Life + Love, Life Stories

Studying Islam opened my eyes to my Christian privilege

Christians in the West have forgotten how to forge relationships with others who don't share our faith.

I get a lot of weird reactions from people when I tell them that I’m getting a master’s degree in Islamic studies.  Mostly, I’ve encountered one particular reaction from adults older than I am: widened eyes, a baffled gaze, a split second of visible fear and trepidation, and then a polite smile and an equally appropriate statement: “What an interesting field!”  “Such a relevant topic nowadays!”  “You’ll definitely get a job with that!”

This isn’t to say that some folks aren’t genuinely impressed – some truly are.  I’ve gotten many respectfully surprised reactions.  But that’s the point – people are surprised that I am studying Islam at a postgraduate level. I can’t say I blame them too much, though.  Between my blonde hair, green eyes, Euro-American ethnicity, and Christian faith, studying Islam seems like the last thing a person like me would be doing. But I can’t think of anything more in line with my Christian faith than studying Islam.

I can't think of anything more in line with my Christian faith than studying Islam. Click To Tweet

While I have done a lot of work in interfaith activism and dialogue, I feel as though it is dangerously reductionist to say that my studies grew as a result of that. It certainly had an effect, but my goal is not to necessarily encourage religious pluralism at the expense of erasing one’s identity in relation to others.  And I have been so lucky in my studies – I have been welcomed into classrooms with open arms and continuously challenged by my peers and teachers as I seek to learn about a religion I fell in love with as an undergrad, all without my Christian identity becoming a barrier. I say this with humility and recognition that it very well could be the other way around.

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You see, being Muslim in America is no easy task, and especially not so in the post-9/11 years.  Beyond that, my fellow Christians and I have not been overly successful in reaching out to care for our neighbors – indeed, many folks commit hate crimes against Muslims in the very name of Christianity. We Christians used to be quite good at coexisting with others who didn’t share our faith tradition, but we’ve forgotten how to do that: to forge relationships with others, to be friends in spite of our differences.

A big reason for this, I think, lies in how hegemonic Christianity is in America and the West more broadly speaking. Even though many polls are stating that more and more people are religiously and spiritually unaffiliated, Christianity permeates the national and social landscape. For example: Christians are not regularly harassed for going to church or wearing crucifixes around their necks. Chances are that federal holidays coincide with important religious festivals for Christians. Individual Christians are not called upon to speak for the entire faith, and the entire faith is not held accountable when terrorist attacks are committed by a Christian. So, why do we expect that of Muslims?

Christianity permeates national and social landscapes in the West. Click To Tweet

It has not been an easy process, studying Islam as a Christian, as it puts me in the relatively uncomfortable position of recognizing privilege I take for granted. Every day in class, I’m confronted with the overwhelming privilege I have, and I feel so powerless against it. Every day is a fight to check my privilege, to sit and learn, and try to remember what my ancestors in faith taught us about loving our neighbors. I can’t say I’m doing anything radical or new or even good, necessarily, by studying Islam. It doesn’t even matter to me that I think I’m doing the right thing, both as a Christian and as a human being: what does “doing the right thing” mean in the scheme of my friends facing religious and racial discrimination, harassment, and hate crimes?

Every day is a fight to check my privilege, to sit and learn. Click To Tweet

I don’t know the answer to that question. I can’t say I want to know the answer. All I want to do, and all I can really hope to do, is to keep trying, and failing, and trying, and failing again, a thousand times over -until my Christian siblings and I can recognize those of other faiths as fellow members of the human family, worthy of love and care. Until then, I plan to keep learning, speaking out, putting my foot in my mouth, checking my privilege, and repeating all over again.

Dorie Goehring

Dorie Goehring

Dorie Goehring is an MDiv alum in Islam and Comparative Religion at Harvard Divinity School. A Junior Fellow at the Science, Religion, and Culture Program at Harvard and a former UN intern, she is passionate about the intersection of technology, policy, community organizing, and religion. In her spare time, she likes drinking tea, going on feminist rants, and engaging in nerdery.

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