisis …

Catherine:        Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stephanie:       For some of the same reasons that you’re talking about. Like, yes, we each have agency, we each have choice, we each have a responsibility to make consumption and relationship and access, you know, public good for ourselves and our families but, depending on where we’re living and where access to diversity and education and, you know, fair labor practices exist in the country, some of those places of access and resources that make things, you know, that help for education that transforms us may or may not be limited. And so, not only working on that one-on-one, this person is racist, I’m going to build a relationship with him or her to like help him change or, her change but, what are the systems in place that help racism grow and flourish.

Catherine:        Right, right. Yeah. That’s a really interesting perspective on it.

Stephanie:       And I don’t know what I think about that yet but …

Catherine:        Yeah, yeah, it’s, I mean, I can see, I can see some truths there and at the same time, the challenge of agency and especially with these conversations elevated to the national level be, the responsibility there and nobody can say they haven’t ever even thought about it …

Stephanie:       Right.

Stephanie:       So, who are your clients? Who finds you and says, “I need help on this issue”? And when you’re talking about engagement has increased. What type of engagement?

Catherine:        Yeah.

Catherine:        So, the most of who we work with, most directly and, who we’re kind of focused on in our work is really faith leaders and activists both at national and local levels and so, so I do, I get outreach from people at local levels who are somehow affiliated with some sort of multi-faith or inter-faith approach to this issue.

Catherine:        I’ll hear from people who are totally unassociated with faith groups as well and certainly there’s plenty of space for people from all sorts of backgrounds to be involved in Shoulder to Shoulder but, that said, our membership and our focus has really been on working with the non-Muslim faith communities in the United States around this issue.

Catherine:        And so, so, anyway, so we do a lot of work with clergy and, some of that is through, you know, direct outreach that we receive. Some of that is through workshops that I’ll coordinate through some of the national member denominations of Shoulder to Shoulder to do trainings and workshops with their networks of clergy or lay activists within their denominations on this issue.

Catherine:        Some of those are in person. Some of those are by webinar. Sometimes its connecting by phone with different folks in different areas who are kind of trying to sort out how to do this work.

Stephanie:       So, lots of clergy, lots of activists, lots of inter-faith folk. Why is it valuable to have non-Muslim people leading this work or, participating in this work?

Catherine:        Yeah, and I think that that’s an important distinction there, the leading versus participating.

Stephanie:       Yeah.

Catherine:        I really think about it as participating and coming alongside while also together in partnership with our Muslim partners trying to shift the narrative but, this is a problem that we all should be equally concerned about.

Catherine:        And so, so, yeah, so I mean, I really think of it as coming alongside and supporting the American Muslim community while further religious pluralism for everyone in our country.

Catherine:        But I think its, I mean, it’s critical for non-Muslims to be involved in this work. One, because the Muslim population in the United States is small. They are powerful and they are very resilient and some of the most amazing people I have ever met. I have no doubt in their ability to organize amazing things and to pull off great events and to really do some incredible work around this issue and, yet, if we’re trying to see some both culture change around this and better social and political change around this issue, we need more people involved in that.

Catherine:        So, just speaking very pragmatically, the Muslim population is like one to two percent of The United States population so, in that sense, just on a pragmatic level, there need to be more people involved in this but also, you know, thinking about the way this issue is perceived and the way the work is perceived, it’s really critical that people see this as something we should all care about, you know, out of care for others, out of care for what our nation stands for and values and, out of, I mean, for some people it’s out of self-interest that they value religious freedom and the commitment to diversity for themselves and therefore need to protect it for other people in order to actually see that come to fruition.

Catherine:        And the other piece of it, I think is that, that faith communities, in particular, we have a lot of teaching and text that tells us things that should be relevant in these situations. To love our neighbors, to welcome the stranger, to not bear false witness and to come alongside people who are marginalized or vulnerable, which I think applies to the way the American Muslim community has been experiencing life in The United States lately.

Catherine:        So, I think that’s the other piece of it is, is coming from a religious ethics and moral standpoint that, even if there wasn’t a self-interest argument here, that we should be compelled by our own faith traditions and teachings to be standing up for and looking out for people who are being negatively affected in our society.

Stephanie:       What troubles you the most? What keeps you awake at night and worrying about this project and what it is to be an American and what gives you hope that this work can be transformative and successful?

Catherine:        Yeah. So, what keeps me up at night or troubles me the most is, is that, some of the most extreme voices on this, some of the voices that really think that all Muslims are terrorists and a danger to society and should not be allowed to live in The United States, people who are that extreme in their thinking, those people have moved from the fringe to having access to power.

Catherine:        We’ve seen heads of anti-Muslim hate groups meeting at The White House and getting an open door there. We see a number of folks in the administration itself, Steve Bannon being one of those, Michael Flynn was one of those now out of the administration.

Catherine:        I just saw today that Mayor Beth Van Duyne from Irving Texas who has really been antagonistic to the large Muslim population within her town in Texas that she has just joined the, I think health and human services or the housing props department. Anyway, she just joined the administartion in some capacity, is what I read today and, that’s concerning to me that these voices that are so extreme are getting these platforms and getting access to power in ways that they haven’t had before.

Catherine:        That’s scary to me because they are, I think, part of what has been driving some of the most extreme types of legislation and the executive orders coming out of the Trump administration so far and, I know that they, that those actors have every intention of taking it further and further so, you know, they don’t only want to change countering violent extremism programming to countering violent Islamism but, they have desires to criminalize the Muslim brotherhood internationally and from that to use it as a way of sort of doing a witch hunt with American Islam organizations and shutting down those organizations. And, these voices have been antagonistic towards the very mainstream American Muslim organizations that have been here, are very well integrated in society and are doing such important and incredible work in our society on so many different levels for the benefit of the Muslim community but also for the benefit of the broader community.

Catherine:        And so, that’s scary to me that the most extreme voices that used to be on the fringe are getting more and more clout and then that paired with this sort of fake news trend. This, you know, politicization of how we consume information and people’s sheer disregard for facts.

Catherine:        And so, you know, if these voices are getting access to power and, platforms that they’re associated with or that have similar sorts of view points, are pushing out stories saying things that aren’t true about American Muslims, about American Muslim organizations, individuals, et cetera then, that creates a pretty scary situation because it’s going to be hard for the American people to really push back against the extreme voices if the information they’re getting and consuming is telling them that these extreme voices are right. That, Islam isn’t a religion, it’s really a political ideology. You know, those sorts of claims that are made.

Catherine:        So, I think that’s what’s scary to me is, it feels like it’s really hard to get through with facts in this situation and we have increased platform for these false receptions and ideologies about Islam and Muslims that are so far from the reality that so many of us who work in Muslim circles or know American Muslims closely know is just not true. But, how to get that message to people who aren’t convinced of that, it feels very challenging right now.

Catherine:        I’d say on the flip side, the positive, as I said, there’s been a lot more interest and engagement in this issue from so many different people and so many different sectors. I think we see it coming from the business sector and Hollywood and the tech sector and libraries and the legal sector and so many different spaces where people are really concerned about this particular issue right now.

Catherine:        And, of course, I mean a host of other issues that they’re concerned about but, I think that engagement, and I would say that certainly we have seen a lot of progressive engagement on this but I think we’ve seen, at least I have seen a lot of interest in engaging on this and figuring out how do I respond to the stuff that I’m seeing that I’m really uncomfortable with?

Catherine:        I’ve seen a lot of that coming from more moderate to conservatives circles as well and, you know, I’m from Kentucky, originally, from a small fairly conservative Christian community there and I hear people all the time, you know, saying that they’re uncomfortable with what’s happening but they don’t really know how or where to plug in and so I think that that’s very promising so long as we can, you know, continue that engagement and help figure out how to get people plugged in at many different levels.

Catherine:        You know, people who haven’t necessarily been plugged in on this issue before, I think that’s really promising because, my thought is that when the hate is made more overt, people really reject it. When it’s less overt, when it’s coming through policies that people can talk their way out of them being anti-Muslim or something like that then I think it’s harder to engage people but like when it’s so clear that there is this antagonism towards the Muslim community, I feel like there are many more Americans that are not okay with that than there are that are okay with it and we see this in polling and stuff too, not just from anecdotes.

Catherine:        And so, that’s really promising to me that a lot of people aren’t comfortable with the hate, which thank goodness that that’s the case. I think it’s, you know, figuring out collectively how we help translate that into being able to, you know, change views within a community and get better information in there and work on relationship building and also how we push back against the policies that could really negatively affect American Muslims.

Stephanie:      For more information on Shoulder to Shoulder and their wealth of resources, visit the podcast page at claremontlincoln.edu/engage. Thanks for listening to In Times Like These, where we explore issues of politics and faith and learn from one another how to navigate difference for maximum flourishing. In Times Like These is a product of CLU Live at Claremont Lincoln University. For more, subscribe, share and visit us at, claremontlincoln.edu.

Ways to listen to this episode:

In this episode, we discuss:

  • What you can do to help end anti-Muslim sentiment
  • Definitions including “Islamophobia,” and “anti-Muslim bigotry”
  • How anti-Muslim bigotry—and peace and justice movements—grew in response to the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks
  • Why it’s important to lead alongside marginalized groups, as co-learners not leaders
  • How to build consensus in congregations and communities to spread accurate education and opportunities for honest engagement

Top 3 takeaways from this week’s episode:

1. “This is a problem for all of us.”

We are wrong if we think that anti-Muslim bigotry only affects Muslims. Whether or not you are religious, atheist, or secular humanist, and whether you are part of a majority or minority community—when hateful rhetoric and hate crimes mar our civic landscape, all of us are affected. And all of us need to be part of the solution.

'This is a problem for all of us.' Listen now: Click To Tweet

2. “We should be compelled.”

Nearly every religious or ethical tradition implores us to love our neighbor, to welcome the stranger, to not bear false witness. In this conversation, we explore what that means when it comes to standing up against violence and bigotry. How can our individual ethical and spiritual traditions inform the political work we undertake?

'We should be compelled.' Listen now: Click To Tweet

3. “A lot of people aren’t comfortable with the hate.”

Every day, many of us bemoan a more civilized discourse—a time when news anchors and family members alike spoke with respect and integrity. And yet, when we find many interactions (large and small, international and personal) to be marked with hyperbole and contempt. Why have things changed? What will it take to practice more open and humane ways of interacting?

'A lot of people aren't comfortable with the hate.' Listen now: Click To Tweet

Mentioned on the episode:

How to connect with Catherine and with us:

You can find Catherine on Twitter @C_Orsborn. You can also find Shoulder to Shoulder on Twitter @S2Scampaign and on Facebook here.

You can connect with me on Twitter here: @SVarnonHughes. And you can always connect with us at CLU on our Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn accounts linked here.

Like the show? Help us spread the word by giving us a rating and review on iTunes!

About the Podcast

In Times Like These explores the difficult spaces we humans navigate in culture and religion, in dialogue and doubt. We talk to voices from the field, in law, activism, civil rights, and from places of struggle and places of deep learning. In Times Like These, we unpack the most troubling issues of politics and faith we face, together.

In Times Like These is hosted by Dr. Stephanie Varnon-Hughes and is a CLU Live production by Claremont Lincoln University.

Stephanie Varnon-Hughes

Stephanie Varnon-Hughes, Ph.D., is the Director of the Claremont Core at Claremont Lincoln University, and an award winning teacher and interfaith leader. She is the host of the religion & culture podcast In Times Like These and author of Interfaith Grit: How Uncertainty Will Save Us. Varnon-Hughes was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Inter-Religious Studies, a peer reviewed journal, and its sister publication, State of Formation, an online forum for emerging religious and ethical leaders. She holds a Ph.D. from Claremont Lincoln University, an M.A. and S.T.M. from Union Theological Seminary and her undergraduate degrees are in English and Education, from Webster University.

Claremont Core

Claremont Lincoln University

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Stephanie Varnon-Hughes

Stephanie Varnon-Hughes, Ph.D., is the Director of the Claremont Core at Claremont Lincoln University, and an award winning teacher and interfaith leader. She is the host of the religion & culture podcast In Times Like These and author of Interfaith Grit: How Uncertainty Will Save Us. Varnon-Hughes was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Inter-Religious Studies, a peer reviewed journal, and its sister publication, State of Formation, an online forum for emerging religious and ethical leaders. She holds a Ph.D. from Claremont Lincoln University, an M.A. and S.T.M. from Union Theological Seminary and her undergraduate degrees are in English and Education, from Webster University.

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