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Dr. Kelly James Clark talks with Peace Talks Radio host Suzanne Kryder.
Suzanne Kryder: Where do you find hope?
Kelly James Clark: I went to Indonesia and every single person I met with, including the leaders of the two biggest Muslim organizations in the world, every single person I met with wanted to work together for peace and that gives me hope.
Kryder: I think you said though in the conference that they said, “Hey, can you come back another time and bring us all together?” and you said, “Well, why can’t you just get together yourselves?” What is that? Why is it that we need some neutral force or external force to bring people together?
Clark: I view human beings as really tribal where we hang around with people like ourselves. The funny thing is you might think Muslim was a big enough way for people to be like themselves, but no, you’ve got Shiites and Sunnis. Or you might think Christian is enough to bring people together, but you’ve got Protestants and Catholics and conservatives and liberals and Baptists. There are just these whole spectrums and we’re suspicious of people that aren’t like us. I think it’s just built into human beings to want to be around people who are like us and then to be suspicious of people who aren’t. And it’s not a Muslim problem, Christians have the same problem and Jews have the same problem.
Kryder: Some critics might say well, why do we have to do this in the arena of faith? Why can’t people just get together and work for peace? What fuels your belief that we can use religion as a way to work towards peace?
Clark: I guess I’m in favor of anything and anybody who works for peace, but the reason I think we need to appeal to religion is that people are religious and there are lots of religious people and you just can’t ignore that. It seems to me a lot of people in the West have ignored the importance of the role of religion. It really animates lots of people’s lives. It’s the fundamental motivating force in many people’s lives, but we in the West have done Western liberal rationalistic defenses of this or that and they’re suspicious of that, and they’re rightly suspicious of that outside the West because that’s also gone hand in hand with Colonialism. It’s gone hand in hand with a certain kind of liberal Western value. So there are things they don’t value. There are things they’re suspicious of and rightly so. And so if you want to appeal to religious people around the world, you have to appeal to what they value.
Kryder: I’m talking to you at the Berkley Center which is at Georgetown University and you’ve organized a conference that’s entitled Abraham’s Children: Liberty and Tolerance in an Age of Religious Conflict. What’s your deepest concern? What motivated you to create this conference?
Clark: Well, there are two things that motivated it. One is; after 9/11 I began to think that philosophy needs to be a lot more practical. I’m a philosophy professor. We think big abstract thoughts and then we write them down and nobody reads what we write, or a few philosophers read what we write. We make no difference to the world. Philosophy bakes no bread as they say.
But I was thinking about things in the area of religious liberty and tolerance that I thought could be of use in the world and so I thought; let’s do a book that appeals not to academics, let’s do a book that appeals to basically 18 and 19 year olds. Why 18 or 19 year olds? It’s a really formative period in people’s lives and it’s where, for example a young person might decide to become a suicide bomber or a young person might decide to become a seeker of justice and peace. It’s a really crucial stage for people to decide what kind of person they want to become.
Hedieh Mirahmadi talks with Peace Talks Radio host Suzanne Kryder.
Kryder: You’re speaking today at a conference at the Berkley Center on interfaith tolerance. What kind of solutions have you discovered over your 20 years of work?
Mirahmadi: The solutions have changed. They’ve evolved. I think in the beginning when I first started my work, understanding what Islam was to begin with was important so we needed to lay a foundation between Muslims and non-Muslims understanding what Muslims believe and how it differs and how it’s similar to other Abrahamic faiths. Now I’m really concerned about community cohesion and building resilience against extremists on all ends; Muslim and non-Muslim. So I tried to emphasize interfaith activism meaning communities of Muslims and non-Muslims coming together, being of service to humanity, breaking bread together, having a conversation with one another about their families, inviting each other into our homes and hoping to build a cohesive American society that includes people of all faiths. So it goes beyond dialogue into activism.
Kryder: How successful have you been with that? I’m thinking wow, I’ve got enough going on and then we’re going to spend more time talking with people of a completely religious view. How do you motivate people to spend time doing that?
Mirahmadi: Well you know what’s interesting? Children are a motivator because I am a mother and I know a lot of the people I come across are parents and they’re also noticing that our children are being affected by the isolation. In other words, children are becoming increasingly isolated into their own communities or their own faith groups and are becoming hostile to the others and are having negative perceptions of the others and that concerns me as a parent.
So I think other people that are concerned about compassion and tolerance and these ideas of acceptance and the social fabric of our country will start to be concerned about that too. It’s not instinctual necessarily for everyone, but I think we will see that’s the direction the country is moving and I’m happy to see that.
Kryder: In some of the comments today, people have been talking about the possibility of reinterpreting some of the original religious writings or religious teachings. What’s your view about that?
Mirahmadi: Really important. I mean Islam has always evolved and adapted based on the cultures it came into contact with. We believe in traditional Islam that Islam is capable of adapting throughout the ages, throughout the centuries. It doesn’t need to be reinvented, it needs to be reconsidered and it needs to be interpreted by scholars that are capable and have the intellectual theological background to help a community adapt to a new environment. And so it’s a really important concept and I definitely support that.
Kryder: How does that happen though because it seems like fundamentalists would say well that’s the wrong thing to do; you can’t just start from scratch, you just can’t make up –
Mirahmadi: No, you can’t start from scratch. Absolutely we don’t start from scratch. For example, Sheikh Albani, a famous scholar here in the United States, just launched a fatwa against domestic violence and what he did was he reinterpreted, based on Arabic linguistics, the references within the Koran, the sayings of the prophet and tradition that has existed for 1,400 years, to come up with this fatwa today in the 21st century that redefined a term that has been historically defined in a very different way. So he definitely did not disavow all the scripture and all the information out there, he just saw it in a different way. We came up with the expression it’s not thinking outside the box, it’s expanding the box in which we think.
Kryder: Hedieh, what are some resources within the Muslim tradition that can be supportive of tolerance?
Mirahmadi: Oh goodness, I cite to a dozen of them in my presentation. I cite from the Koran and the Commandments of God directly about respecting religious diversity and that God did not make all human beings the same. He made us nations and tribes to know each other.
I cite from the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad himself, creating the pact of Medina with the Jewish and Pagan tribes giving them equal rights and protection against discrimination and protection in times of war.
I cite the Sultan of Morocco giving an edict about protecting the Jewish population and their artisans to be paid equal wages and for them to be able to participate in civil service. It’s existed throughout history, but unfortunately it is in the past about 100 years. This tradition has been slowly undermined by a fringe group of radical Islamists that want to reinterpret and redefine the way Muslims interact with non-Muslims. So it’s the responsibility of the mainstream Muslim community to reclaim the image of Islam, but we can’t do that without the help of non-Muslims joining hands with Muslims to try to help them overcome the voice of the extremists and the actions of the extremists and to help also our media portray a positive image of the good things that some of the Muslim community members do.
Mirahmadi: Well I’m a Sufi practitioner so we have a philosophy that religions are basically like boats in the ocean trying to get to the other side of the shore and it doesn’t matter what boat you get in, you just get in and you go and you’ll get there as long as you try, as long as you’re paddling.
In my personal and professional life I’m not so concerned about which boat people get into, just the fact that they don’t try to overturn the ones next to them. So that’s really the most important concept is this notion of acceptance; not just tolerating, enduring and putting up with other people, but accepting them and looking over at them in the other boat and being like, “Hey, how are you doing? Are you tired? Are you accomplishing what you need to accomplish?” It has nothing to do with my boat. It has nothing to do with my journey. It is just basically another human being living their life and trying to find their way.
Kryder: Except isn’t there a part of many religions that encourages followers to proselytize or to try to gain new members where we are supposed to like drag somebody else’s boat over and say hey, jump on my boat.
Mirahmadi: Well in Islam we do have a notion of proselytizing but no compulsion. It’s like saying that we think we have a nicer boat and saying well we have a motor and you’re paddling. Don’t you want a motorized boat instead of a paddle? So it’s this notion of trying to bring people to what we believe is a better product or a better path, but there cannot be compulsion in that, so it’s a really fine line between educating people about an alternative and forcing them to accept that alternative.
I don’t think it’s really a Jewish phenomenon. It’s mostly Christian and Muslim’s having that understanding that you can preach the word of God and helping to bring people to that word, but you can’t shove it down their throat and I think that’s important for both our communities to be wary of.
Kryder: Hedieh, what one or two action items or just suggestions maybe to reflect on can you offer to our listeners around this really big issue of interfaith tolerance?
Mirahmadi: Get to know your Muslim neighbors. Attend a local Mosque. Find out how you can feed the homeless together, celebrate Thanksgiving together. We’re hoping in our International Cultural Center to do a Thanksgiving promotion where we ask people to spend Thanksgiving with people that they don’t normally break bread with.
I think again, as I mentioned earlier, the notions of what it means to be American needs to be people of all faiths and I would like to see people reaching beyond their own doors and their own communities to get to know people of other faiths and other traditions. So that’s an important action item to me.
And to respond to media in a very simple way; when you see an article that you think is truly offensive to people of any faith, send a comment, blog about it, Facebook about it that you dislike the article, that it was offensive and it was inappropriate. Write to CNN when you think a piece is inappropriate. I think if we start to challenge the media to be a little more responsible, they may listen.
Nurit Peled-Elhanan talks with Peace Talks Radio host Suzanne Kryder.
Suzanne Kryder: You’ve used the word “heterophobia.” Talk about that. What is that?
Nurit Peled Elhanan: Heterophobia is a phobia from strangers. It’s the fear of strangers. I used it because I think you become racist when you don’t know anything about the other and then you become very afraid, phobic about the other and then you become hateful and aggressive towards the other.
I believe that in Israel and also in America people are educated in heterophobia; the other, the horrible other, the Muslim masses, those blacks, those yellows, and it is all a product really of ignorance and of course of political motivations, but which enhance ignorance and lack of communication, of free communication with the other and that leads to racism.
Kryder: What do you see as a solution to that?
Elhanan: Well I think the solution of course is in education because I don’t think children are born racist or heterophobic. I’ll give you an example. I was on sabbatical in London several times and I could see my son’s classes. He was in a neighborhood school and there were many, many children from many countries and faiths and nationalities. Every nationality that was represented in the class was studied and the class went to all the prayer houses of everybody and they learned the history of everybody and a little bit about the writings of everybody, about the blessings of everybody.
I never heard any child calling the other or referring to another by “this black guy,” “this Arab guy,” “this Chinese.” I want to go to my “Chinese” friend. It never happened. They all had first names and that was it and I was amazed by it because it shows that children normally accept other people. They don’t care about differences.
Racism is really the product of a very profound, thorough and sophisticated education, so we can do the other way around if we want to.
Kryder: But when do we need to get started on that because if children don’t have it naturally, at what point do young adults or adults take it on and own it and what can we do about that?
Elhanan: I think children are educated in their homes from a very, very tender age to see the other as negative stereotypes; “we” and “them” and “we are better than them,” “we are white, they are black,” and so on and so forth. So they see it around them, they see it in their own family. I think you have to struggle very hard not to bring it into your home, for example not to allow racist jokes or all these things.
In today’s world I think racism is the dominating discourse everywhere so children catch on as soon as they can start speaking and understanding. The question is how to revise the progress.
Kryder: Nurit , for our listeners who want to be able to take action in their own lives, what are one or two things that you could recommend to them regarding the issue of heterophobia?
Elhanan: First of all I think children should be taught to read and listen critically to things which doesn’t mean they don’t have to study their books or to listen to the teachers, but really to contextualize things, to say this is the document that my government wants me to learn today and I want to know why.
So don’t be satisfied with what you’re given, but always ask; “Why is it there?” “Why is it there now?” and “Why is it there the way it is?” everything you read, everything you say, everything you listen to. If you ask these critical questions, you become a bit distanced from the things that the authorities want to feed you.
For example, war on terror. What is terror exactly? There was a wonderful character that was circulated today; “Terror is anything that stands between America and oil.” But if we get serious, I would say, “What is terror?” Why don’t we call the terrorizing actions of army’s terror? Terror is the reaction of poor, weak people to the huge aggression of big powers.
As an educator I would say teach children to relate critically to everything. Don’t praise them for obedience. Obedience to what? They don’t have to obey a President who is corrupt. They don’t have to obey governments that are known to be corrupt. They don’t have to obey war criminals. They don’t have to obey walls and barriers.
I think the main thing that authorities want us to have is separation lines, so we have to define these separation lines. We have to violate some laws. Not every law is lawful.
I believe this is the core of really teaching critical thinking; just problematize everything. You know this verb “problematize” is very fashionable today, but speaking of faith in Judaism, we’ve had it for 3,000 years. The whole essence of the Talmud is about problematizing things. Every chapter in the Talmud ends with the words, “and they were in disagreement.” Whenever someone is presented, they say he was the disciple of this and the opponent of this and I think there is something to be learned really from these very wise sages; never to take anything for granted and never to believe.
Nick Wolterstorff talks with Peace Talks Radio host Suzanne Kryder.
Kryder: Let’s move towards talking about interfaith intolerance. Where does it come from? Is it because religions are just sort of inherently exclusive? My religion has to be different from yours because it’s not your religion. Is that where the intolerance comes from?
Wolterstorff: You’ll find a lot of people saying that the root of the intolerance is the exclusivism. That’s certainly part of it in the case of a lot of people, but I think there’s something deeper.
For some people religion is not an important thing, but I suppose for most people who are religious it’s very important. And now you’ve got somebody in front of you who is also deeply religious, but of a different sort and it feels uncomfortable. It’s a kind of critique. It’s perforce a kind of critique because the other person is saying my views are correct and you think that your views are correct. So it’s being sort of unnerved by the presence of the other on really important issues.
We can handle disagreements on which kind of cabbage you like better or what brand of apple is your preference, but this strikes deep into the human being and now this other person is saying I don’t accept your version of it. I think that’s the root of the intolerance. It feels like a critique of me.
Kryder: Some people are that serious though about their football teams.
Wolterstorff: [laughs] The same is true there, yes, right! [laughs] I’m for my football team. How could you possibly be in favor of that other one?
Kryder: But why do we take it as a self-critique? It seems kind of silly. You go to a restaurant, somebody orders a steak, somebody gets the vegetarian plate, why do we have to take all that personally if people are just different? What’s the solution?
Wolterstorff: There is no simple solution, but it seems to me the way forward is to try to come understand the other human being, to understand two things; one to understand them as a human being, somebody with whom you can have dinner or have a conversation or go to a football game together or something like that, but also to understand their religious convictions. Where are they coming from? Why do they see it like that? So attempt to understand them on both those levels; human as your neighbor, friend and so forth and understand their religion.
There are all kinds of blockages to that occurring of course. We have stereotypes in our minds and no matter what kind of other religious person shows up, these stereotypes click in and sometimes these discussions result in more hostility than less.
Kryder: It seems like a lot of interfaith intolerance is related to politics.
Wolterstorff: It’s all intertwined with politics. It’s a good question; to what extent? Political conflicts are primarily motivated by the religions in questions or whether the religions in question are just getting hijacked by politics.
Kryder: What to do about that?
Wolterstorff: Do ones best to unravel the two I think, often without success, and do ones best to get the parties to talk with each other and sort of unravel what’s the real source of conflict between them.
For example Northern Ireland, the two parties, get them to talk with each other. That’s what eventually happened. What forced it was they began to say look, there’s too much bloodshed taking place. We just can’t continue like this. We’ve got to do something else, and what else are we going to do but start talking to each other and trying to understand each other and how can we live together. Maybe not like each other, but live with each other.
Kryder: I went to Catholic school until the fourth grade and then when we moved, I had to go to a public school. In the second school kids would come up to me and say, “Where do you go to church?” because I had never been to a public school so kids didn’t know where I went to church and I would say, “I’m Catholic. I go to the Catholic Church. Where do you go?” And they’d say, “Oh, I’m a Protestant or I’m Episcopalian.” I had never even heard those words as a kid! [laughs] I think the first kid who told me she was a Protestant, I looked her in the eyes and I said, “Well the nuns said you’re not going to go to heaven.” What do you have to say about that?
Wolterstorff: The nuns were wrong! [laughs]
Kryder: How do you know?
Wolterstorff: [laughs] How do I know? [laughs] I think most nuns nowadays would agree with the answer I just gave. They would say salvation does not depend on being a practicing member of the Catholic Church.
Kryder: But isn’t that a big part of it though? It isn’t just like a football team or it isn’t like what you order in a restaurant, it is because you’re invested in it, it is a critique, but it’s not just about our lives on this plane, it’s about salvation and being the ultimate winners.
Wolterstorff: Yes, when I said that part of it is that we’re deeply invested in it, the reason that we’re deeply invested in our religion is that there are fundamental issues at stake, as fundamental issues as anywhere in human existence. Who are we as human beings and what does our existence as human beings on this earth mean and what is our destiny? Is it just death or is there something beyond death? What does it all mean? One cannot ask deeper questions than these. So the reason that people are invested in it is that this is the deepest dimension of their existence, of our human existence that we have. That’s of course what makes it difficult to tolerate the other, not to mention going beyond tolerating, but really engaging and so forth, but it’s what we have to do.
Kryder: What are one or two action steps that you would encourage our listeners to take to promote more interfaith tolerance?
Wolterstorff: I think the most fundamental step we can take is to talk to your neighbors. If American Christians never talked to Muslims, then they’re going to believe what the media tells them and the media are going to pick up the frightening features of Islam. It’s not news that some imam somewhere has a peace project and has kids enrolled in the peace project and so forth. That’s not news. What’s news is if some rabble-rouser imam says some sort of thing. So the very nature of the news industry seems to me to encourage highlighting the frightening features of other peoples’ religion and indeed the frightening features of one’s own religion. How can you get beyond it? By talking to the people in your neighborhood or in the neighborhood next to yours, trying to circumvent the media and the focusing on the alarming which is what’s newsworthy.