Religious Diversity, Pluralism redefine "Christian" America

[23-09-2010 12:00 AM]

Ammon News - By Banan F. Malkawi

AMMONNEWS – A discussion of Islam and Muslims in America and America’s relation with the Muslim world may be best understood and explained when viewed from within the context of the history, development, and status of religious pluralism and diversity in the United States.

In a conversation via video-conferencing on Tuesday held at Princess Sumaya University for Technology, a panel of Jordanian scholars discussed religious pluralism and diversity in America and the U.S. relationship with Islam and Muslims with Harvard University religion scholar Professor Diana Eck, author of “A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation.”

On the occasion of the launch of the Arabic translation of her book, Professor Eck highlighted her work with the Pluralism Project, an ongoing study of religious diversity in the United States and a think-tank that explores and interprets the religious dimensions of America’s new immigration, focusing on the explosion of Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist communities, among others, in America over the decades.

The Translation of the book, which was originally published in 2001, was overseen by the Arabic Book Program at the U.S. Embassy, and was launched by the U.S. Embassy in Amman, in cooperation with The Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies.

The Panel included H.E. Professor Kamel Abu Jaber, Emeritus Professor and currently president of the Jordan Institute for Middle Eastern Studies, Dr. Amer al-Hafi, Assistant Professor of the Fundamentals of Religion (Usul al-Din) at Al al-Beit University, and Dr. Mohammad Rayyan, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Shariah at University of Jordan.

In her book, Eck traces back the roots of religious diversity to the establishment of the United States with the arrival of colonists followed by waves immigrants from around the world, noting that differences among various religious denominations culminated in constitutional guarantees that there shall not be an established state religion in America, but rather a guarantee of freedom of religious practice, “which has been tested throughout the years of the young country.”

The religious experience in America was not one without tribulations, noted Eck, with “not so admirable” movements that discriminated against religious minorities, be they Catholic, Jewish, and later witnessed through anti-Chinese and anti-Asian exclusion leagues, that are also seen today with anti-Muslim waves of Islamophobia.

She highlighted the Pluralism Project as an effort to investigate the religious dimensions of America’s changing religious landscape, noting that new immigrants, along with their economic and political dreams, often brought their faiths and found a haven to stress their religious identities, culminating in changing the religious landscape in America, but also the context in which religious communities interact with each other. The Project not only highlights how America has changed and been affected by such diversity, but also how religious communities adapt and change, becoming “American in their own way.”

Commenting on the increasing presence of Muslims in America, Eck said “We no longer speak of Islam and the Islamic World as ‘somewhere else,’ America is now part of the Islamic world, and Islam has become part of the local religious landscape in America.”

Yet highlighting that incidents of Anti-Muslim hate crimes even preceded the tragic 9/11 events, with “tension, fear, anger, harassment, and violence that we can see all along.” Yet despite that, since the 1990’s, America has also witnessed a rising interfaith movement on the local level all over the U.S.

Yet as religious communities are becoming more visible than they were before, waves of Islamophobia has also risen in reaction, as evident in the controversy surrounding the Cordoba Project, which became pinned “Ground Zero Mosque” by opponents to the Islamic Center that aimed to become an interfaith initiative for Muslims to interact with other faiths.

She added, “we are hearing more of the negative voices than positive profound voices such as the “Common Word Initiative,” and stressed that religious pluralism is an issue facing the future of every country, and not uniquely an American issue.

Commenting on her book, H.E. Professor Kamel Abu Jaber characterized the book as “radiating hope,” stressing that America and Americans had once represented hope for oppressed nations, that America’s power is not in its military might, but rather in the thought and freedoms that it ought to give to the world. On the issue of Islam and Isamophobia in America, Abu Jaber stressed that “we hope that America would return and rediscover its humanistic self, the country and society that was once the hallmark of hope and freedom.. the Arab and Muslim worlds hope that America would rediscover itself and help us in humanizing Israel as well.”

He described the book as a “Journey of the Professor herself and a tribute to her country, a descriptive, analytical, and optimistic volume on the new religious scene in America, and highlights that such creeds are all facing similar challenges in America, especially that they all contain many voices, and like Islam, do not all have a unified voice.”

On his part, Dr. Amer al-Hafi commended the author for her “remarkable objectivity” in writing this book, noting that objectivity in the study of religions is a rather difficult task. “Candidness and objectivity are very evident in the book, especially in the author’s ability to critically analyze the development and current reality and landscape of religious diversity in her country. “

“This encourages the need for us to also change our curriculums regarding “the other,” noting that there are common misconceptions perpetrated by Muslims themselves regarding “the other.” “If we wanted to resolve problems of religious minorities in America, we have to resolve them everywhere else as well,” he said.

“We as Muslims are in dire need for serious reconsideration of our view of “the other,” and stressed that Islamic and Christian cultures are very close to each other, especially with Islam’s stress on respect and love for the Christ, yet a wide gap exists today between these two cultures compared to the close relationship between the Christian and Jewish cultures.

“Pluralism is the model solution not just for religions in America. Every religion is part of our human heritage. What is important is how to understand, respect, and co-exist with these religions.”

Dr. Muhammad Rayyan, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Shariah at Jordan University, noted that the book is written an exciting story-like style that is full of lessons, noting that the book’s impartiality and objectivity highlights its socio-religious methodology rather than a theological one.

“The book and its translation have come at a critical time when extremist voices against Islam are rising.. and this book is a building block in bridging the gap between “us” and “them,” and a building-block of optimism and a step towards it.”

“Religious pluralism may be a double-edge sword, it may be fertile ground for acculturation between different peoples, but also may be a sword that tears apart relationships between and among religious faith groups,” he said.

In religious dialogue, Rayyan said, it is not necessary to accept, what is important is to understand and respect the other. He highlighted a dangerous triangle of misconceptions, between the West towards Islam, Muslims towards the West, and Muslims towards Islam itself. This, he said “leads to misrepresentation of followers of religions who misrepresent their faiths, which then leads to misleading and misguiding paths that widen the gap between religious groups, and such was the case in how Islam has been greatly misrepresented and how media is used to mislead and misguide audience on Islam.

He however disagreed with the author that Islam in itself carries a cause for the existing tensions among religions, he stressed that it is not Islam itself, or Christianity, Judaism or any other religion, but rather our understanding and behavior in representing the religions that is the major cause of tensions and misunderstanding between religions, noting that Islam obliges the values of respect and acceptance and even cooperation among faiths.

On highlighting the treatment for such tensions, he noted that “pluralism without dialogue causes fragmentation and division, whereas pluralism with dialogue results in a society characterized by solidarity and understanding.”

He stressed the need to work on more fair and balanced media, both in the West and the Arab world, noting that just as Western Media misrepresents and offends Islam, so does Arab media as well generalizes misconceptions about the West.

Professor Eck said in her concluding words that “Pluralism is not simply tolerance, or a laissez-faire attitude. In the world today, we live too closely to have tolerance as the standard, Pluralism is also not relativism either, it rather begins with difference; we do not have to agree on everything, we need more knowledge. Pluralism requires the language of dialogue.”

Professor Diana L. Eck is a Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies at Harvard University where she is chair of the Religion Department. Since 1991, she has headed the Pluralism Project. In recognition of her groundbreaking work on America’s fast-changing religious landscape, she received the National Humanities Medal from President Clinton and the national Endowment for the Humanities in 1998.

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