Last month, four days after the first anniversary of Sept. 11, the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College welcomed a group of scholars from Muslim-majority countries for a 28-day seminar, "Religion in Contemporary America: Church, State and Society."
Sponsored through the US State Department, the program's mission was at once straightforward and multifaceted: provide the visitors - representing Pakistan, Jordan, Nigeria and the Palestinian Authority in Israel's West Bank, among others - with a better understanding of the ways that religion influences, and is influenced by, American society.
The seminar focused on religious diversity in America and the norms and institutions that support it, as well as the methods by which the American legislative and legal systems balance principles of religious freedom and tolerance. Other facets included the role of religion in shaping foreign and domestic policy, and the reciprocal influence of religion on democracy and democracy on religion.
Participants in the Boisi Center's "Church, State and Society" seminar visited several religious sites, including the Crystal Cathedral in Anaheim, Calif. (Photo courtesy of the Boisi Center)
When the seminar ended earlier this month, more than a few of the participants found that the series of discussions, lectures, readings, and visits with Christians, Jews and Muslims in Boston and Los Angeles had, at the very least, seriously challenged their assumptions about America.
"I have a lot of work to do when I get home, many books to read," said Fareed Hadi, an assistant professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Bahrain, interviewed the day before his departure. "I have much to think about."
Boisi Center Assistant Director Patricia Chang said, "The scholars were surprised by how many Americans are religious, which runs counter to the perception that exists, or is reinforced, in some countries of America as a 'godless' society.
"In many Muslim nations, religion is less compartmentalized than in the US; it's a part of one's daily public identity as well as their inner private life. In the US, most people see religion as something kept in the private realm, which is how we get along despite our religious differences.
"I think the scholars were able to grasp this. Our expectation and our hope is that, because of their professions, they will now be in a position to influence others."
Ibrahim Mu'azzam Maibushira, a lecturer in Islamic Studies at Nigeria's Bayero University who has been jailed in the past for his anti-government writings, arrived with considerable trepidation about American culture and race relations, Chang said. But already dubious about the anti-American sentiments voiced in his country, she said, Maibushira left Boston determined to share at home what he had learned, even if those revelations are likely to be met with skepticism, and perhaps hostility.
"It was incredible to see his conversion, his determination to go back and re-educate others about America, no matter the risk," said Chang. "He said he believes it's God's will that he do this. In general, I think other scholars, like Ibrahim, began to see that the US has been used as a convenient scapegoat by their governments for other problems in their country."
The visitors found the nuances of church-state separation in American politics - such as the role of religious lobbying groups and organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League - fascinating but often difficult to reconcile, said Chang. They also were struck by the plurality of religious expression.
"In America, there are so many religious denominations, and they each have their own administrations, their own media, and through these they put forth their ideas and beliefs," said M. Akhtaruzzaman, an associate professor of Islamic history and culture at Dhaka University in Bangladesh. "There are times, of course, when these ideas are in disagreement. Yet there is no physical conflict, no spilling of blood.
"This, to me, is the most unique thing about America."
In fact, a key point of disagreement between the scholars and their American hosts, Chang said, was the interpretation of conflicts involving different religious groups. "Where we saw reported clashes between Muslims and Christians, or Hindus and Muslims, in their countries as evidence of religiously motivated violence, they would say, 'No, it's just political.'"
Chang and Boisi Center Director Prof. Alan Wolfe (Political Science) led or participated in many of the seminar discussions, which also included guest speakers such as part-time faculty member Rev. Raymond Helmick, SJ (Theology), who has helped mediate Middle East conflicts, Asst. Prof. Qamar-ul Huda (Theology), pollsters from Gallup International and the Pew Center, Boston Globe religion reporter Michael Paulson and Harvey Cox, a professor at the Harvard Divinity School.
Participants also visited churches, synagogues, mosques and seminaries, including the Fuller Theological Seminary in California.
"For me, perhaps the greatest single moment of the visit came when the scholars sat down with rabbinical students [at Fuller] and compared texts," said Wolfe. "It's a different world back home for so many of the participants, where most people around you are the same religion and the religion itself is state-sponsored. There are so few opportunities to meet people from other faiths."
Inevitably, external events inspired more informal discussions, Chang said, such as the Israeli assault on Yasser Arafat's compound or the arrest of suspected Al Qaeda operatives in upstate New York. Rev. Jerry Falwell's description of the founder of Islam, the Prophet Mohammad, as "a terrorist" also sparked conversation.
"This gives a bad impression to the Islamic community," said Munib-Ur-Rehman, a Pakistani author, educator, newspaper columnist and member of several important religious councils, of Falwell's remarks. "It is the duty of the Christian community to control such things, or better, to deliver a welcoming message."
Chang noted that the seminar Web site - available through the Boisi Center Web page - will be maintained as an ongoing public resource for discussion and information and eventually include texts from lectures and writings that the scholars plan to deliver when they return home.
"We hope that the scholars, and many others, will continue to contribute to, and benefit from, this site for years to come."
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