Boston College Annual Report 2003

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.”

.“The 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.”

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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