Why We Need to Teach Interfaith Understanding

Why We Need to Teach Interfaith Understanding August 3, 2015

Collin_County,_TexasAmidst conservative Christian fervor over religious freedom, it’s important to remember what real threats to religious freedom in the U.S. look like.

A news item getting little attention is currently unfolding in Texas:

“A proposal to bring a Muslim cemetery to a rural North Texas town has stoked fears among residents who are trying to convince community leaders to block the project. Farmersville is considering a 35-acre development request from the Islamic Association of Collin County. Residents showed up in force at a recent town meeting to oppose the cemetery, which would include an open-air pavilion and small retail area. Some fear the project would attract radical Muslims to a region of Texas where anti-Islam sentiment has grown over the last year. Farmersville is 25 miles from Garland, which was the scene of a deadly May shooting outside a cartoon contest lampooning the Prophet Muhammad. Mayor Joe Helmberger calls residents’ worries unwarranted and says the cemetery will be approved if development standards are met. Khalil Abdur-Rashid, a spokesman for the Islamic association, said misinformation and confusion are fueling critics.”

Among the misinformation is statements like this from area resident Medford Sumrow:

“They just scrub them down, wrap them up, put them in the grave, you know, and that’s without a casket, without embalming.”

This is false:

“According to Muslim tradition, bodies are not embalmed, and some people wondered whether that was safe and sanitary. But of course, in other religious traditions, bodies are not embalmed as well. A spokesman for the Islamic center told the Dallas Morning News that the bodies would be washed in warm water in accordance to Muslim tradition, and would be placed in shrouds. And then the bodies would be put in coffins and buried underground in concrete vaults, which complies with all of the state and local laws.”

Protestors have even threatened to dump pig blood on the land that the Islamic Center has already purchased, thus desecrating it and dissuading them from using it. One of the sources of this conflict, in addition to ethnocentrism, racism, global geopolitics, and Islamophobia, is lack of basic understanding about Muslim burial practices and the theology behind them. Lack of respect for said practices and beliefs logically follows.

IFYC_LogoThis week, I’m in Chicago participating in a faculty seminar on Teaching Interfaith Understanding, co-sponsored by the Council of Independent Colleges and the Interfaith Youth Core. It is part of my work as a religion professor and public scholar to educate and equip more people to understand multiple religions, respect diverse neighbors, and engage effectively in the world.

As the seminar description notes:

Religious diversity, along with contestations of religious belonging, pluralism, and inclusion, is an increasingly fraught topic in American public discourse and public life. … The seminars are concerned with how interfaith understanding can be taught effectively in the college classroom, so that students are equipped for interfaith engagement and leadership both in the classroom and beyond.”

The case of the cemetery in Collin County, Texas, reminds us why this work matters, and the consequence of failing to equip ourselves with knowledge and a disposition for engagement.

County flag image via wikimedia commons.


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