February 2002, I was approached by an official from the U.S. State
Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs with a proposal.
Would the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, which
I direct at Boston College, be willing to host an institute in which
scholars of Islam from the Muslim world would come to learn how
religious diversity and the separation of church and state work
in practice in America? The institute, which the Boisi Center would
develop and schedule, would in fact be a monthlong traveling program,
giving its guests a view of American religious practice in the Boston
area and on the West coast. I readily accepted.
Thirteen Muslim academics arrived at Boston’s Logan International
Airport on the 14th of September: 11 men and two women. Roughly
half were from the Middle East—including Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan,
and the West Bank. And half were from South and Southeast Asian
countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, and the
Philippines. There were participants as well from Tanzania and Nigeria
and Turkey. We were able to work closely with security personnel
at the airport—Logan had been the embarkation point, almost exactly
a year before, of two of the planes hijacked on September 11—and
no one was singled out for special searches, fingerprinting, or
any other out-of-the-ordinary security measures.
The institute opened with an Islamic halal dinner, sponsored
by BC’s Jesuit community. We had reasoned that the dinner would
help present an image of American religion at its most serious,
introducing our visitors to selfless, idealistic, and dedicated
men who take their Roman Catholic faith seriously. We were probably
right, but when a number of the visiting scholars asked me the next
day to explain the differences between Protestants and Catholics,
I realized that I may have assumed too much. Before long, I was
writing names like “Martin Luther” and “John Calvin” on a board.
All but one of our visitors had never been to America before, and
they were both curious and a bit frightened about what they might
discover. “Okay,” one of them bravely put it after two weeks, “I’m
ready to see some homosexuals now.” Fairly sure that America is
a violence-prone, decadent society that treats all people of color
with disrespect, they were also certain that most people who live
here are atheists, and that Jews run U.S. foreign policy.
We were able to persuade them fairly quickly that one of their images
was incorrect: This is not a country filled with atheists. To them,
and perhaps to many people from societies different from ours, separation
of church and state seems like a secular idea, one that nonbelievers
impose on the faithful to make government free from religion. Our
task was to demonstrate the opposite: In America, separation of
church and state has been supported by some very religious people—the
Baptists, for example—to protect religion from government.
Our guests typically came from Muslim-majority countries in which
Islam is not only a religion but also a way of life and a system
of laws. One of the guests, for example, serves on Pakistan’s Islamic
Council, a body that passes judgment on whether the laws approved
by political institutions meet standards established by the Koran.
As many as half of the others were trained as jurists and spend
considerable time debating whether various forms of personal behavior,
such as smoking and eating non-halal food while traveling,
conform to Islamic law, or Shariah. The best way to persuade
our visitors that religion can thrive in the absence of direct links
to government, I decided, was to demonstrate that their own religion
is doing well in the United States, despite the fact that Muslims
constitute a small minority of religious believers.
Fortunately, I did not have to make the point; it was made for me
by Hassan Hathout, director of outreach for the Islamic Center of
Southern California and a physician originally from Kuwait, who
told the group that one is freer to be a Muslim in the United States
than in many of the societies from which Muslim immigrants arrive.
The day before he spoke, we had attended Friday religious services
at a mosque in Orange County, California. The service had begun
with a ritual: A young American man had chosen to convert to Islam,
and we all watched as he vowed to obey the laws of the Prophet.
The next morning, a woman from Tanzania told the people at her table
that she had never before witnessed a conversion ceremony. “Is that
because you come from a Muslim-majority society in which people
do not convert?” she was asked. “No,” she replied, pointing out
that roughly half of her country is Muslim. “It is because, at home,
I am not allowed into the mosque.” It was true that in the Orange
County mosque she sat in the balcony, where her view was limited.
But as is happening in many mosques in the United States, steps
had been taken toward gender equality that are rare in the countries
from which our guests arrived.
We were less successful in disabusing our Muslim visitors of their
perception that Jews run U.S. foreign policy. They were unimpressed
that one of our speakers, Keith Weissman, deputy director of foreign
affairs for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee—generally
considered the most influential component of the “Jewish lobby”—holds
a doctorate in Islamic studies and speaks fluent Arabic. One of
the Muslim visitors responded to Weissman’s talk on how lobbying
works in America by claiming that the Palestinians are being treated
by the Israelis worse than the Jews had been treated by Hitler—hardly
the way to promote healthy dialogue.
Our visit to California did promote Jewish-Muslim understanding
in one important way. A few weeks before, Rabbi Reuven Firestone,
of California’s branch of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute
of Religion, had been hospitalized with a serious heart condition.
Still, he was enthusiastic and welcoming when he asked the 13 Muslim
scholars to spread themselves around eight tables, where they would
be joined by 13 rabbinical students.
Each table was given the Koranic and Old Testament texts, in both
Arabic and Hebrew, dealing with Noah and the flood. A Muslim scholar
read from one, and a Jewish scholar read from the other, and then
participants at each table devoted themselves to fierce argument
about the texts, including what they meant and why they diverged.
the exercise concluded, Rabbi Firestone brought out the Torah for
the Muslims to touch and ponder, which they did with deep reverence.
This, I told myself, is surely what the State Department had in
mind when it sought out scholars who would promote mutual understanding
between the United States and the Muslim world.
However, my best guess is that few of our guests changed their minds
about the influence of Jews on American foreign policy or about
the allegedly anti-Arab slant that this influence has imposed.
A similar kind of stalemate emerged over issues of religious freedom,
especially involving minority religions. While clearly fascinated
by the First Amendment, our guests also knew that neither guarantees
of religious liberty nor separation of church and state fit easily
into an Islamic understanding of the world. To borrow the terminology
of the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, they were advocates of “positive”
rather than “negative” liberty; Islam, in their view, is so true
that, without it, one cannot really be free. Therefore, society
has to ensure that as many people as possible are exposed to the
One participant came from a society, Pakistan, in which Christians
had recently been killed for their beliefs. Another came from Nigeria,
where a woman had been convicted of adultery and sentenced to death
by stoning. Neither participant was prepared to acknowledge that
positive liberty, much as Isaiah Berlin warned, has its authoritarian
side. The Pakistani participant insisted that the government had
nothing to do with continuing attacks on Christians (though the
country’s Christians say the state fails to pursue attackers). And
the Nigerian held that how Muslims punish crimes against members
of their own faith is up to them. In response, a BC graduate student
in theology who served as the Muslim visitors’ van driver, asked
if there was anything in Islam that helped them to stand outside
their faith and view it with impersonal eyes. I thought it a good
question. They could not understand his point.
Most of our guests also could not understand and appreciate religious
pluralism. When we took them to the house in Los Angeles where American
Pentecostalists first began speaking in tongues, thereby launching
a religious revolution, their reaction was to contrast Pentecostal
religious practices with something in their own tradition—Sufism—to
make sense of it. When, however, there was no equivalent in Islam
to something they witnessed in America, they had difficulty understanding.
How, then, to evaluate the experience? On the negative side, I doubt
that many minds were changed during our time together. Mine, at
least on the important things, was not. I was persuaded before the
program began that Islam, lacking both the equivalents of a Protestant
Reformation and a Vatican II, has been relatively untouched by Western
liberal ideals, and little that happened during the institute dissuaded
And it was clear that our visitors were unlikely to question the
Koranic truths they hold dear or the conviction that there is no
God but God; in one discussion, for example, some of them agreed
that Jesus was never crucified and that someone else had been put
on the cross in his place to persuade the world that he was a deity.
Still, I will never be able to write or teach about Islam without
seeing the religion with human faces, and much the same will no
doubt be true of our Muslim visitors.
Our guests, moreover, loved the experience, or so they indicated
on the evaluation sheets we handed out to them. Nearly all of them
said that they had learned far more about American religion than
they had expected. “I have brothers and sisters now in the U.S.,”
said one of them on departure—the same person who had compared the
sufferings of the Palestinians to the Holocaust.
Many of the academics who attended have suggested concrete steps
to continue the dialogue. Our visitor from the West Bank is giving
“serious consideration” to trying to establish a center for religious
studies and dialogue in Palestine. The scholar from Nigeria now
feels that much of what he had heard before coming here, especially
that little or no progress has been made in race relations in the
United States, is wrong; he will work to correct such views back
Our Turkish guest was, of all the scholars, the one most comfortable
with liberal-democratic values, and he has proposed a further exchange
program between Boston College and the faculty of theology at the
University of Ankara. And one of our visitors from South Asia wants
to teach a course at his university on Islam in the diaspora, although
he is not sure he will be given permission to do so.
Should any of those developments come to pass, the objectives of
the program will have been met.
is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public
Life at Boston College. His essay is drawn from a November 22 article
in the Chronicle
of Higher Education. Another institute for Muslim scholars is
planned for June 2003.
Photos (from top):
Aboard the Boston Duck Tour: N.P. Hafiz Mohamad, India (with camera).
Second row, from left: Saida Yahya-Othman, Tanzania; Carmen A. Abubakar,
Philippines. Third row: Mehmet Pacaci, Turkey; Ahmed Mohsen
Mohammed Al-Dawoody, Egypt; Md. Akhtaruzzaman, Bangladesh; Fareed
Hadi, Bahrain. Fourth row: Munib-Ur-Rehman, Pakistan; Thomas De
Nardo, Boisi Center staff; Ibrahim Mu’azzam Maibushira, Nigeria;
Mun’im A. Sirry, Indonesia. Last row: Adnan Mahmoud Assaf, Jordan;
theology graduate student K.C. Choi; Bakarat Hassan, West Bank;
Kamarul Shukri Mat Teh, Malaysia (face obscured). Courtesy of Boisi
Scholars from Nigeria, Pakistan, and Bahrain (left to right) examine
a Torah scroll, as American rabbinical students look on. Courtesy
of Boisi Center