Interfaith Interaction: Global dialogue builds bridge for religiously tolerant future

In his new book Acts of Faith, Eboo Patel writes that the premier conflict of the 21st century will be over faith – not necessarily between different religions but rather between the totalitarians and pluralists within those religions. Examples of totalitarian groups are Al-Qaeda, the Christian Identity Movement, and Aum Shrinrikyo. Their members are people who, as Hishem Melham said during his Athenaeum speech on terrorism, “believe that they are 100% right and you are 100% wrong.” This mindset exists because of lack of understanding and fear of others and their traditions. Therefore, the best way to fight terrorism and religious totalitarianism is to embrace a more pluralistic society. Unfortunately, the movement towards pluralism and interfaith cooperation can sometimes be stalled by fear of “the other.”

This summer, controversy erupted over the construction of the Cordoba House – now renamed Park 51 – a couple blocks of away from Ground Zero. Costing an estimated $100 million to build, Park 51 is a proposed Islamic community center featuring state-of-the-art facilities including a 500-seat auditorium, swimming pool, gym, basketball court, restaurant, art exhibition, childcare services, 9/11 memorial, and mosque. Those behind Park 51, a group led by the progressive Imam Feisal Abdul-Rauf, hope to use their project to empower the Muslim community of New York, pursue social justice initiatives, encourage open discussion and dialogue on issues of relevance, and promote greater understanding of Islam via interfaith dialogue. Despite these noble objectives, the construction of this mosque spawned a national controversy. Part of the controversy is understandable given the lingering national anguish over the events of 9/11. Some of the vitriol, however, demonstrates a brand of totalitarianism that is nonviolent but intolerant nonetheless. Fortunately, the protesters who have assembled at the construction site betray the cause of their fury: ignorance. We know this because their signs include slogans like “No Clubhouse for Terrorists,” “Stop the Islamification of America,” “Islam=Terror,” and “All I need to know about Islam, I learned on 9/11.”

This is not the only incident of a controversy over a proposed mosque or over Islam itself. Other controversies over proposed mosques have gained prominence in Tennessee, New York, Wisconsin, Georgia, Kentucky, California, and Illinois. In Gainesville, FL, a nondenominational church’s plans to hold an “International Burn a Qur’an Day” on September 11 were narrowly thwarted after riots in Pakistan and direct pleas from President Obama and General Petraeus. Muslims have become victims of numerous hate crimes, from a cab driver being stabbed after stating he was Muslim to a case of arson at a mosque in Tennessee. Ron Ramsey, a Republican candidate for governor of Tennessee, called Islam a “cult” which does not qualify for First Amendment protection. Tea Party Express chairman Mark Williams called Park 51 a monument to the 9/11 attackers, providing a place “for the worship of the terrorists’ monkey-god.”

These are just a few examples of what appears to be a growing trend of Islamophobia in the United States. If only Islamophobes would read the book they are burning, I believe that a lot of controversies regarding Islam in America would dissipate. A recent Pew survey on religion revealed that only 50% of Americans have ever met a Muslim. Certainly, we can infer a correlation between this poll and another one which found that 30% of Americans believe Islam is a religion that encourages violence.

On his website, Newt Gingrich posted that “America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization.” Gingrich and his supporters perceive a threat to the core American values that simply does not exist. According to a study by researchers at Duke University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the terrorist threat posed by radicalized Muslim-Americans has been drastically exaggerated. Imam Feisal Abdul-Rauf emphatically states that “we [Muslims] condemn terrorists. We recognize it exists in faith but we are committed to eradicate it.” Indeed, the true way to undermine and destroy our civilization would be to reject our traditional core values of tolerance and pluralism. The Muslims of Park 51 are not seeking to establish Sharia law in the United States. Nor do they intend to contribute to Al-Qaeda’s global insurgency. Instead, they wish to combat the extremists and totalitarians within their own faith, something every American can get behind.

Policies and practices that treat Muslim-Americans as part of the problem rather than the solution are born of ignorance. Fortunately, there are organizations that recognize and combat this problem such as the Interfaith Youth Core, the Cordoba House, the Harvard Plurality Project, and Scriptural Reasoning. These kinds of organizations encourage people of all faiths to embrace the American tradition of plurality. Through education, they help not only to prevent the spread of Islamophobia and intolerance but also to diminish the strength of Islamic extremists who use any oppressive or hypocritical action by the West as a recruitment tool. Most of these organizations also emphasize community service initiatives, as most religions encourage combating social injustice and poverty. President Obama recognized the importance of the growing interfaith movement by signing a 2009 executive order to create the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Working together, these groups will not only create a more harmonious future for local communities but will also help young people establish firm religious identities based on mutual respect.

College campuses have been at the center of this new interfaith movement. As of 2009, the aforementioned Interfaith Youth Core has had a presence on over 50 campuses including Stanford University and St. Mary’s College of California. On June 10, the Claremont School of Theology announced that it was going “interfaith” and formed teaching partnerships with a Jewish academy and an Islamic center. The school will feature classes in which future imams, rabbis, and pastors will study together and hopefully learn from each other.

The Claremont Colleges have also embraced interfaith cooperation to some extent. The McAlister Center for Religious Activities has a chapel that is notably interfaith and invites all people to develop their understanding of religion. One of the most recent interfaith events was “The Eid Al-Fitr Celebration,” which the 5C Muslim Student Association and Hillel jointly hosted. Father Joe Fenton of the Office of Chaplains told the Port Side the event was a major success with a great turnout of people from a variety of religious backgrounds. Additionally, the Claremont Colleges feature a variety of Ecumenical organizations like Uprising, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, and Populist Christi. What the Claremont Colleges lack is a student organization similar to the Harvard Plurality Project, which combines service and inter-religious cooperation. In this respect, Father Fenton acknowledged that there was a place for such an organization that encourages inter-religious dialogue.

It is remarkable to see prejudices disappear once someone takes the time to learn from someone else. To share a personal example, one of my mother’s most vivid childhood memories is of a burning cross placed directly across from a Catholic Church attended by people of Polish descent in Baldwinville, MA. A Protestant faction on the other side of town had put it there. It was a violent and terrifying image, which sent a clear message that the Polish were not welcome. Members of the Polish community, however, were deterred neither by this effigy nor by the local polarization. They recognized that the American Dream is pluralist. Funny thing about Baldwinville, MA – today, the town enjoys a relative harmony between those of different faiths. The visions of the totalitarians were swept away once the people grew to know one another as a community with shared core values of compassion and charity. A helpful reminder to those who would seek to divide us in order to score politically expedient points: history favors those who build bridges rather than burn them.

Andy Willis is a sophomore Claremont Mckenna majoring in Religious Studies and Government. He is a Staff Writer and Beat Reporter for the Port Side. He has no idea where this college experience will lead him, but has a definite feeling it will be a place both wonderful and strange.

7 Responses to “Interfaith Interaction: Global dialogue builds bridge for religiously tolerant future”

  1. Shylock says:

    Go live in a Muslim country for awhile and see how they see you and your spouse. Then re-read the bullshit you wrote here.

    • Meg says:

      Shylock, oh my word what a wonderful, intelligent, and insightful comment. All of two well-constructed sentences. Bravo Shylock. And throwing in the word “bullshit?” Them fightin’ words Shylock! And that is your real name, isn’t it? You wouldn’t be hiding under a pseudonym, would you? You’d want to stand by your comments with your real name, right? Or did you finish your freshmen seminar midterm and thought you’d try to add an obvious literary allusion to your intelligent response. Your parents must be awfully proud Shylock.

      I’m curious Shylock, what made you this enlightened to the world and its struggles? You think that one trip around the world will open the eyes of the author of this article to the fact that ACK! people are different, be afraid, be very afraid of other people. Strange, like the author of this article, I’ve always enjoyed meeting people from different backgrounds and finding that we both enjoy Battlestar Galactica even though we eat different things for breakfast, wear different clothing, and vote for different candidates. Xenophobia isn’t cool Shylock. It isn’t the answer to a happy world. It is the answer to a destructive, post-apocalyptic world, but who wants that? Have you read the Walking Dead? Things do not end well for those folks!

      There’s similar ground to be found with all faiths and ethnicities of this world. We’re all human beings, and oh my goodness, I might just throw a little Shakespeare your way. Wasn’t it Shylock who said: “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?” And unless you are a robot we all have that pesky being mortal (and ticklish) thing in common. So if anything, there’s that as common ground. We all live and we all die. Beyond that, we might even find common ground in enjoying NBC’s Thursday night comedy lineup and believing that wise old Jedi Yoda’s saying “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Don’t go to the dark side Shylock! The xenophobia demonstrated in your comment is the dark side pal, and Vader isn’t one for taking on padawans.

      Shylock, we might be from different backgrounds and obviously have different ideas of how to conduct ourselves on the internet, but I dig Shakespeare too. Or do you just like Al Pacino? I like him to, though I’m more into his earlier roles than his more recent ones. I didn’t like him as Shylock, it was a little bit phoned-in if we are going to be honest here.

      But maybe, one day you and I will see eye to eye Shylock. Unless you’re a robot Shylock, then I just don’t see how we could ever be friends.


  2. apoorva says:

    he has… for all his life up till now. so…suck it?

  3. ala says:

    A great article Andy! But with all my due respect to you, I have to disagree with you on some points you mentioned. IN particular, the definition of what you called them as extremests and/or terrorists in the religion of Islam like “Al Qaaida” group they represent, unfortunately, the true or real side of Islam.
    What we should work on now through education and tolerance, is the “new” face of other words the modern Islam which is different than the Islam written in the books.

    I would like to explain more, and I will but now is not possible..

  4. Ray Robinson says:

    Andy, this article was sent to me by friends of your father. I am quite impressed with your command of the language and writing skill. You make some valid and interesting points but I think you only covered half of the subject. In order for the mutual understanding and respect you advocate to become fact it must go both ways. What you and every other supporter of understanding and acceptance of Muslim advancement in America and for that matter Europe talk about is what we need to do. Think about the other side of the coin. I know you grew up in Saudi. How many christian churches were there off the compound? How many Synagogues. I am sure you see what I mean. I support mutual understanding and respect but it must be mutual. I do not see any attempt to meet half way in the Muslim world. Perhaps that is where you should try to present your message.

    • LG says:

      Mr. Robinson, I disagree with the opinion that one has to moderate, qualify or compromise one’s identity in order to accept “the other.” Whereas Western nations have modernized by separating church from state (and, indeed, from civil society), in many other cultures, faith is an integral part of nationhood – separating it out as one would an egg yolk from its white is simply not an option. This is clearly the case in many Middle Eastern countries. It’s even true of Tibet, a non-sovereign nation much further east, which is represented in the hearts of the world by a mild-mannered spiritual leader. His religious views are certainly more lovable than, for instance, the expectation that, when in Riyadh, we do as the Saudis do. However, these are measures designed to keep the Middle Eastern Muslim identity intact.

      Expecting China to open up a McDonald’s in Tiananmen Square, or Cuba to welcome back free enterprise, is not nearly as imperious as insisting that Islam in the Middle East become milder if it wants a seat at the 21st-century table. I believe Andy has also lived in Kuala Lumpur and thus might agree with me that the Muslim world – if we count Malaysia, as well as Indonesia – has indeed met the modern, Western, secular world halfway. Many Muslim voters want to Westernize, but many don’t. All have a right to their full identity.

      Bridge-building must at least start on one end, if starting simultaneously at both proves impossible. The strengths of Western identity are well-known: it is broad-minded, not insular; proactive, not passive; critical, not judgmental. These are traits that build bridges. Don’t just wait for the other side to start.


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