On Nov. 8, Sulayman Nyang, a professor from Howard University, gave a talk here entitled “Post 9/11: Muslim-Christian Relations at a Crossroads” as part of the lecture series “Global Fear/Global Fury: Engaging Muslims.” Nyang, a proponent of interfaith dialogue, spoke about the history of Muslims in America and the value of communication between religions.
Naeem Inayatullah, professor of politics at IC, was the faculty respondent. He took quite a different position on interfaith dialogue, one that, in this age of political correctness and diversity education, was challenging. Interfaith dialogue, he said, is usually useless. The models of dialogue that we see today usually consist of two groups, each assuming they have a monopoly on religious truth, coming together to notice their differences. There is rarely an acknowledgement of political realities or historical inequalities, and rarely does either side come away questioning its own beliefs. What, Inayatullah asked, is the use of that?
To many, Inayatullah’s position may seem needlessly cynical. But his argument brought up complexities that are often overlooked. Do we brush over rather than engage the real differences between our values and traditions? In our approach to religious tolerance, are we too quick to adopt a utopian view of the world?
The need for peaceful coexistence between religious groups is as evident now as it’s ever been. The situation in Iraq has deteriorated even further and faster, as the brutal fighting between Sunni and Shiite Muslims has become a de-facto civil war. Nearby in Lebanon, the aftermath of this summer’s war with Israel has shaken the delicate balance of that country’s Christian, Shi’a, Sunni and Druze communities. After the assassination of a Christian government minister, there is talk of civil war there as well. The Pope recently traveled to Turkey to try to mend his relationship with the Muslims there, after his insensitive comments about Islam in September provoked violent responses around the world.
Religious extremism is at least partly to blame for all of these examples. As always, extremists are playing on fears and ignorance to promote their divisive and often violent agendas. And as Maggie Fisk writes, religious people don’t have a monopoly on fundamentalism. The New Atheists take an approach that is similar in many ways to that of their religious counterparts.
Closer to home, religious differences can be a source of anxiety for members of our own community. Erika Spaet reports on how IC’s Muslim community deals with marginalization and negative stereotypes.
But while the negative effects of organized religion are well-documented, there are also countless examples throughout history of religion inspiring movements for peace and justice. Professor Brian Karafin recalls the activism in the 1960s of the Catholics Daniel Berrigan and Thomas Merton and the Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh. Today faith inspires the work of Calvin DeWitt, an evangelical environmentalist interviewed in this issue.
Clearly, religion’s influences are far-reaching and complex. But as Inayatullah argued, we often have a flawed approach to communicating with one another about religious issues. While abandoning communication altogether seems unproductive, we need a restructuring of the lines of communication between religious groups in order for tolerance to be meaningful.
On a secular, progressive college campus, religion is sometimes dismissed as foolish or at least overlooked. But whether we write it off as myth or embrace a particular tradition, religion is still an inescapable and powerful force in our society. Therefore it’s worth our time and energy to look at it seriously.