Other or Together? Conference Explores Place of Islam in the American Consciousness

The United States' general response to the terrorists attacks of September 11, 2001, and its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have left many Muslims feeling besieged. In the United States, they protest that the Patriot Act and other regulations target them unfairly, and lament the withering of political gains that took decades to secure. Abroad, many Muslims fear that the War on Terror is actually a war on Islam, a new Crusade intended to extend Judeo-Christian power over the holy lands. 

It was against this backdrop that leading theologians, historians, and people of faith gathered on the Harvard Divinity School campus in early March 2004 for the fifth annual Islam in America conference, organized by Shura' Islamic Forum, the Muslim students' group at Harvard Divinity School. The conference chair, Shiraz Hajiani, a second-year master of theology (MTS) student at HDS, said that the inspiration for this year's theme, "Engaging America," was the 2004 presidential election campaign and a presentation by speakers at last year's conference.

"(The speakers) presented studies which indicated that a number of Muslim special interest groups had encouraged a block vote for the Bush-Cheney team in the last presidential election," said Hajiani. "The motivators were the seemingly balanced policies of the Bush-Cheney campaign. . . . The impetus for the vote against the Gore-Lieberman ticket was also presumably due to Lieberman's pro-Israeli stances. . . ." 

Hajiani said that many Muslims now feel the Bush administration's public policies are "based on decades of how Islam (has) been represented in the schools and universities and how they continue to be presented in the media." And it goes even further back than that, he said, since American notions of Islam are "founded upon centuries of the construction of the 'other' amongst the three Abrahamic faiths" (one of the panel topics this year). Other panels included "Muslims and Public Policy" and "Teaching Islam," and the conference ended with a "town hall meeting" to allow for open discussion of the entire weekend's content.

How did we—Christians, Jews and Muslims—become "others" to each other? Where did these notions come from, and what impact do they have in the public sphere? Hollis Professor of Divinity Harvey Cox chaired a panel of distinguished academics on Sunday, March 7, that sought to address these questions. Cox called the discussion and the conference in general "one of the most significant events at the Divinity School all year."

Rabbi Reuven Firestone, director of the Edgar F. Magnin School of Graduate Studies at Hebrew Union College, explained that Jewish notions of the other were rooted in the need to preserve a faith that worshiped only one God. Over centuries of struggle to preserve monotheism, the need to isolate Judaism from surrounding pagan religions transformed into the notion of Jews as God's chosen people and gentiles as the "other." Moreover, election became a defining characteristic of monotheism.

Firestone went on to add that as new Abrahamic faiths emerged from the template of Judaism, they also adopted the idea of election. Christians saw themselves supplanting the Jews. Islam preserved a kind of chosenness for Jews and Christians, but ultimately asserted that these religions were flawed and that the Muslim faith was the best, most perfect expression of divine will. 

As a "believing Jew," Firestone said, he understands what it's like to be an "other" and to think of Christians and Muslims as others. "My Jewish thinking observes how I'm accused by classic Christian polemic . . . of being a slave to the outdated law, aloof from the love and openness of Christianity, when, in Jewish eyes, it is the Christianity that is elitist, because only Christians are saved," he said. "And I observe how I, as a Jew, am accused by classic Islamic polemic . . . of loving only fellow Jews and, at best, being duped by my divine ancestors who distorted the word of God out of greediness and, at worst, still being engaged in that deception. (But) from the outsider Jewish perspective, it looks like Muslims love only their (Islamic) brothers and sisters . . . and are covering for their own ignorance of the correct version of scriptural narratives and other phenomenon." 

Francis Peters, professor of Middle Eastern history at New York University, spoke primarily on the formation of Christian ideas of the other. Peters said that the formation of the other was more complicated for Christians than it had been for Jews who, through the Torah, had received a clear sense of who they were and were not. The first Christians found themselves inexorably attached to Jews, he said, because the Torah was part of their scriptures. In fact, Peters said, many early Christians saw themselves as facilitating conversion to Judaism by removing barriers to the faith such as circumcision. 

Christians constructed their notion of the Jewish other through the painful process of both separating and being cast out of the synagogue for their belief in Jesus as the messiah. For several centuries, Christians struggled to decide which elements of Judaism to preserve in their faith. 

But Christianity also included the obligation to "go forth and preach the Gospel to all nations," which Christians did indeed do, but they stopped at the frontier of Syria. Here, Peters says, neither Christians nor Muslims crossed the border to proselytize and convert one another. Peters asserted that the lack of intermingling between the two faiths, among other things, sowed the seeds for a Christian notion of the Muslim other.

Peters explained that this notion of the Muslim other was not concretized as canon law until 1040. Muslims were hardly mentioned in church edict for the first millennia, and then only as "infidels," but as the Islamic world gathered political and economic power, they were seen as a threat to Christianity and new restrictions were created in canon law (such as a prohibition of the sale of weapons to Muslims). Later, Pope Innocent IV, a canon lawyer, decreed that Muslims had a right to their own sovereignty, but he also decreed that the pope could send missionaries into the Middle East to convert the "infidels," and if they resisted, he could ask Christian princes to send in troops. In 1492, though, a whole New World of "infidels" was discovered across the Atlantic, and Muslims virtually disappeared from Canon law—and Christian consciousness—until the twentieth century.

Mahmoud Ayoub, Professor of Islamic Studies and Comparative Religion at Temple University, began his discussion of Muslim notions of the other by discussing the potential for pluralism inherent in his faith. He noted the Qur'an teaches that God created the three different Abrahamic faiths in order to set up a sort of "competition of righteous acts," and that "whoever does wicked things will be punished for them and will find no helper against God. But whoever does righteous works—be it male or female—and has faith in God, these shall enter paradise and they shall not be wronged in the least." Given such Qur'anic teachings, Ayoub contended, Islam allows for plurality of religion through its focus on faith and good works, which are appreciated regardless of gender, religion, or ethnicity. 

How then was this Qur'anic message obscured in a way that allowed for the notion of a Christian or Jewish other to emerge? Ayoub said that a Muslim notion of the Christian other started to develop in the middle ages, when Islam first came into contact with a Byzantine church that regarded Islam as a "Christian heresy." Relations worsened during the Crusades and afterward, when Arab historians tried to write about Christianity with access to limited sources. The result, Ayoub said, was a misunderstanding of the Holy Trinity. Once understood as "people of the book," Christians became "those who worship three Gods, instead of the one God." The Protestant reformation further developed the Christian other in the minds of Muslims thanks to the missionaries who were sent to the Middle East and "for whom no geographic or legal or ideological boundaries meant anything."

Having chronicled the development in all three faiths of how other faiths became "other," Firestone and Ayoub offered their thoughts on living with the other.

Firestone noted that in a pluralistic society like the United States, the temporary construction of the notion of the elect—for example, when playing on a sports team or taking pride in one's ethnicity—can actually unite people in healthy ways. Where religion is concerned, though, people often get stuck. Firestone said that it wasn't necessary to become a believer in another religion in order to break this impasse, simply to see how our neighbors worship. Furthermore, it helps to remember that we, too, are often an "other."

Ayoub said that he hoped not simply for a more positive construction of the other among Muslims, Christians, and Jews, but also for tolerance of the other, for dialogue and for a realization of the "Qur'anic principle of the absolute dignity of all the children of Adam."

The conference chair, Hajiani, says that he hopes the conference's attendees will take Ayoub and Firestone's words and begin to build an America that is more reflective of them.

"America needs to be engaged in this process," he said. "I hope every participant took away with them the importance of each one of us to individually participate (in our communities). Pluralism is built one person at a time."