Erik Owens meets with educators and policymakers from the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Education.
In the Fall of 2006 the Boisi Center hosted three delegations of foreign visitors from the Netherlands, Kyrgyzstan, and Saudi Arabia. The visiting Dutch scholars—three theology professors from Utrecht University—were founding faculty members of the new Utrecht Center for Religion and Society. They met with Alan Wolfe and Erik Owens on November 15 to discuss how university-based research centers can serve both the academy and the wider society by studying the global religious landscape. After a collegial discussion about the two Centers, the scholars headed south to Washington D.C. to attend the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion.
The Kyrgyzstani delegation visited the Boisi Center on August 21 as part of a three week cultural exchange program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and administered locally by WorldBoston, a nonprofit group that brings emerging leaders to Boston to dialogue about important issues. About half of the group were professors or students of Islamic studies, while others work for religious organizations or media outlets in the former Soviet republic located in central Asia. Nine of the ten visitors were Muslim, with one Eastern Orthodox Christian among them—a rough approximation of the Kyrgyz Republic’s religious demographics. The conversation that followed Owens’ presentation on religion and American public life was lively and good-natured, thanks in part to the able assistance of two expert translators. Several delegates were intrigued by the Jesuit governance of Boston College as well as the religious roots of many other American universities, asking if these religious ties shaped avenues of scientific inquiry or the presentation of Islam in classrooms. Extended discussion was given to issues of church-state separation, religion in political campaigns, and Americans’ perception of Islam since 9/11.
September 8, 2006 marked the arrival of five female educational leaders from Saudi Arabia traveling under the auspices of the International Visitor Leadership Program of the U.S. Department of State (with local assistance from WorldBoston). Owens spoke to the group about the legal, cultural and educational challenges that religion presents to American public schools. Among the topics covered were religious studies classes, religious holidays, expressions of faith by teachers and students, and public funding for religious schools. A lively discussion ensued about the difference between “religious instruction” and “instruction about religion.” The women—all of whom were teachers and supervisors from the Ministry of Education—spoke of Saudi curricular modernization, their respect for all the Abrahamic traditions, and the moral challenges brought on by internet access in their country. They were disappointed to have learned earlier in their visit how few Americans travel abroad (at most, 30% of Americans have passports), and how little most Americans know about international affairs. One woman (speaking fluent English) expressed her belief that most of the distrust between Christians and Muslims in the United States and Saudi Arabia is the result of a failure to educate citizens about world religions. In the United States this negligence, she argued, contributes to ignorance about Islam, Arab culture, and a dangerous conflation of religious extremism with Islam as a whole. It was an instructive point about a topic the Boisi Center continues to explore in its own events and publications.