The community of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley responded on Thursday to the current national eruption of hate, fear, and random attacks targeting Muslims with a public dialogue. Left to right above: Naomi Seidman, Center for Jewish Studies; Munir Jiwa, Center for Islamic Studies; Rita Sherma, Director of the Hindu Studies Initiative and Associate Professor of Dharma Studies; Jim Hopkins, Lakeshore Baptist Church in Oakland as well as the American Baptist Seminary of the West; and Safir Ahmed of Zaytuna College. The event, pulled together by The Ignite Institute at PSR, drew a crowd of some 60 or so very concerned academics and clerics.
It's hard for members of such a panel to say anything deep or novel in their few minutes. These tried.
- Dr. Ahmed asked, seriously, are we about to go back to Jim Crow and the internment camps?
- Dr. Sherma advocated from a South Asian vantage point for "spiritual hospitality" and for moving "beyond solidarity to empathy" in the face of threats to any community. She pointed out that Muslims and any religious groups treated as "other" by the U.S. mainstream learn to have empathy for a different culture whether they want to or not. That doesn't come as naturally to those who can claim their religious identity as normative.
- Dr. Jiwa described the "five media frames of Islam" that constrain our ability to think about the world's fastest growing faith. These include a fixation on 9/11; a focus on "Islamic terrorism" that overrides any awareness of the devastation U.S. armed attacks are wreaking in other countries; our insistence on judging Islam on western liberalism's current cultural litmus tests about sex and gender roles, without any regard for other peoples' contexts and cultures; the "clash of civilizations" trope; and viewing all of Islam as if the religion were confined to the Middle East.
But I can't be. When the country succumbs to a crazy panic and some people are literally endangered, we need a broad range of responses. Some of these will be educational and low key. That's alright. Kudos to GTU for knowing it has to do its part.