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Modernities’ begins in New York

By Sarah Mervosh | Monday, November 22, 2010

NEW YORK — Notre Dame holds countless lectures and panels, but it is not customary for University President Fr. John Jenkins to speak at each event.


Last week’s launch of the Contending Modernities research initiative was different.


Jenkins, who stood behind a podium in clerical clothing, delivered the opening remarks. Next to him, the Grand Mufti of Egypt channeled in via Skype, donning a white turban and sitting in front of bookcases filled with Arabic texts.


The contrast between these two leaders’ attire, and the medium they used to communicate with the audience, embodied everything Contending Modernities hoped to accomplish — to cross barriers between Muslims and Catholics in the context of a modern world.


Their remarks launched what is to be a several year research and public education project. This initial phase focuses on the relationship between Catholicism, Islam and secularism.


“This initiative builds on the simple strength of Notre Dame — a great research university and a religious mission,” Jenkins told The Observer. “That puts Notre Dame at the heart of some of the most important issues in the world today.”


Contending Modernities kicked off Thursday and Friday at the Sheraton Hotel in New York City. Notre Dame faculty joined Muslim leaders and religious scholars to deliver a lecture and panel discussion.


Jenkins said New York was the ideal launching site for the initiative.


“New York is such a center of communication and activity of all sorts, for the world, not simply for the United States,” he said. “To do it here brings us to the crossroads of ideas and discussions and cultures to start this important initiative.”


Though the project was planned before the controversy over building a mosque near the World Trade Center site began, the debate made New York an even better fit for the launch, Jenkins said.


“I think some of the remarks, not all of them, some of them really did show an unhelpful prejudice toward the religious group, to take what a small portion of that is doing [and make] it characterize everybody,” he said. “We must find a way to understand different religious traditions.”


John McGreevy, dean of the College of Arts and Letters, showed how this type of prejudice has occurred throughout history in Thursday’s lecture. He compared the present struggles of Muslim Americans to that of Catholics in the early 20th century.


For example, he said some people made judgments about Catholics’ “unusual clothes.”


“These complaints are eerily similar to complaints we hear now about contemporary Muslims,” he said.


Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt and one of the world’s most recognized Muslim scholars, sat in on the conference electronically while his special advisor Ibrahim Negm delivered the speech in person.


Gomaa considered how modern technology has lead to new cultural and political developments.


“The challenge is how to ensure that Muslims are participants and partners in the modern world, confronting new realities with wisdom and balance, while remaining faithful to our religious traditions,” he said.


Friday’s panel tackled the issue of women and family in Catholic and Islamic societies.


Ingrid Mattson, former president of the Islamic Society of North America, pointed to classical Islamic law to show how traditional rules need to be taken in context and adjusted for a modern world.


“It’s very protective of women and children. You could say this is paternalistic,” she said. “But if you look at an environment where there is no political security, where going out beyond the borders of a secure area could mean being abducted or being raped … Now it looks like common sense.”


She warned against making such laws essential in the modern day world.


“That’s where we can easily make adjustments, but at the same time say they serve a purpose in certain places,” Mattson said. “I think it’s that issue of judgment that you bring.”


The panel also addressed issues such as birth control, in vitro fertilization and same-sex marriage in the context of Catholicism, Islam and secularism.


While Catholicism generally opposes forms of birth control, Mattson said Islam does not.


“There were all sorts of varieties of birth control in medieval Islam. Birth control was permitted and it still is,” Mattson said. “I think that is a very good thing for women, having access to birth control gives them more opportunities and choices in life.”


The conference took place the same weekend as the football game against Army in New York City and Jenkins said the pairing was an opportunity to draw attention to the University’s academic accomplishments.


“We have a football game here and to see that brings attention but that’s simply a vehicle to make people aware of the great educational and intellectual endeavors that take place at Notre Dame,” he said.


Jenkins said the conference’s mission was particularly important for Catholics, and for Notre Dame as a Catholic University.


“Unless we’re engaged in dialogue with other religious traditions, we’re not genuinely Catholic because we’re called to unity with all human beings. We’re called to respect all genuine expressions of the faith,” he said. “If we fail to do this, we will be less Catholic.”


He said the Contending Modernities initiative was a “tremendous opportunity and call” for Notre Dame to provide discussion, debate and inquiry.


“That’s why I’m excited about this conference,” Jenkins said.