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- 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: Youtube).

The event received campus-wide support, from administrators, support services, and student groups. It received significant Internet coverage ( of-understanding-religion-in-global-society.php;;; ), 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: 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.” ( 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!