Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Wrestling and Wondering at Northeastern

On Nov. 13 Northeastern Illinois University had its 14th annual interfaith conference. Even though I’ve got to-do items as numerous as the sands of the Ganges, I accepted the invitation to participate because I remembered how thought-provoking last year’s program was (see my 2-part blog entry “Interfaith Initiative”).

When I arrived on campus and made my way to the Student Union, I encountered the half-head. It was my first time to actually see the Ten Thousand Ripples sculpture. It wasn’t as large as I expected but still disconcerting to see – the sheared off face perched on a concrete corner (see photo below from NEIU’s Twitter feed).

The first event of the conference was “Media’s Portrayal of the Islamic World: Fact vs. Fiction Fight,” a presentation by Mateo Farzaneh. As a history professor he showed this is a centuries-old problem going back to the “mass media” (woodblock prints) of medieval Europe which presented derogatory images of Jews as well as Muslims. Our present-day media (TV news, movies, magazines etc.) isn’t much different in resorting to negative stereotypes. Prof. Farzaneh pointed out that the media isn’t really “free” – in order to attract the audience their sponsors want to sell to, they sensationalize stories and leave out (“censor”) facts and context. The Western media leads people to believe Islam as a religion promotes terrorism, but almost all the violence and unrest in the Middle East is around political not religious issues. One example is when a student asked about hearing news reports of Arab leaders saying, “Death to Israel,” Prof. Farzaneh said that sound-bite doesn’t mean the Arabs want to kill Jewish people. It’s a cry of protest against a political system that is causing hardships for the residents and neighbors of the modern nation of Israel.

In the next event, a panel about interfaith relations, I spoke about the support I received from my interfaith colleagues from various faith traditions for opening up a discussion of the Ten Thousand Ripples project (see previous blog entry about the Treasures of Uptown event). I said Buddhism is about always learning from others and not claiming only we have the absolute truth.

In Rabbi Brant Rosen’s presentation, the thing that struck me was how his tradition has to wrestle with parts of their history where they wreaked destruction on peoples of other faiths. He said Jews have to own the whole tradition with “the good, bad and the ugly.” Instead of rationalizing away the bloody incidents of the past, they must disavow such actions and attitudes now and into the future.

In the next session was a chance for students to share their views on interfaith relations. The majority of those young men and women who spoke up were Muslims. They see the need for interfaith forums so their fellow students could better understand that they follow a faith of peace and hear how hurt they feel when they’re lumped in with bomb-throwers. To me it’s always refreshing to see the Muslim women looking so stylish in their hijabs (and a few wore veils below their eyes). They prove that women don’t have to practically reveal their whole bodies to look fashionable.

One African American woman became tearful saying she’s been subjected to condemnation by her family for not joining their religion (which she didn’t identify). She said she tried several religions and found she couldn’t believe in any of them. She said she didn’t want her child to join a religion if it makes him hateful as her family members have been toward her. After the session the Interfaith Youth Core representative went to speak to the student. I wondered what she was saying to her since the words seemed to comfort her. My hope is that the young mother will find that in interfaith forums no one will condemn her for not joining a religion and that it’s okay to not believe in any particular faith. In fact, anyone who wouldn’t embrace her as a fellow human being can no way be considered a truly religious person.

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