Reports from CIC’s Interfaith Lecture Series
The Center for Interfaith Cooperation co-sponsored several events with Indianapolis universities as part of its Interfaith Lecture Series. Global Indy’s SPEA Scholars filed these reports.
Interfaith Lecture Series
Mahatma Gandhi once stated, “Intolerance is a species of violence and therefore against our creed.” The discussion of combating religious intolerance is one that is very much needing to be covered. Gustav Niebuhr, author of Beyond Tolerance: How People across America Are Building Bridges between Faiths spoke upon three dangerous topics in society being religious, violence, and speech. Niebuhr integrated personal prior life experiences along with family stories to tie in and connect audience members. By doing this, Niebuhr encouraged a passive audience to become more engaged. His use of real world experiences about Obama, Pope Francis, Isis and even most recently the events in Paris were eye opening and emphasized the need for interfaith education, acceptance and tolerance.
One of the most surprising things of the night included Niebuhr’s eye witness account as being a young journalist for the New York Times during the tragic events of 9/11. He recalled the office at the time being ready to cover riots and the gap of religions. Instead of that, he remembered a broken community coming together and reaching out towards people of many religions. He even added the concept of forming a group called “watchful eyes”, which is an organization that would open the community’s eyes to watch out for each other against those mistreating those of other religions. He also elaborated on the increased support of interfaith cooperation and engagement. On a more local level, Niebuhr mentioned Plainfield, Indiana and its role in acting as a headquarters for interfaith.
As the entire event drew to a close, the organization allotted for questions to be asked. Questions were asked by members of the interfaith community, along with students from the college. Among those questions asked, one that stood out the most to me included whether or not atheists and those considered agnostics were encouraged to invite themselves into the so called interfaith community. This specific question got audience members to thinking and even encouraged them to think of ways to rephrase interfaith, to inter-tradition.
Upon leaving the event, discussions over the event broke out amongst groups of individuals. One student believed that ethnocentricity was the root cause of religion having issues. They also believed that passive participants of religion can help to convey tolerance and not be as detrimental as others. Another group of students were overheard saying even, “open mindedness is the key to tolerance.” Considering this event was held at a primarily faith based college, it was to be assumed there would’ve been a larger number of attendees. A huge opportunity was missed due to the fact that specific groups of students could have attended, or have been required to go. After all, getting the word out about the interfaith community is key.
David Carlson on “What Americans Should Know About ISIS/ISIL”
When we look into the eyes of terror, what do we see? Many American find it hard to forget the images and videos of terrorism that have been plastered over news networks in the past few months. American, Japanese, Jordanian, and hostages from various other nationalities have been brutally murdered at the hands of the terrorist organization widely known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Although ISIL’s wide spread presence in mainstream media has come about only recently, ISIL’s actions and ambitions are the result of a nightmarish “perfect storm” generations in the making.
The Middle East has proven to be a difficult place for many Americans to understand. The majority of United States citizens would be hard pressed to identify the countries within the region, let alone the difference between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. For these reasons, I find it extremely important Americans learn as much as possible about this little understood region of the world. To begin this exploration for myself, I attended an event called “What Americans Should Know About ISIS/ISIL”, put on by Professor David Carlson, a religious studies professor at Franklin College. In his presentation, Professor Carlson provided a brief history of the Middle East, the impact of American and European foreign policy, and possible solutions to the crisis the Middle East is currently experiencing.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) mean quite different things, contrary to many people’s beliefs. Dr. Carlson preferred to use the term ISIL because it appropriately states the organization’s overall goal. The “L” in the acronym ISIL represents the Levant, which is a term used to describe the states along the Eastern Mediterranean: Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and Egypt. ISILs paramount goal is to redraw the map of the Ottoman Empire exactly as it was many centuries ago. In their eyes this is not merely a glorious past, but God’s will.
Before we dove into the meat of the presentation, Dr. Carlson identified the two major denominations of Islam, Sunni and Shia. Roughly 85% of all Muslims are Sunni while another roughly 15% are Shi’a. The leader of the Sunni community is referred to as the Caliph while the leader of Shi’a is referred to as the Imam. In their most basic forms, Sunni Muslims believe the leader of the Islamic community (the Ummah) should be elected by the people while Shi’a Muslims believe the leader should be a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.
The Ottoman Empire, the region that once encompassed a large portion of the Middle East, was on the losing side of World War I. In the wake of the Ottoman Empire’s defeat, France and Britain began dividing up this ethnically diverse region full of tribes and tradition in the Sykes Picot Agreement of 1916. In the eyes of ISIL, al Qaeda, and many more extremist organizations, this was a travesty. Upon drawing the new borders, France controlled Syria and Lebanon while Britain controlled Israel, Jordan, and Iraq. The European powers of the day falsely assumed Islamic society, culture, and religion, were both exotic and inferior/backward.
In an effort to unite Arabs within the region in the face of the European powers and the Sykes Picot Agreement, Egypt and Syria formed the United Arab Republic in 1958, which quickly fell through in 1961. Less than two decades after the United Arab Republic dissolved, the Shi’a leader known as Ayatollah Ali Khomeini seized power in Iran and declared Iran a theocracy, allowing him to rule by the power of God. He pushed out the forces that had been humiliating to him and his followers, namely the Sunni. Around this time, Iraq contained a Shi’a majority ruled by a Sunni minority. While in office, Saddam Hussein and his Sunni dominated government massacred around 150,000 Shi’a and Kurds in gas attacks and other acts of genocide. In Lebanon, the Christian population was plummeting fast due to the rising intensity of the civil war within the state. Hezbollah, a terrorist organization covertly funded by the Shi’a led Iran, was ferociously operating in Lebanon during this time.
Decades later, with the atrocities committed against one another engrained deep within their memory, Sunni and Shi’a began fighting each another to “take back” control of Iraq after the United States invaded in 2003. This conflict between Sunni and Shi’a led to endless deployments of American troops to the region in an attempt to provide the seemingly unobtainable goal of security. When the dust settled, democratic elections were held in Iraq. Populating nearly 65% of the region, the Shi’a majority won the vote and the people elected Nouri al-Maliki to the position of Prime Minister of Iraq. Maliki, a Shi’a, soon made it evident he was not interested in power sharing and began cutting the health benefits to the Sunni people while also refusing to fund the Sunni dominated ranks of the Iraqi Army in the North and West of the country, the area bordering Syria.
The situation in Syria wasn’t much better, quite worse in fact. President Bashar al-Assad was facing in-country opposition from several militant groups and terrorist organizations due to his oppressive rule and the chemical weapons he used on his own people. Americans placed their hopes in the moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) and trusted in their ability to topple Assad and bring democracy to Syria. These hopes were quickly dashed due to the complexity of the ground war, drawing hundreds of militant groups into the fight against one another. It is in this environment that the remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq were able to fester, attract recruits, acquire weaponry, gain strategic ground, and take on the pseudonym of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
As Dr. Carlson so aptly noted, the smoldering feelings of frustration and humiliation from Sunnis, Ba’athists, and Iraqi Sunni soldiers explained ISILs rapid advance across the northwestern portions of Iraq. Maliki marginalized these individuals in the years leading up to ISIL’s invasion, damaging their will to fight on behalf of his corrupt government. The culmination of these factors has contributed to ISIL’s ability to capture and hold many strategic areas within Iraq for the time being.
To ultimately defeat ISIL and discredit their ideology, Dr. Carlson posed some possible solutions. He argued the U.S. might have a beachhead of Western-style democratic values and ideals in the center of the troubled region if Iraq becomes committed to a possible power sharing future. However, he noted this might not be possible due to the rampant corruption in the military and the government. Also, he had reservations about Iran sitting idly by as this happened. A second option/question he explored was if Syria’s civil war could end with Assad’s ouster, would the FSA be capable of coming to power while defeating ISIL and other terrorist organizations? Due to the complex situation on the ground, Dr. Carlson interestingly noted we are fighting alongside Israel, Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah against ISIL, though we are not in direct cooperation. The third solution Dr. Carlson presented was the possibility of the U.S. balancing our interests with those of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran, which each hold different beliefs. The fourth option he explores is the possibility of bankrupting ISIL, realizing some faults in this method due to the fact ISIL is not a “donor based” organization and has the ability to make money on the black market. Lastly, the fifth solution Dr. Carlson presented was the importance of interfaith bridge building, noting the war with ISIL is as much a military fight as an ideological one.
The presentation given by Dr. Carlson was extremely articulate and well thought out. From my estimates, about 40 people of varying ages attended this presentation in the campus center theatre. These individuals ranged in age from young college students to senior citizens. Each individual in attendance seemed highly interested in learning about this infamous terrorist organization and the events leading to its formation. Drawing on this interest, the IUPUI Common Theme Project sponsored this event as it directly pertained to their objective of initiating thoughtful conversations among the public in order to help them make sense of complex situations and conflicts in our globally interconnected world. The other sponsors were the Office of International Affairs and the Peace Network.
Mainstream American perception of Islam has been tainted recently by events unfolding in the news. Often times the media produces stories for the sheer shock and awe factor that coincides with increased ratings. I believe the goal of this event was to get Americans to realize the detrimental policies we’ve supported coupled with our ignorance when it comes to the largely peaceful religion of Islam have come together to assist in the creation of the extremist organizations we see today. Instead of using weapons and war to address these disaffected people, Dr. Carlson challenged us to think of interfaith cooperation and relationship building as a way to tackle the toxic ideologies espoused by these organizations. In addition, I believe the event was put on to gain more volunteers for the revolutionary mission of the Center for Interfaith Cooperation. As someone who has followed the rise of al Qaeda and ISIL very closely, I think Dr. Carlson succeeded in his objective to change mainstream public perception of Islam. He effectively noted that ISIL has hijacked this religion, putting a radical spin on it to identify with disaffected individuals who feel alienated by their impassionate cultures at home.
This event was a true eye opener in many ways and didn’t need much improvement. If I had to suggest a few improvements, I would say the following. I would’ve liked to see more politicians at the event including key Indiana policymakers who decide how government tackles these very issues. More students from the military, the Global and International Studies program, and Political Science program should have been in attendance to learn from the diplomatic and military mistakes our country has made in the past. It would’ve also been valuable to host key members of the media for this presentation because the views and biases they hold have the potential to affect a large audience, in both positive and negative ways.
On Tuesday January 29 at IUPUI campus, Dr. David Carlson provided historical information about the Middle East after the world war one. Dr Carlson talked about the caliphate from the sunni and shi’a perspective, sunni makes 85% of Muslims and shi’a makes less than 15% of Muslims; sunni and shi’a have disagreement about the leader of Ummah (The community). The European colonized the Middle East under Sykes Picot Agreement which divided the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire outside the Arabian Peninsula into areas of future British and French influence. In 1958 till 1962 the United Arab Republic was formed then, between Syria and Egypt. The main purpose of the unity is encouraging other Arab countries such as Kuwait and Oman under British influence, Algeria under the French influence, and Libya under the Italian control to gain their freedom. In 1979, the Iranian revolution started against the shah by the imam kamine and considered as a leader of shi’a in Iran and the shi’a in the Islamic nations. He also talked about the Lebanese war in 1980 and Christian population decreased from 29% to 16% while Hezbollah increased in strength and influence.
Dr. Carlson’s purpose was informative; he wanted us to learn about ISIS through the Islamic history such as knowing what are caliphate and the issue between sunni and shi’a since the death of prophet Mohammad, the growth of Islamic movement after the end of ottoman empire. Three reasons why Al- Qadea declared a war on United Stated in September 11, 2001, the first reason is that United States killed 500000 Iraqi children during the first gulf war against Iraq in 1991, the second reason is the support of the United States to Israel against Palestine issue, and finally the third reason is the presence of American troops in the holy land of Saudi Arabia.
To some extent Dr. Carlson succeeded in achieving his purpose, in my opinion he covered how ISIS established and flourished in the Middle East and encouraged the sectarianism between sunni and shi’a, but most information was about the past history of Islam, outman empire, european involvement and the wars in the mid 1900s of the middle east. He should have covered the present activities of ISIS and foreign citizens from Europe and United States join ISIS army.
It was very condense information during one event, he covered many subjects in a short time, he should have one subject regards ISIS in one event. Many people do not know what ISIS have done to Christians and minorities in Iraq, they gave Christians of Iraq three options, convert to Islam, pay jizya or death. He did not focus on ISIS mission or their goal or the most common question that people ask “Is ISIS part of Islam” many people have different opinion regarding this question.
Days after the presentation, I had the good fortune of asking Dr. Carlson some questions I was pondering. These questions are below. I wanted to leave them untouched to give anyone who reads this review the ability to openly interpret and debate his answers. In addition, if you’re interested in reading more about the formation of terrorist organizations using religion as motivation and justification, Dr. Carlson recommended a book written by Jessica Stern titled Terror in the Name of God.
EH: In your view, what should be done about Syria from a U.S. perspective?
Dr. Carlson- I see our options as limited, as US and/or European-led offensives against Assad or ISIS would recall earlier colonial action in this region. The future of the region is, in the end, not for the US to decide, but for Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, and smaller Islamic states to resolve. If they would lead, then the US and/or Europe could assist. But the chances of Saudi Arabia and Iran working together are not good.
EH: ISIL has a slick media campaign that appeals to a young restless generation around the world. How can governmental or nongovernmental organizations around the world counteract this?
Dr. Carlson- As the ending of my talk tries to suggest, I believe that youth attracted to ISIS have rejected contemporary Western values of materialism and ultra-individualism. So that means that we cannot tempt such youth with these values. What is the vision of the West for a more humane future for especially the poorer countries of the world? If we do not have a program and vision, are we then not saying that we are enjoying the inequality of the world where we benefit as the rich while the rest of the world suffers in hunger, poverty, and disease?
Although I am not a Catholic, I find the leadership of Pope Francis at this time in our history to be important, and I look to him for leadership. I see him as an influential and compelling a visionary as any person in ISIS. He has rightly observed that the answer to fundamentalism abroad cannot be fundamentalism here. He has also rightly asked the West to ponder our greed.
I also am devoting energy to the interfaith movement, especially those opportunities to make spiritual friends between Christians and Muslims. Religions in the future will either build walls of separation or bridges of understanding.
EH: If you were making a counter radicalization movie, what messages would you convey to young people?
Dr. Carlson- As I see ISIS as a distorted spiritual vision, I believe that any counter-vision must be rooted in spiritual values—especially compassion for the poor and needy. Religious violence grows in the soil of despair and humiliation. We must change the conditions of the poorest in the world if we want to counter terrorism.
EH: As you and I both know, there is a difference between Muslim extremists and most Muslims. Many Americans have grown to identify anyone who looks Muslim as a sympathizer. What does the media need to do to change this perception?
Dr. Carlson- The media is catching up to its responsibilities, but Muslim reporters and newsmen and women need to be on NBC, CBS, ABC, as well as Al-Jezeera. We need to identify and use moderate Muslim voices to speak about ISIS and against ISIS.
EH: Although we have captured or killed many of Al Qaeda’s key leaders, offshoots like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Boko Haram continue to kill thousands of people around the world. These organizations remain a significant threat to global security. Even if we eliminate ISIL, we will not eliminate the strong religious and ideological divides that have lead to the formation of these organizations. As we go forward to counter terrorism in the future, what is the advice you’d give to key decision-makers in the U.S. government?
Dr. Carlson- As with the above, this is an excellent question. We cannot fall for the belief that weapons, air-power, or a greater number of troops will eliminate religious terrorism. People who join these terrorist organizations are seeking to strike back against oppression, humiliation, and corruption. The West must stop propping up corrupt leaders and hit directly at the social conditions (hunger, humiliation, and oppression) that gives rise to terrorism. Put succinctly, we need the Peace Corps approach more than the military one.
Catholic Relief Services- Field Update from Front Lines: Most Pressing Humanitarian Emergencies Today
The speaker that I was able to hear was Kim Pozniak, a communication and media operate for catholic relief services in Africa. She began the discussion with what is not reported in the news about the terror across seas. She mentioned that seventy five percent of women and children having to flee from the effects of war and terror or the men that are having to stay behind and keep property save and securing lives of the elderly, says Pozniak. She continued she expressed that while she was there, a lot of the women do not want to be photographed, they do not want to be identified or associated with anti-reign because they want to go back home after this issue is over, which spoke volumes about the issues that are taking place in these countries.
As these families are being isolated from themselves and their homes they are taking refuge in churches and camps within Lebanon and Jordan. Running out of resources for these families these boarders are being closed, but again these issues are not the focal point in news reports. The churches and camps that these families are staying in are constricted areas with the issues of weather causing issues with sanitation and structure stability. The children that are enduring this crisis are not going to school and parents are not working, lives have been fully rearranged because of the issue of war.
As this issue is occurring Syria. Central Africa Republic is experiencing issues with rebel groups Seleka and Anti-Balaka. These groups are running people of the Muslim religion out of their neighborhoods. Resources are scarce in this country just as Syria and the Muslims are forced to have to learn how to live away from home because of the issue of terror. While both instances of human suffering crisis is occurring the Catholic Relief Services has provided medical, food, education, living assistance, and hygiene products. The CRS also provides children with trauma counseling within Syria and peace building efforts workshops for Central Africa Republic. These issues in many ways are being over looked by what the media has depicted. In conclusion, as Pozniak concluded her presentation I will conclude this description of her presentation “if you are here spread the word”.
The professors at Marian University and the student ambassadors for relief services were able to accomplish the goal of awareness by first having this speaker come out and inform attendees about the human crisis in both Syria and Central Africa Republic. They were also able to accomplish their goal by getting people involved through a question and answer section of the presentation, as well having time to network after the presentation. If anything could have been done differently they should have had the small crowd together in one area of the presentation rather than having people scattered all over the auditorium to bring a sense of togetherness to the atmosphere. Although, even with the small group that did come this event did happen, if not there would still be little knowledge about these issues.
What surprised me the most about this issue, was how media can dictate what we know and do not know about the issue of the suffering in these countries. It is amazing how much media can influence the judgment of what is going happening on the surface of things, but completely isolated the effects of the issues at hand. What is known is what we can see in these instance and it is unfortunate that we are not fully aware of what is going on completely in these countries. This issue in itself surprises me the most. I myself have been called to rethink what I see compared to what really is and it takes little effort to find further information about this that do go on beyond what is scene. So I believe this event was very successful in that manner, and in the manner of finding someone like Pozniak that still has hope in our own society to not just sit around and take what the media portrays to us. Instead she takes on the role of informing those who are seeing one side of issues that are depicted by an everyday function such as watching the news. If the organizers had to do anything else different with this program it would have been to of made this event take place somewhere like the state house to bring awareness of concern about this issue to legislators.
I attended a lecture at Marian College regarding the humanitarian issues going on mainly regarding Syrian Refugees and the crisis in Central African Republic. The lecture was led by Kim Pozniak, who works in communications for CRS (Catholic Relief Services). She documents CRS work all over the world and has been working with CRS for 8 years.
There are currently 38 million refuges that have fled from Syria for fear of their lives. They found shelter in Jordan, Lebanon and some other surrounding countries. There are 78 million people who have been displaced from their homes and it continues to grow. 75% of the refuges are women and children, mainly because the men either stayed to fight and protect their homes, or have been killed. Some of the churches and facilities they stay in have up to 80 refugees. It is hard to be comfortable and there is not much to eat. CRS brings them relief by working with an organization based in Jordan and Lebanon. They help to provide medical care, food, living supplies, shelter, livelihood, hygiene, counseling, and child education. Many of the refugees are people who lived completely normal lives before the crisis, including those who are doctors, engineers, teachers etc. They are finding it extremely difficult and frustrating to cope with what is going on.
Central African Republic (CAR) has an issue going on that many people do not know about. In 2013, a Muslim group known as Seleka overthrew the government, burning homes and killed everyone in their path. A short time later, another group called Anti Balaka formed in revenge of Seleka. They are a radical Christian group who are doing a similar thing as the Selekas- killing every Muslim in their path and destroying homes. 1/4th of the CAR citizens have been displaced. The conflict is one of political power, but it has a face of religion. What once were markets full of Muslim merchants are now empty streets. CRS has come over to bring food and goods to help those who are still hiding from the groups. The families hide in tents and wait for trouble to subside. The infrastructure is in terrible condition, so it is extremely difficult to even bring help.
The lecture had quite a few students, being as it on a college campus. I spoke to a few of the students and most said they were there for a class requirement. One woman said she was there in hopes of finding a career in the CRS. I was surprised how many people were there and I think the students seemed very interested in what was going on and wanted to know how to help. The speakers also provided us with ways on how we can help the CRS respond to the crises. They did a good job on showing us real victims through PowerPoint slideshow and Kim gave us several stories both uplifting and heartbreaking from the victims. After the talk I donated a share to the victims and I saw others donating too. I believe if these kinds of lectures continue and there is more publicity for people to come to these events, it will really give a boost to the CRS to continue to help the victims.