Agree to (Respectfully) Disagree

Agree to (Respectfully) Disagree
by Marisa Fasciano

Overview: How to teach students to respectfully engage with peers of differing religious belief systems.

Most educators would agree that it’s important for students to respect classmates with different religious or nonreligious beliefs. But what if the doctrine or practices of the belief system in question contradict students’ values or marginalize or limit their identity group? Or what if a student has experienced microaggressions or harassment from peers of a different religious tradition? How do you respond when a student asks, “They don’t respect me, so why should I respect them?”

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) individuals make up one identity group that has experienced unequal treatment within certain religious traditions. According to a 2013 survey of LGBT Americans by the Pew Research Center, a vast majority describe Islam (84 percent), the Mormon Church (83 percent), the Catholic Church (79 percent) and evangelical churches (73 percent) as unfriendly toward them. This perception is corroborated by another Pew survey of the general American public. Although support for gay marriage continues to increase (just over half of Americans favor it), “opposition to gay marriage—and to societal acceptance of homosexuality more generally—is rooted in religious attitudes, such as the belief that engaging in homosexual behavior is a sin.”

If your students feel excluded or offended by faith-based rules and opinions, you can still encourage respectful conversations on religious diversity. Here’s how.

Distinguish People From Doctrines and Practices

Rather than asking your students to respect all belief systems, ask them to practice respecting all people, regardless of their belief system. Students don’t need to agree with their classmates’ religious or nonreligious beliefs, but they should be expected to interact with them in ways that are constructive and civil. In a previous blog post, we highlighted the multiple facets of a person’s identity. Pointing out similarities in some facets amidst differences in others can help students engage in these positive interactions.

Avoid Assumptions Based on Religious Identity

Just because an individual belongs to a particular belief system doesn’t necessarily mean he or she agrees with all of its tenets and practices. In fact, in some cases, a majority of adherents disagree with decisions of the leadership. For instance, a survey by Univision found that 59 percent of Catholics in the United States think the church should let women become priests, a belief that contradicts the current decision of church leadership.

Within Islam, vocal and active feminist movements aim to counteract misogynistic interpretations of Islamic texts by male imams. Rather than abandoning their faith in the quest for gender equality, many Muslim women combat oppression by appealing to Islamic texts and laws. For example, one of Tanenbaum’s Peacemakers in Action, Jamila Afghani, created the first holistic gender-sensitive imam training program in Kabul, Afghanistan.

By exposing your students to diverse perspectives within a particular faith, you help diminish the likelihood that they’ll incorrectly attribute specific attitudes and opinions to all individual members of a religion.

Keep in Mind That Emotional Reactions Have a History

Prior to walking into your classroom, students may have experienced bullying or negative comments about themselves and the belief systems to which they belong. In extreme cases, teachers have even made questionable or inappropriate comments to students about their religious traditions. An awareness of this potential history will put students’ emotional reactions into context and underscore the importance of creating inclusive, respectful learning environments where students are encouraged to abide by established rules of engagement.

Provide Tools for Respectful Disagreement

Educators can give students tools to respectfully disagree with people of different faiths, even if those in marginalized groups are the ones being disrespectful. By sharing these tools ahead of time, before conflicts based on religious identity arise, you will be better prepared to address and resolve such conflicts in the moment. You can refer back to what was already discussed, rather than having to come up with a response on the fly.

One tool that establishes a firm foundation for respectful disagreement is Tanenbaum’s Respecting Each Other lesson plan, which asks students to define what respect looks, feels and sounds like, and then to create their own rules of respect. If you spot any behavior that breaks these rules, you can correct it with greater credibility than if you had made up the rules yourself. Students can—and often do—take on the role of enforcer, holding each other accountable for honoring the agreements they’ve made together.

Krister Stendahl, an accomplished theologian, created another helpful tool that’s specific to religious differences. Here are his Three Rules of Religious Understanding:

  1. When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
  1. Don’t compare your best to their worst.
  1. Leave room for “holy envy.” (By this, Stendahl means that you should be willing to recognize elements that you admire in the other religious tradition or faith and that you wish could, in some way, be reflected in your own religious tradition or faith.)

If everyone obeyed these rules, what a more peaceful world it would be! The unfortunate reality is that, in spite of an individual’s best efforts to follow guidelines for respect, the reactions of others may be angry and intolerant. When a student asks, “They don’t respect me, so why should I respect them?” remind him to distinguish people from tenets and practices, avoid assumptions, consider the emotional history and remember the tools of respectful disagreement.

Fasciano is an education program associate at Tanenbaum.

Tanenbaum Peacemakers Build Peace in Egypt

Unknown to many outside of the region, Egypt’s de facto police state exercises tight control over the people who are given access to its citizens. With this in mind, Tanenbaum was delighted when two of our Peacemakers from Nigeria, Pastor James Wuye and Imam Ashafa of the Interfaith Mediation Centre, were invited to train Egyptians on Muslim-Christian relations. Better yet, they’ve been invited back to deliver a post-election training!

The two religious leaders led a series of workshops in Alexandria and Cairo from June 13th to 16th. Their workshops promoted interfaith understanding, showed community leaders how to recognize indicators of conflict, and shared ways to mitigate violence in its earliest stages. 
The Imam and the Pastor were brought to Egypt by the Center for Arab-West Understanding in response to rising threats of strife between Muslims and Christians.  Following the overthrow of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, religious extremists have used the resulting instability to inflame conflict between Christians and Muslims, resulting most notably in several high profile church burnings in Imbaba.
Participants in the workshops noted the obvious differences between the situation in Nigeria and Egypt, but were inspired by the deep friendship between Imam Ashafa and Pastor James. Through the training, participants learned how to implement an underutilized, but highly effective strategy for reducing tensions. They are going to build a local network and knowledge base, hopefully helping community leaders anticipate and resist rising sectarian conflict. 
Today, Egypt is at the heart of the world’s most unstable regions. And two Tanenbaum Peacemakers are there – building grassroots-level change. These same men are also affecting change in Nigeria, another unstable region that continues to experience violence on the basis of religion. 
In the weeks before this spring’s Nigerian elections, Tanenbaum sent a delegation of Peacemakers (Friar Ivo Markovic, a Franciscan Catholic from Bosnia, Yehezkel Landau, a Jewish Israeli-American, and Azhar Hussain, a Pakistani-American Muslim) to assist Imam Ashafa and Pastor James in reducing anticipated violence in the run-up to the contentious presidential elections. In a week of seminars, media appearances, and meetings with key government and religious leaders, the Peacemakers acted, and people responded. Their collaboration was so effective that one of Nigeria’s most prestigious peace organizations offered (for the first time) to support the Imam and the Pastor with desperately needed resources and training space.
In related exciting news, four of the five Peacemakers who comprised the Nigerian Delegation have confirmed attendance at A Rendezvous @ The Rubin on August 9th. Join us for the rare opportunity to meet these real life heroes and an unforgettable evening of mingling, global music, exotic food, and gallery tours at the beautiful Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. 
And in case you’d like to learn more about the Nigeria Delegation, you can find Tanenbaum’s recently released report on the day by day adventures of the five companions. The Nigeria Report is interesting – both as a story and because it documents new and effective interventions in the field of conflict resolution. It was presented at The Second Emory Conference on Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding on June 19th and will be presented this fall at the American Academy of Religions Annual Meeting. 
*Our thanks to Dr. Christopher Taylor, Professor of Religious Studies and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies in Drew’s College of Liberal Arts, as well as the Director of the Center on Religion, Conflict, & Culture for his contributions.