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My interfaith, intercultural story

Below is the Research Interest Area document that I submitted with my application for PhD study.  It summarizes my experience and learning related to dialog and building intercultural and interfaith understanding – basically by telling my story.

As I mentioned briefly in my Personal Statement, I see pursuing a PhD in English Studies as a chance for me to pull together some important aspects of my life experience, to research related areas, and then to find ways to appropriately apply what I find to teaching.  I have had the opportunity to live, work and interact in several different countries – with various groups of people having very different cultures, religions and socio-economic status.  These experiences have given me the chance to explore and develop understanding of intercultural and interfaith relations and dialog.

I grew up in a fairly conservative Christian environment which was pro-Israel and Christian Zionist.  Like many others, our church had prophecy conferences where the “miraculous” military victories of Israel were seen as fulfillment of biblical prophecy.  My father did his banking at Bank Leumi to “support Israel”.  The Jews were the good guys, the Arabs were the bad guys – it was that simple.  I accepted, even embraced this (to the point that, while in junior high school, I took an evening class at Philadelphia College of Bible on Dispensationalism with John McGahey).  Later, after some college, I worked as a tower-rigger which involved extensive travel in the USA and internationally.  I also, for a few years, became pen pals with a couple Egyptians.  In 1986 I was able to visit them for a couple months in Egypt after a job in Kenya and Tanzania.  In 1989 I moved to Egypt and started studying Arabic (and later TEFL at American University in Cairo).  During my first four years in Egypt (while studying) I lived in a poor area of the city which gave me a great opportunity to experience and understand typical, “shaabi” Egyptian life.

As I became friends with Arabs – both Muslims and Christians (and one Baha’i) – I had a problem.  These friendly, generous, kind friends were not “bad guys”.  And the stories I heard about the Palestine-Israeli conflict were told from a whole new (to me) perspective.  This forced a serious rethink of the theology I had learned earlier.  I also learned a lot about Islam, Eastern Christianity, and Middle East culture – partially from study, but mostly from interaction with friends.  In this process, I also learned a lot about myself and my culture.

When I moved back to the USA in 1999, and especially after 9-11, I was troubled by reactions and attitudes many had toward Arabs and Muslims – mainly fear and anger.  I found myself responding to what were intended as rhetorical comments about the Middle East.  While I was bothered, even hurt, by the comments and attitudes, I knew that my friends and acquaintances making the comments were good people, but there was a lot of information they did not have.  And they had not sat and joked with Mohammed and Radwan in an Egyptian ‘ahwa or talked with Abd il Latif and his friends in his men’s majlis while my wife chatted with his wife and other women in the women’s majlis (in the UAE).

I couldn’t give them the experience, but I could give them information.  I started teaching adult education classes at my church (and later at other churches) on the topic of Understanding Muslims and Arabs.  I found out that the “problem” was more than just a lack of information – there were various social and psychological factors at play as well.  Many who attended my classes appeared to be willing to learn, but some seemed intent on seeing Islam as negative as possible.

Fortunately, I was able to see significant change in both kinds of participants.  Pam told me that when she and her husband went on a cruise vacation, they befriended a Muslim couple, whom, she said, they would have, previous to my course, avoided.  John, at the beginning of a weekend workshop, told me very clearly his negative opinions of Arabs and Muslims.  By the end of the weekend, he accepted and promised to read Blood Brothers, an autobiography of Elias Chacour (a Palestinian Christian), which tells of his family being forced from their ancestral home in the village of Biram (in northern Galilee) in1948 by Israeli soldiers.

Some of the things that I believe helped create an environment where these people could accept new, challenging information, and then seriously consider changing their attitudes included: a trusted teacher who understood them; starting from their starting points (e.g. starting the study of Arab history from Abraham’s son, Ishmael); sufficient time to cover the material well and develop rapport; use of analogies and stories to help participants connect with Arabs and Muslims; refusing the use of social censure against ideas (e.g. not saying “How dare you think that?”, etc.); but, most importantly, NOT ignoring the tough, negative details.  With this crowd, I could not just say “Islam is a peaceful religion”.  They knew the Quranic verse, “Slay the infidels wherever you find them” (9:5) – I had to bring this up and explore it with them openly.  (See Whitewashing the Kingdom of Heaven Doesn’t Help for an analysis of the movie Kingdom of Heaven along these lines.)

In my current teaching at the American University of Beirut (AUB), given the politics and history of Lebanon, there are similar needs – and opportunities.  I had a student write in a journal entry that “if he could smash anything with a hammer and get away with it” (a journal prompt which often elicits “my alarm clock”, “my computer” etc.), he “would smash the head of Bashar al Assad, and all Syrians for that matter”.  While it is not usually expressed this graphically, there still is, I believe, a lot of tension under the mostly calm façade.  I have started to include a unit on interfaith dialog in my English composition classes, which has been well received, and I am working with students who want to start an interfaith dialog student club on campus.

From my perspective, the kind of interfaith dialog that will “work” best here in the Middle East – that will really bring about better interfaith understanding and relations – is somewhat different than much interfaith dialog in the West.  The guidelines mentioned two paragraphs above are important.  But I also believe that interfaith dialog here must be inclusive of strong, sincere believers who feel strongly that their beliefs are right and the others’ beliefs are wrong.  A more postmodern type of dialog that primarily seeks common ground and sees differences as manifestations of the same underlying truth will not be accepted by most people of faith in the Middle East.  Rather, the guidelines for dialog must allow participants to hold onto exclusive truth claims, and then express and discuss these claims respectfully.[1] I have sensed appreciation from my committed Muslim and Christian students – because they sense that this approach takes their beliefs, and their attitude toward their beliefs seriously.  I also sense a greater willingness and comfort when they talk with each other about their beliefs.[2]

I also see similar problems in the “culture wars” in the USA.  There are seemingly intractable conflicts, like creation/evolution, abortion, gay marriage, etc. where there are many who are committed to vilify the opponent.  For many, there seems to be no possibility of dialog at all.  While I have not interacted a lot with people on these issues, I feel that some of the principles I propose above could be useful in bringing about more peaceful, civil interactions.

I believe PhD study would give me a chance to, first, validate (or not) what I have learned from my experience in these areas, explore further, and then find ways to incorporate what I find into my teaching.  I see the study of all of this, especially intercultural and interfaith relations and dialog, as relating to both Cultural Studies and Rhetoric.  I also believe that it would be very appropriate and beneficial to include an inclusive dialog approach in freshman English Composition courses (along with argument development and writing).  At the risk of sounding very cliché, I think students with this training would be better able to contribute to the development of a more understanding and peaceful society.


[1] Here is an approach I developed with some students to guide interfaith discussions.

[2] These and other issues related to inclusion and dialog are discussed (philosophically and theologically) by Miroslav Volf in Exclusion and Embrace (Abbington Press, 1996) and on a more practical level in Unity and Diversity: Interfaith Dialog in the Middle East (Abu Nimr, Khoury, and Welty – USA Institute of Peace Press, 2007).  Also, see a nice, short article about how faith is experienced in the Arab world by Ryan Maher: A Priest Walks into Qatar (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/07/18/AR2008071802558_pf.html)

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