Sharing perspective: CAL hosts inter-religious forum addressing “Islam in America”

With social sciences professor Dr. Susan Schept serving as moderator, the College of Arts and Letters  hosted a forum focusing on “Islam in America” through a multi-faith lens this past Wednesday. Several clergy from the Jewish, Islamic, Hindu and Christian faiths were invited to speak on the topic of Islamophobia – which Dr. Schept reminded the audience was an “irrational fear.” “Differences exist, but if we listen, we find common humanity,” said Schept.

The panelists included Dr. MG Prasad, a professor of mechanical engineering at Stevens as well as an esteemed Hindu scholar, serving on multiple religiously-affiliated advisory boards and councils; Ehraim Gabbai, an independent scholar of the Arab world, an instructor at Sephardic Institute, and a speaker of the Hebrew and Arabic languages; Monsignor Robert Meyer, who serves as pastor of Saint Peter and Paul, civil and canon lawyer, adjunct professor at Stevens, and a member of the Board of Directors for multiple enterprises; Sheik Mohammad Al Hayek, Imam and Chair of the Islamic Studies Department in the North Hudson Islamic Education Center and Islamic Education Foundation of New Jersey for the past twenty years, where he has served as an active member in the interfaith community; and Rabbi Robert Scheinberg of the United Synagogue of Hoboken, who holds multiple leadership positions within the various local and national organizations. Rabbi Scheinberg has also served on the New Jersey Legislature’s Death Penalty Study Commission which contributed to the abolition of capital punishment in New Jersey.

Following introductions, each panelist was given the chance to shed light on their religion’s relationship with Islam. Gabbai offered criticisms of Samuel Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations” and his hypothesis that lists cultural and religious identities as the prime source of conflict following the Cold War. Gabbai countered the ideas set for by Huntington, noting the great diversity of Islam and the difficulty in assigning Muslims from various regions into one group; “This thesis adds tension,” said Gabbai, “It offers no sense of healing.”

Father Meyer spoke next, first acknowledging the purpose of the university as a place “to learn and to grow” together and the importance of dialogue in positive, inter-faith interactions. Meyer noted that the Christian faith is known for its dedication to hospitality, which sets forth “a good model for interfaith discussion.” He spoke of three major road-blocks of productive dialogue, namely distraction, “the dilution of one’s beliefs” and “I’m right, and you need to come to my side” mentality. Recalling his experiences as the legal attaché for the Holy See Mission at the United Nations where “Europe was on my left and Palestine to the right,” Meyer believes there is no sense of independence. “We are all interdependent,” said Meyer.

Rabbi Sheinberg chose to illuminate the many examples of cooperation between the Jewish and Islamic communities in America to dispute the popular belief that these faiths live in constant tension. He referenced a recent Supreme Court case that ruled in favor of an American Muslim woman who was denied a job at Abercrombie and Fitch and told her religious identity did not align with the company’s look policies. Sheinberg discussed how various Jewish organizations supported that decision via amicus cases and support for the Muslim community has only intensified with the recent actions of the US administration regarding the travel ban and refugee crisis. He went on to provide an array of examples demonstrating the mutual support between Jews and Muslims. “This growing partnership is not everywhere, but it is a phenomenon we see this year particularly,” said Sheinberg. As the rabbi of the United Synagogue of Hoboken for the past 20 years, Sheinberg finished with a lesson he has learned being an experienced religious leader: “All religious texts have potential to be used as exclusive [but] it is the religious leaders’ responsibility to interpret the doctrine properly.”

Dr. Prasad took the lecture podium next, acting not as “a lecturer of mechanical engineering,” but as a Hindu scholar who had “grown up in a land of diversity,” recalling the first 25 years of his life spent in India. “Muslims were my neighbors, Christians were my classmates, while I was a Hindu,” said Prasad. He attested to the “insidious” power of ignorance as the root cause of “clashes and problems,” referencing the Indian Sikh who was mistakenly labeled as a Muslim and murdered following the 9/11 attacks. “We see a very advanced nation such as America plagued with this type of misunderstanding,” said Prasad. Prasad believes that when stereotypes are addressed and narrow-mindedness left, a solution can be found. “For the broadminded, the whole world is one family.”

Imam Al Hayek echoed Dr. Prasad’s concerns regarding misinterpretation, noting that many offensive acts “are done falsely in the name of faith.” Al Hayek shared verses from the Qur’an and Hadith, the Holy Book of Islam and the collection of sayings and teachings of the prophet Muhammad. He went on to explain that many misconceptions regarding Islam stem from “loss of context [and lack] of reference to history” when interpreting the religious text. He chanted one such verse that resonated with the theme of the forum, translated to, “God has not forbidden you from befriending non-Muslims, and you shall treat them with kindness and justice.” In terms of combating “the made-up industry” of Islamophobia, Imam Hayek referred to two approaches that he has encountered in his research: the integrationist and systemic models. Whereas the integrationist approach focuses on fostering relationships to reduce fear, the systemic model calls for work to be done in the political and civil arenas.

Dr. Schept then opened the floor for a brief Q&A. Panelists responded to questions regarding various topics such as teaching tolerance to children in non-religious homes, separating proselytization and open dialogue, and educating youth on religion being more than a “history of warfare”. Director of International Programs Susi Rachouh was in attendance and encouraged any students and staff interested in experiencing other cultures to speak to her directly.

Soindos Abdah, who was instrumental in Dr. Schept’s efforts to bring Imam Al Hayek to speak, found the forum to be an enlightening experience. “For the first time since I’ve been at Stevens, we were able to get community leaders from four different religions in one room with so much love and respect,” said Abdah. “As a Muslim college student, it was reassuring and heartwarming to hear about all the initiatives other religious communities are taking to make sure a hijabi like myself can feel safe and comfortable again in my own country.”