Center for Interfaith Cooperation

Hoosiers of Many Faiths in Community

Critical conversations at the Festival of Faiths

One of the great new additions to the 2015 Indy Festival of Faiths was the Social Awareness Table Conversations: enjoyable and serious discussions of several of the most pressing issues facing Indianapolis and the world. They continued in 2016. Representative Susan Brooks kicked off the conversations by reflecting on the importance of civil dialogue about divisive issues.

Rep. Susan Brooks kicks off the Social Awareness Table Conversations

[stextbox id=”grey” caption=”Topics of the 2016 Table Conversations”]

Religious Freedom and its Limits.  An Indiana mother recently defended beating her young child because her religion taught her to do just that.  This table will explore the limits of religious freedom by discussing this and similar cases. Conversation led by Don Knebel.

Patriotism vs. Protest. NFL player Colin Kaepernick has sparked controversy by refusing to stand during the National Anthem. How should symbols of the country such as flag and anthem be treated in light of systemic injustice in the country? Conversation to be led by Pierre Atlas.

The Refugee Crisis from the Inside. A Syrian-Hoosier college students helps explore the experience of refugees from the Middle East. Conversation led by Lynn Alsatie.

Racism on College Campuses. A recent book calls college campuses “some of the most racially hostile spaces in the United States.” How can racism be prevented while protecting free speech and open intellectual debate? Conversation led by Lang Brownlee.

The Impact of Islamophobia on American Muslims. As anti-Muslim rhetoric increases, how are Muslims in America responding? How can non-Muslims best help them? Conversation led by Faryal Khatri.


Refugee Crisis  — Lynn Alsatie moderator

  • Each conversation had a different focus. For one, the issue driving people was the impact the refugee crisis is having on Europe; for another, it was the economic and political effects of the crisis But every conversation came to the question: what can we in Indianapolis do to help?
  • The refugee crisis in Europe has contributed to increasing nationalism. There’s a negative feedback loop: treating refugees like they are a threat increases the marginalization of refugees, which can contribute to some turning toward terrorism.
  • A question: How can one’s religious faith influence one’s perception and political action toward refugees?
  • The refugee issue in the US is closely connected to controversies over Islam and its relation to other faiths.
  • Every generation has struggled with anxieties about newcomers. In Indiana, you can see a big difference between the relative diversity of Indianapolis vs. the homogeneity of small towns.
  • Some are worried that refugees could take jobs from native-born Americans. After all, refugees have shown themselves to be willing to take risks, work hard to escape danger … these traits could make them appealing workers.
  • Don’t refugees want to go back home? There’s a generational divide: older refugees want to return when the fighting is over; younger refugees have started making new lives for themselves in the country in which they’ve been resettled, they see their new country as their home.
  • Remember the Pilgrims coming to America: we have been a country of immigrants ever since.

Islamophobia – Faryal Khatri moderator

  • Islamophobia is in part a well-funded movement. See the Canter for American Progress’s Fear Inc.
  • Islamophobia is a new media issue. News outlets contribute to an exaggerated fear of Muslims. There’s a greater chance for Americans to be killed by a toddler than by a terrorist.
  • Few people are exposed to a counter-narrative. Jihad has always been an act of defense. Today it is not necessary, and those who call for jihad can be seen as extremists.
  • Islamophobia means humiliation: special treatment by TSA, slurs, people asking to change seats on planes so they don’t have to sit next to someone they think is a Muslim, restrictions on activities, the threat of violence. It means dehumanization.
  • How can we be ambassadors to counter Islamophobia? Visit a mosque. Interfaith friendships can contribute to a sense of safety when it’s time to “circle the wagons” to stand up to Islamophobic acts and threats.
  • Islamophobia in Europe and the US differ in part because Muslims arrived in different circumstances.
  • Islam “feels new” because many people don’t know about the centuries-long history of Islam in America.
  • Many Muslims feel freer to practice their faith in the US than in Muslim-majority countries because of America’s traditions of toleration.

Religious freedom and its limits –Don Knebel moderator

A recent story from Indianapolis attracted national attention. A mother from Burma was accused of beating her child. She has defended her actions by her Christian beliefs and Biblical commands.

  • This is in part a case of an individual’s religious rights conflicting with society’s responsibility for protecting minors. The protection of a child is given priority over protecting religious practices. Religion is irrelevant when the child’s right to safety is threatened.
  • We see something similar with some religious views of medical treatment. When people make instructions about end-of-life care, they often base them on religious views. Their ideas about God, for instance, may shape their views of passive vs. active medical intervention. It is more complicated when these decisions are made for a minor, who relies on parents or guardians making the best possible decisions. And it’s even more complicated when we have to take into account the religious beliefs of the minor herself.
  • Another way we limit religious freedom is by individuals displaying religious symbols in public places. Clothing, for instance, is seen as personal freedom and self-expression that harms no one. But sometimes it’s argued that articles of religious clothing (e.g. burkas and veils for women) can be a security hazard because it hides identity at the same time it’s a religious requirement. In the US there are other ways of ensuring safety than banning covering one’s face.
  • Can employees be forced to work on their religions’ holy days? There needs to be an up-front discussion about job requirements vs. religiosity.

Patriotism vs. Protest – Pierre Atlas moderator

49er QB Colin Kaepernick has drawn attention for his protest of the National Anthem before football games. Is the most effective way of protesting social and racial injustice in the US? Is it an insult to people who’ve served the country in the military?

  • At Herron High School, a teacher reports, more students have been opting out of the Pledge of Allegiance. You can thus see the impact of Kaepernick on students.
  • In 1943 the Supreme Court ruled that Jehovah’s Witnesses couldn’t be forced to Pledge Allegiance. People have been protesting like this for a long time, so maybe Kaepernick’s protest has been an effective way of starting a conversation.
  • But not standing during the Anthem can be ambiguous, unlike civil disobedience, which breaks an unjust law. Thus kneeling during the Anthem might just be a personal or private form of protest. Protest is like any form of communication: the message for the protester might not be the message that is received.
  • Part of the controversy over the Anthem is a difference between internet outrage and real outrage.
  • Some suggested reading NY Times columnist David Brooks on the question:
  • On insulting servicepersons through protest: many vets say they’re honored by the exercise of rights that the vets risked life and safety to protect.
  • Sometimes protests can inspire people to try to learn more. Example: a group of Ball State students wore red squares of paper and raised their fists during the Anthem before a football game. The protest led people to try to figure out what was being protested (a controversial sorority photo and a racist note near campus).

Some of the reasons people who were part of the conversation disagree with Kaepernick:

  • The NFL has protected Kaeernick’s right to protest, but they didn’t protect Tim Tebow in the same way when he knelt in prayer after TDs.
  • We expect celebrities to be role models, is this a proper action for a role model?
  • Kaepernick didn’t exhaust all other avenues to express his views. E.g. he didn’t hold press conferences about injustice. If he had, he might be justified to protest publicly.
  • Because he is part of a team, in protesting Kaepernick is being unfair to his teammats.

Racism on campuses – Lang Brownlee moderator

  • How should you handle situations of racism? Should you confront individuals or not say anything? Direct conversations are a great place to start.
  • Do universities have an obligation to require diversity training for their faculty and staff? Should colleges be held to a higher standard than other institutions? Students are, after all, susceptible to the opinions of their professors.
  • Should universities require “safe spaces”? Some think college campuses have become intellectually hostile environments.
  • How can we be in solidarity with minority communities on campus? Daily behavior could be as important as being a “social justice warrior”
  • Students of color are met with pressure to “assimilate” as soon as they step on campus.
  • How do we connect with people outside our “circles of comfort”? Listen!
  • How can we stand in solidarity? Must include rhetoric of inclusion. Promote dialogue between different and diverse groups.