Donald Trump. Wheaton College. Islamophobia. Terrorism. Today, American rhetoric is littered with catch-phrases and consequences, fueling the fire against Muslims.
While Presidential Candidate Trump called for the “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” last December, Wheaton recently “parted ways” with Dr. Larycia Hawkins for her statement that Muslims and Christians are both “people of the book” who worship the same God.
Approximately 58 percent of Americans have “unfavorable” views towards Muslims, a number that continues to swell. According to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, hate crimes against Muslims have risen to three times the monthly average in the wake of the attacks on Paris and San Bernardino. New York Times op-ed contributors Evan Soltas and Seth Stephens-Davidowitz cited a correlation between an increase in internet searches using hate speech, and the corresponding jump in hate crimes.
Amid these fear-inciting sound bites, my World Religions classroom at a small college in North Carolina, looks and feels decidedly different.
“Proximity reduces prejudice,” I remembered someone telling me while I was on tour with my first book, a memoir on navigating a Christian-Hindu interfaith marriage. And so, in the months my college students take this humanities elective in religion, I bring them on board for a counter-cultural, rigorous adventure of connection, education, and understanding.
We begin each class period with immersion into a tradition: indigenous and tribal belief systems, then the “Big 5” (Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). We study parallels and differences, all while cruising toward the modernity and the birth of “younger” traditions like Sikhism, Neopaganism, Baha’i, Scientology, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witness, among many others.
“Studying another religious tradition is much like learning a foreign language,” writes Ulrich Rosenhagen, qualifying the value of teaching religious literacy. “The ideal way to learn a foreign language is often to immerse oneself in a culture where the language is spoken. Language is learned best from native speakers in their own habitat.”
Following Rosenhagen’s lead, I bring “native speakers,” into my classroom, augmenting our readings, lectures, and discussions with real-life practitioners who share their theology, doctrine, and practices.
My students meet a former Hindu monk, and an Italian Catholic-Methodist-turned-Buddhist. They engage with a local Reform Rabbi and a New York-born Conservative Jew who kept kosher most of her life and now practices yoga. Lastly, they meet an African-American Muslim born into the faith—who lives right here in their own back yards. Field trips to area temples, synagogues, mosques, and meditation centers cap off our term, and students complete their final research presentations on any aspect of any tradition of their choosing, empowered to go deeper, not fearful of getting to know.
But, this is all new to them at first. Many if not all grew up as some flavor of Christian: Catholics from the North, traditional Baptists, Pentecostals, or non-denominational here in the South. They’ve never had an extended conversation with a Hindu or Buddhist; few have interacted with Jews; none have any Muslim friends.
A few weeks prior to the violence in San Bernardino, when Sajdah Nubee, our Muslim guest speaker, was slated to arrive to our class, Paris was still fresh on my students’ minds. Though they are young adults from diverse backgrounds, none of them had escaped what they’d seen and heard in the media and in their communities. For most in the room, it would be the first time they’d ever met face-to-face with a Muslim, and stereotypes swelled.
I asked them to remember a time they felt someone had profiled them unfairly, or exhibited judgement toward them with no evidence. They thought for no less than two seconds.
“Yesterday at the store,” one said. “When I get pulled over by the cops for no reason,” another added.
“And, how did that make you feel—to be judged without cause?”
“Terrible,” they all agreed wrestling with the cognitive dissonance.
Even the Millennial generation, which boasts as being the most-educated, open-minded, minority-heavy, largest generation since the Baby Boomers, have not escaped sound bites and hate-spewing.
After our pep talk, Ms. Nubee’s one-and-a-half hour visit was a success. The students asked tough, but respectful questions, and she responded with wisdom and poise. They sought first to understand her views, and she offered them the same respect.
Next on my list was to dismantle another dreary American statistic: 87 percent of people in the U.S. have never been inside a mosque. And so, on an unusually warm Friday afternoon—post Paris, post-San Bernardino, post-Trump, post-pep talk, I stood with a small group outside our local Sunni masjid (mosque) in Durham, NC. I asked the gathered students about the Friday Prayer Service they’ve just experienced.
“Beautiful” they repeated, in unison. The Imam’s message, the prayer postures, and the hospitality had all touched them in a way they hadn’t anticipated. One student confessed: the day before, when she told her grandmother about the field trip, the matriarch balked, “You’re not going to convert are you?” The student explained, “I told her that I am still Baptist through-and-through, but this—this was beautiful.”
Even as anti-Muslim sentiment grows in the U.S., my students—the future of America—give me hope. They’ve trusted me to lead them through an experience of opening themselves up to understanding new and ancient ideas, setting aside ignorance and debunking polls. In lieu of distance, they’ve opted for immersion.
“Beautiful,” I repeated in the sunshine, tucking my hair beneath my make-shift hijab, in awe of the gifts of education and religious literacy.
Indeed, how difficult it is to keep our prejudices in proximity.
The Rev. J. Dana Trent is the author of the award-winning Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk. A graduate of Duke Divinity School, she is ordained in the Southern Baptist tradition and teaches in North Carolina. Dana blogs at jdanatrent.com and tweets @jdanatrent.
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