Photos from Defying Extremism – 2014 Conference

Irony of Ironies – An International Day of Peace?

Dear Friends,

Today is the International Day of Peace.  It should be a day of hope and optimism.  But it is not. 

Daily violence reminds us that peace is often elusive, hard to achieve, and too often sabotaged by small groups with disproportionate impact. So for me, the International Day of Peace is not a day of hope. 

Rather, it is a reminder to imagine what is possible and a call to work harder to defeat the forces of religious prejudice, division and death. And they are all around us. In only the past few weeks, we have repeatedly witnessed divisive, violent, and even deadly conflicts over our differences and different ways of believing. And we know there is more to come.

Just last month, we were shocked when six Sikhs were murdered as they attended a religious service in Wisconsin.  While the motive for the attack will never be definitively known because the shooter took his own life, we do know that he associated with white-supremacist and neo-Nazi groups.  It is likely that the killer took aim out of hate. What we do not know is whether he truly intended to target Sikhs or whether he shared a common misperception that Sikhs are Muslims and was acting out of anti-Muslim hatred.  For the families of the dead, it doesn’t matter. A man with a gun hated.  And he destroyed families forever.

It was less than two weeks after the Wisconsin attack that the offices of the Family Research Council were targeted by a gunman.  When approached by a security guard, the gunman reportedly announced, “I don’t like your politics,” and then shot the man.  Fortunately, the victim survived.  The Family Research Council’s political stances are informed by particular, strongly held Christian beliefs.  And the violent attack targeted those beliefs. Here again, a violent attack based on religious prejudice.

Last week, it was an anti-Islamic film’s impact that overtook the news. Created in the U.S. by an Egyptian Coptic Christian who claimed to be an Israeli Jew, the film was used to spew hatred at every turn.  Translated into Arabic and promoted by individuals who seek to demean Islam, the film inflamed by depicting the prophet Mohammed as a womanizer, child molester and homosexual.  We know the division and violence that quickly ensued.  While a coordinated attack was executed on a U.S. Consulate in Libya which ended the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, Jews were blamed for creating and/or funding the film, feeding historic angers and escalating anti-Semitism.  Islamic extremists advocated for retaliation against America for the blasphemy.  Demonstrations against the film sprung up in Muslim-majority countries across the Middle East and beyond.  Though some involved sought to peacefully protest, violence made the news, with the destruction of property and, more disturbingly, more deaths and devastated families. 

I wish that were all, but it is not.  We have a glimpse of a future where ads are being placed on New York City subway platforms that explicitly promote hatred toward Arabs and Muslims while surreptitiously seeking to drive a wedge between two religious groups that have suffered bigotry in the U.S. – Muslims and Jews.  Next week, the American Freedom Defense Initiative is slated to put up advertisements that read, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man.”  It concludes with two Stars of David framing the words, “Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” 

In each of these instances, religious differences are being used to inflame.  The result: a world where the faithful of every religion are at risk of being targeted, harmed, and maybe killed. 

On this day dedicated to peace, I believe we have to acknowledge the realities around us.  But I also believe that we can use this day to imagine what is possible and then take action to realize it.  Each of us can take personal responsibility for overcoming divisive voices – by living lives marked by respect, by being a vocal ally of those targeted, and by joining a global movement that says “Enough” to the hate.

IMAGINE…a more peaceful world that respects difference.  We are committed to making that vision a reality.

In peace,

Joyce S. Dubensky

(pdf version)

The Administration Adjusts Middle East and Muslim Relations Policy: News Roundup

In the news this week:  the Obama administration shifts Muslim and Middle East practice and policy, new trends in higher education religious studies, and more:

Changing the White House’s Approach to Middle East and Muslim Relations
President Obama’s Middle East speech is the most apparent evidence of a shift in Middle East policy. NPR interviewed Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nation, to discover the key learnings from the speech. His call for a restoration of pre-1967 borders between Israel and the Palestinian Territories is the most striking departure from current policy. This shift has garnered a wide range of reactions, some of which are chronicled in The Huffington Post.
On a practical level, Federal agents displayed a different approach in dealing with three Florida Muslims arrested this past week. The men are accused of providing funding and resources to the Pakistani Taliban. 
The raids were conducted under new national rules of engagement intended to show more sensitivity toward religious practices and tamp down the flames of haters after a series of outreach meetings in South Florida this year among federal law enforcers and Muslim leaders.   Miami Herald
Since the arrests, federal authorities have consistently spoken out against generalizing the local and national Muslim community. They have also staunchly supported Muslims as valued citizens of the United States.
New Religious Studies Trends
It seems that institutions of Higher Education have caught the interreligious bug. We’re seeing more and more colleges introduce curriculum, majors, or entire schools devoted to new areas of religious study. 
A Methodist couple and long-time trustees of the Claremont School of Theology (California) gave $50 million to establish Claremont Lincoln University, the nation’s first interreligious university, which will share a campus with Claremont School of Theology starting this fall. Patheos
The school will also work with the Islamic Center of Southern California and hopes to integrate schools in Buddhist, Hindu, and other traditions in the future. 
Each participating institution will contribute to the curriculum at Claremont Lincoln, which will offer such graduate programs as interreligious studies, comparative religions, and conflict resolution.  The Jewish Journal of Greater L.A.
Pitzer College, also in California, will be the first in the nation to offer a degree in secularism. 
This fall, Pitzer will inaugurate a department of secular studies. Professors from other departments, including history, philosophy, religion, science and sociology, will teach courses like “God, Darwin and Design in America,” “Anxiety in the Age of Reason” and “Bible as Literature.”   New York Times
In order to make this program a reality the department chair fought to show that studying non-belief is just as legitimate as studying belief. He stressed that the program will not demean religious individuals/religions just as religious programs don’t demean non-religious individuals/entities. 
In other news: