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The Importance of Multi-faith Understanding & the Dangers of Religious Ignorance

On  February 3, 2013, the  College of William & Mary hosted a full-day seminar titled “The Importance of Multi-Faith Understanding and  the  Dangers of Religious Ignorance” in  honor of World  Interfaith Harmony Week.   Organized by  I-Faith,  a small student-run club,  it was supported by  a broad coalition of  campus organizations and  offices, including the  Center for  Student Diversity, the  Office of Diversity and  Community Initiatives,  the  Charles Center for  excellence in interdisciplinary  academic initiatives, the  Reves Center for  International Studies,  the Class of 2013, and  Balfour-Hillel  Jewish student organization, Campus Catholic Ministries, and  Wesley  Campus Ministry.

The seminar was open to all  members of the  campus and  surrounding communities, and  was offered as  a one-credit course for  students who wanted to participate in follow-up discussion groups, based on  the  seminar presentations and  readings assigned by  speakers.   Those who signed up  for  the  seminar credit will produce papers on  each seminar presentation (with its  readings), as  well as  a final paper based on  the  entire program and  accompanying readings.   Seventy  students signed up  for  the  seminar credit and  are  currently completing the  assigned readings and discussion group papers.  Approximately fifty  additional students and  community members participated in  the  February 3rd event.   Attendees  came from as  far as Norfolk, Virginia.

 The seminar was introduced by  the  president of the  College of William & Mary, R. Taylor Reveley.   President Reveley set  the  tone for  the  project,  stating that  “among all  [the] motivators of human behavior, I think a strong case can  be  made that  the most pervasive  and  dominant influence  on  human behavior has  been religion. Religion seems to have been at least as  crucial as  the  drive for  power.”

President Reveley also called attention to the  misguided choice of many Western universities to avoid teaching about religion in the  mid-20th century.   “The thought was that  all things religious belonged to a benighted past, that  we had  come increasingly to live in a secular world, free of superstition, devoted to the  scientific method, and  that, while there might be  some faith-based activity left, it was eroding fast  and  no  longer a meaningful force in national and  international affairs; thus, religion was certainly not  worth much teaching or  research in  first-tier colleges and universities.”   This marginalization of religion was, President Reveley  continued, not only out  of touch with the  rising importance of religion  in many parts of the  world but, in  fact,  contrary to the  realities even in  the  United States.  Religion increasingly informs public life in the  U.S. on  ethical issues such as  contraception and  the  death penalty, intellectual issues such as  the  teaching of science, and  personal inquiry into the  ultimate issues such as  the  purpose of existence.    Noting that  answers to questions such as  these can  impact humanity in  very positive ways, President Reveley noted that  failure to understand other communities’  attitudes can  have very negative consequences for  the  human community, leading to intolerance and  even oppression.  “So, friends,” he  concluded, “religion matters!”

The first presenter was Col. Lawrence Wilkerson,  Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and  Public Policy at the  College of William & Mary.   His last  positions in  government were as  Secretary of State Colin Powell’s  Chief of Staff  (2002-05), Associate Director of the  State Department’s Policy Planning staff  under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and  member of that  staff  responsible for  East Asia and  the  Pacific, political-military and  legislative  affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the  State Department,  Col. Wilkerson served 31 years in  the  U.S. Army.   During that  time, he  was a member of the  faculty of the  U.S. Naval War College (1987 to  1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he  was Chairman of the  Joint Chiefs of Staff  (1989-93), and  Director and  Deputy Director of the  U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97).  Col. Wilkerson retired from active service  in  1997 as  a colonel, and  began work as  an advisor to General Powell.  He has  also taught national security  affairs in  the  Honors Program at the George Washington University.   He is currently working on  a book about the  first George W. Bush administration.

In his address, “The Consequences of NOT Studying Religions’  Role in Global Affairs,” Col. Wilkerson cautioned against being fooled by  those who manipulate religion in order to suit their own agendas.  Non-Muslims  must not  be  fooled by  militant Muslims who cast  their political ideologies  in  religious terms, just as Muslims must not  be  fooled when American leaders use religious terminology to characterize their military agendas. Col. Wilkerson observed that  inflammatory language, such as former President George W. Bush’s  use of the  term “crusade” for  what was later termed a “war on  terror,” and  derogatory remarks about Islam such as  those offered Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin, were understandably confused by  many Muslims with mainstream American and  Christian positions and, in  some cases, incited militant reactions.  The study of religion, including its  uses and  misuses, could prevent such disastrous developments.   Referring to readings he  had  assigned from a text  titled Religion,  The Missing Dimension of Statecraft (ed. Douglas Johnston and  Cynthia Sampson; Oxford University  Press, 1995), Col. Wilkerson  suggested that the  religious understanding could be  useful both for  clearly understanding the motivations of combatants, and  in  conflict resolution.

The second speaker was Dr. Shireen Hunter,  currently Visiting Professor and Lecturer in  Political Science at  Georgetown University, received an B.A. in International Law and  Political Science from University of Tehran, an M.A. in International Relations from London School of  Economics, and  a Ph.D. in  Political Science  from the  Graduate Institute of International Studies in  Geneva.  She then served in  Iran’s Foreign Ministry, moving to Washington after  the  1979 Iranian Revolution.  There she served as  director of the  Islam Program at the  Center for Strategic International Studies.   She has  also served as  director of the  Mediterranean Studies Program at the  Centre for  European Policy Studies;  guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, and  research fellow at Harvard’s Center for  International Affairs. Her articles have appeared in  numerous journals, and  she has  published 15 books, including Islam and Human Rights, CSIS Press, 2005; Modernization, Democracy, and Islam, Praeger, 2005; Islam in Russia, M.E. Sharpe, 2004; Islam: Europe’s  Second Religion, Praeger, 2002; and  The Future of Islam-West Relations: Clash of Civilizations or Peaceful Coexistence? CSIS/Praeger, 1998.

Dr. Hunter agreed that  religious understanding is  essential for  those seeking to understand global affairs.  However, she cautioned against overemphasizing the  role of religion, particularly in  conflict situations.   She said that  political actors are motivated by  two factors:  values and  interests.  In order to  understand people’s values, the  study of religion is critical.  But people’s  interests often lead them to violate their own purported values.  Like Col. Wilkerson,  she concluded that  the study of religion would allow observers to  distinguish between actions or  policies that  are  religiously  motivated and  those that  are  motivated by  economic or  political exigencies.  This distinction would then prevent the  complications that  inevitably develop  when analysts level  criticisms against a people’s  religion rather than  their governments’ pragmatic agendas.   As an example, she suggested that  the  study of Islam by  Samuel Huntington could have prevented his now discredited  “clash of civilizations” hypothesis and  the  arguably disastrous political consequences  of its influence on  Neoconservative policies.

Dr. Lawrence Forman was our final speaker.   Dr. Forman is  Rabbi Emeritus at Ohef Sholom Temple in Norfolk and  founder of the  Institute for  Jewish Studies and Interfaith Understanding at Old Dominion University.   He was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish  Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, where he  also received  an M.A. in  Hebrew Letters and  a Doctor of Divinity degree.   He also received an M.A. in Religion and  Philosophy from case Western Reserve  University,  and  a Ph.D. from Boston University’s  School of Theology.    Rabbi Forman served as  Post Jewish Chaplain in the  U.S. Army, where he  attained the  rank of Captain, and  has  received numerous award and  honors including the  Brotherhood Citation of the  National Conference of Christians and  Jews, the  Lion of Judah Award from the  National Israel Bonds Association, and  in  November 2012 was awarded the  Rumi Forum Award for outstanding service  to improve  interfaith dialogue toward healing and understanding  among the  various faith  traditions.  He is currently writing a book identifying a place in religious life for  those who seek to examine religion  from a spiritual and  scientific perspective.

Rabbi Forman’s presentation shifted the  discussion  from political and  diplomatic concerns to the  level of personal and  community interactions.   He emphasized the importance of understanding the  great and  eternal debt that  religious communities owe one another.   Concentrating on  the  Abrahamic tradition, he  stressed the commitment to justice shared by  Jews, Christians, and  Muslims.   Dialogue among these communities would reveal these great commonalities, ideally resulting in mutual respect and  compassion.  And how much more effective could each community be, working in  tandem with others who share their values!   Likening religious exclusivism  with totalitarianism, he  argued that  communities who value justice must work together to improve the  living standards of all; it is  a shared religious  mandate and  a practical means to prevent desperation that  can  lead to violence.

Each presentation was followed by  a question and  answer session, and  at the conclusion of the  third presentation, Col. Wilkerson, Rabbi Forman, and  faculty sponsor Tamara Sonn led a discussion on  the  overall program.  Students grilled speakers for  more details on  how to encourage interfaith understanding, particularly for  minority communities, and  enthusiastically offered suggestions for further interfaith events.   Some observed  that  the  study of religion should be factored into their own disciplines,  such as  International Relations and  Sociology. Others suggested that  future presentations  might focus on  the  role of religion in the military or  in  business.   One hoped that  future presentations could discuss practical examples of the  successes and  failures of religious dialogue.

The day’s event ended with a reminder of the  associated Interfaith Service  Trip, scheduled for  February 16, 2013.   Recognizing the  importance of transforming interfaith understanding into collective  action for  the  common good, I-Faith worked with Pathways, an organization that  grew from multi-belief  engagement to meet the health, education and  job needs in  Petersburg, Virginia (http://www.pathways- va.org/mission/).  Petersburg, an important hub of African-American life both in  the U.S. Civil War and  the  Civil Rights Movement, currently has  one of the  nation’s highest poverty  rates among children.   The goal  of the  trip is  both to help this community and  to allow participants to deepen their experience of shared values in action.  Sixteen students volunteered for  this project.

Overall, we consider the  event a major success.   I-Faith is  a small student organization. Its five active members were able to transform their commitment to interfaith understanding into an event of major significance for  our campus and  the surrounding local and  regional communities. (In response to multiple requests,  a

17-minute précis of our day-long WIHW event has  been posted on  YouTube for  those who were not  able to attend: http://youtu.be/0FzOXge2KZg)   The event received campus-wide  support, from administrators, support services, and  student groups.   It received  significant Internet coverage (http://www.wm.edu/news/stories/2013/i-faith-conference-explores-importance- of-understanding-religion-in-global-society.php; multifaith.blogspot.com; http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-316150516.html; http://www.interfaithspace.org/events.htm ), and  I-Faith attracted a number of

new members.   Most importantly, the  College expressed support for  making this an annual event.   Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC:   www.ifyc.org/) has offered assistance in building “campus ecologies that  promote interfaith cooperation, equip campus leaders to set  a vision for  interfaith effort, and  inspire

students to take action.”   (Amber Hacker, Director of Alumni Relations, Interfaith Youth Core, email 2/8/13.)   Already a similar event has  been planned for  this year: “What You Do Matters Collegiate:   A  Leadership  Summit on  Hate Speech, Media Literacy, and  Civic Engagement.”   (http://wydmcollegiate.webs.com/)   And post- event discussion groups continue to be  well-attended.   As a result of such positive reception and  widespread support, I-Faith is  currently planning for  next year’s WIHW!