Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life
When the 13 Islamic scholars arrived, their suitcases were
packed with misconceptions: American Muslims are repressed; Jews control
foreign policy; America is a godless society.
Religious diversity was no small concept for the men and
women who live in predominantly Muslim countries amid frequent anti-American
rhetoric. But by the end of the month-long Fulbright American Studies
Institute, hosted by the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public
Life at Boston College, a Bangladeshi was marveling that American religious
factions disagree without bloodshed; a Nigerian was planning an association
of Christian and Muslim Nigerians to “spread a more positive message
about America”; and a visitor from the West Bank was thinking
of starting a center for dialogue and religious studies in Ramallah.
When University Trustee Geoffrey T. Boisi ’69 and
Rene (Isacco) Boisi ’69 endowed the Boisi Center in 1999 with a
$5 million gift to encourage the study of religion’s impact on public
policy, they probably wouldn’t have predicted that the U.S. Department
of State would come calling only three years later. The State Department
contacted Boisi Director Alan Wolfe and Assistant Director Patricia Chang
to seek their help with the Fulbright program, “Religion in Contemporary
America: Church, State, and Society.”
complex world we live in demands that we educate our young people
not just to excel functionally in careers, but also equip them to
make choices that are ethically solid, forming leaders with true
character. Committing oneself then to take responsibility for a
more just world is part of the vision upon which BC’s Center
for Religion and American Public Life was founded, and one, we believe,
BC is uniquely qualified to pursue.”
GEOFF ’69 AND RENE ’69 BOISI
One goal of the Fulbright program was to teach Islamic scholars
how religious plurality works in a democracy. “In the United States,
religion is pushed to the private realm,” says Peter Benda of the
State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. “In
Muslim countries, it’s really a way of life.” The State Department
hoped the participants, influential in their own countries, would unlearn
erroneous stereotypes and take home accurate information about America.
The guests—from India, Indonesia, Turkey, the Palestinian
Authority, Jordan, Malaysia, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Egypt, Pakistan, Tanzania,
Nigeria, and the Philippines—attended lectures and scholarly discussions;
visited mosques, churches, and synagogues; studied the democratic process;
and even sat down with rabbinical students at a California seminary to
compare the story of Noah in the Koran and the Old Testament. Some preconceived
notions, particularly about Jews and Israel, were difficult to deflate
in a month, but others were eroded, especially those related to the lives
of Muslims in America.
The State Department considered the Fulbright seminar so
successful that it scheduled a repeat performance for June 2003. It is
one of many programs hosted by the Boisi Center, which sponsors visiting
scholars, student-faculty reading groups, and speakers and conferences
that have promoted public discussion of subjects ranging from genetics
to Mideast peace. In post-9/11 America, however, little seems more relevant
than efforts to encourage understanding between Islam and the West.
One Indonesian university lecturer, Mun’im A. Sirry,
said the experience gave him “crucial understanding” about
religious diversity and the “reciprocal influence” of religion
and democracy. That understanding came in handy as soon as he went home.
On the final day of the Fulbright seminar, an explosion killed nearly
200 in a Bali nightclub. Sirry found himself with an immediate task: to
dispel rampant rumors that Americans were behind the bombing.
After what he learned at the Boisi Center, Sirry says he
feels compelled to cultivate a respect for human rights, democracy, and
intercultural understanding. “When I returned to my country,”
he said, “I really felt it was my moral obligation.”
Photo at top of page: Sadia Mahmood of Pakistan (left),
and Farhat A. Husain of Boston College.
Inset photo: Rene Boisi and Geoffrey T. Boisi.
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