In 2018, I gave a talk on Islamophobia at a Catholic university. Afterward, a man walked toward the stage to speak with me. He carried a stack of printouts, bound with a large clip and annotated with yellow and pink Post-it notes. He introduced himself and said, “I agree with you that Islamophobia is real and it’s a problem. But what about,”— he held up the stack of papers —“Christian persecution by Muslims? That’s a problem, too. What are Muslims doing about it?”
After another talk I gave around the same time, an audience member stood up during the Q&A. I’d been speaking about my experiences of interfaith dialogue with Muslims — what I’d learned, how I’d grown spiritually, and why I thought my fellow Catholics would benefit from similar interfaith engagement. “Are there any Muslims who do what you do?” The person asked. “Are there Muslims who reach out to Christians and promote dialogue and understanding in their own communities?” I’ve since heard numerous variations of this question at other speaking engagements.
I was initially puzzled by these questions and frustrated by the underlying premise. “Why should it matter what Muslims are doing?” I thought to myself. “Even if Muslims weren’t doing good for us — which they are — we have a responsibility to do good for them anyway.”
Yet the recurrence of this sentiment has helped me see that we’ve overlooked something important in the work of Muslim-Christian bridgebuilding. For years, my colleagues and I have not fully appreciated human beings’ psychological need for reciprocity. And because we’ve overlooked this need, our efforts have suffered. Let me explain
Social psychologists have identified that human behavior is often dictated by the norm of reciprocity. When a person or group does something good for you, you, the recipient, will feel obligated to do something good for them in return. The opposite can also be true: if that person or group is not doing anything good for you, you may not feel obligated to be kind to them. The norm also means people expect their generosity will be reciprocated but feel snubbed when they feel like it isn’t.
"SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGISTS HAVE IDENTIFIED THAT HUMAN BEHAVIOR IS OFTEN DICTATED BY THE NORM OF RECIPROCITY."
This dynamic underlies the questions I often hear from Christians, and it explains, at least in part, why many Christians seem so hesitant to concern themselves with anti-Muslim discrimination. They have the perception that Muslims aren’t doing good for them, and so they feel no obligation to help Muslims.
Of course, this is a false perception. There are myriad ways that Muslims — both in the U.S. and around the world, and throughout history — have stood with and defended Christians (and other groups) amid the usual struggles of daily life and in precarious situations of life and death. They do this not just as individual acts of goodwill, but as an expression of their Islamic faith. The trouble is many Christians are unaware of these good deeds and the admirable Muslim individuals who undertake them. Instead, they primarily hear in the news about the tiny sliver of Muslims who have engaged in acts of violence. Many Christians would be hard pressed to name any Muslims (other than, say, Malala Yousafzai and Muhammad Ali) of whom they have a positive view.
If my colleagues and I hope to improve Muslim-Christian relations and combat Islamophobia, it is imperative we correct this false perception. We must show those in our own religious fold that there are indeed countless Muslims who are concerned with Christian well-being, who are combating Christian persecution, and who are promoting dialogue and understanding. Only then will our ask — that Christians “reciprocate” and concern themselves with problems like Islamophobia — not fall flat.
The fact that this must be part of our course of action frustrates me — because, on a moral level, it should not matter whether Muslims are reciprocating. The Golden Rule is not, “Treat others well, but only if they do something nice for you first.” But unfortunately, this implicit psychological tendency often drives human action. So if we want to be successful in our bridgebuilding efforts, we need to take seriously the need for reciprocation and adapt our approach to this insight.
How can we do this in concrete ways? In my writing and speaking, I make sure to give examples of Muslim individuals and communities, both in history and present day, who do good for Christians and the world. Here are a few I use: In Morocco in 2016, Muslim clergy from around the world gathered to advocate for improved protection of minority religious communities in Muslim-majority countries. On the U.S.-Mexico border, American Muslim leaders advocate for the rights of detained migrants, many of whom are Christian. In Mosul, Iraq, after ISIS was pushed out, Muslim residents of the city insisted that two historic Catholic churches be included in the UNESCO rebuilding project. The Muslim Student Association at Georgetown University spent a Thanksgiving break restoring a run-down church. In Amman, Jordan, a Muslim family orchestrated a surprise Christmas celebration — complete with gifts and a tree — for a family who could not celebrate that year. And around the world, Muslim theologians draw on religious texts and centuries of tradition to construct theologies of interfaith hospitality.
"THE NORM [OF RECIPROCITY] ALSO MEANS PEOPLE EXPECT THEIR GENEROSITY WILL BE RECIPROCATED BUT FEEL SNUBBED WHEN THEY FEEL LIKE IT ISN'T."
But I didn’t always know to take this approach. Earlier in my career, I focused primarily on giving examples of Catholic pioneers of dialogue with Muslims. Providing these examples is certainly important in order to normalize the kind of outreach we want to call our fellow Christians to. But now I also include — and try to start with — the stories about Muslims who are exemplars of interfaith collaboration and solidarity. When I only focused on cases from my own Christian community, I was unwittingly adding to the perception of an imbalance, making it seem that Christians were being overly generous while Muslims were not reciprocating.
The media also has a role to play. In Christian publications, I often read stories about the good we do for others, including Muslims. But it’s far more rare to come across coverage of Muslim good deeds, or of Muslim individuals who do good for us. I encourage Christian journalists and writers of all stripes to expand their coverage to include these kind of stories. I am collecting accounts of diverse, admirable Muslim figures in the hopes of elevating their profiles in Christian communities.
While highlighting the evidence of Muslim reciprocation, we can also remind our fellow Christians that God calls us to do good for others not because we expect them to return the favor, but simply because it is right. As St. Ignatius Loyola once said, “We are called to give, and not to count the cost.” We are also to remember Jesus’ instruction that what ultimately matters in God’s eyes is that we serve and accompany the most vulnerable (Matthew 25:31–40). Indeed, when we do good for others, it is as if we are doing it for Christ; it is an opportunity for an encounter with God.
Jordan Denari Duffner is an author and scholar of Muslim-Christian relations, interreligious dialogue, and Islamophobia. She wrote Finding Jesus among Muslims: How Loving Islam Makes Me a Better Catholic (2017) and Islamophobia: What Christians Should Know (and Do) about Anti-Muslim Discrimination (2021). Jordan is currently pursuing a PhD in Theological and Religious Studies at Georgetown University.