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Twenty-eight days, two coasts, 13 muslim academics

In 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.

photo of scholars examining a torah scrollWhen 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 faith.

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 me.

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 home.

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.

Alan Wolfe

Alan Wolfe 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, Phi
lippines. 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 Center

Scholars from Nigeria, Pakistan, and Bahrain (left to right) examine a Torah scroll, as American rabbinical students look on. Courtesy of Boisi Center

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