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Panelists discuss the global role of religion

Mary Kate Malone | Friday, September 23, 2005

As part of the inauguration of Father John Jenkins, the University hosted the Notre Dame Forum Thursday at the Joyce Center to join international religious leaders with Notre Dame representatives and discuss the role of faith in the modern world, in what organizers hope will become an annual event.

Former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw moderated the forum, entitled “Why God? Understanding Religion and Enacting Faith in a Plural World”.

“I believe the issues that are before us, these are the most critical issues not just in this country but in the global community,” Brokaw said.

The forum began with an hour-long discussion among four panelists – Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez, the archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras; Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, founder and chief executive officer of the American Society for Muslim Advancement; Naomi Chazan, a resident of Jerusalem and former deputy speaker of the Israeli Parliament; and John Danforth, former United States senator from Missouri and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

Discussion focused on the entanglement of religion and government in the Middle East, the worldwide emergence of fundamentalism and the global need for a greater acceptance of other faiths.

Panelists debated the issue of fundamentalism – primarily its definition and its negative effect on world politics.

“If there is something that causes me not to sleep at night, it’s the fundamentalists,” said Chazan, who has devoted 30 years to pursuing peace between Israelis and the Palestinians. “They believe they have all the answers to all the questions and that terrifies me and it should terrify everyone. Do not profile religion, profile those who is the name of religion assert truth because religion is about having faith.”

Rauf has spent much of his life trying to break down the barriers between the Muslim and Western worlds. He explained the Muslim viewpoint to the panelists.

“When people are dissatisfied they use their deepest value to express what is wrong. In the U.S. we say, ‘this is unconstitutional’,” Rauf said. “Well, when Muslims feel they have been wronged, they say ‘this is not Islamic.’ They look in fundamental texts and say this is unjust.

“In spite of all the hostility done by bin Laden and so forth, there have been far more innocent Muslim lives that have been taken as the result of sanctions, American invasion on Iraq and the war in Afghanistan. This is what fuels animosity in the Muslim world for Americans.”

Brokaw said the gap between the U.S and the Islamic world is perhaps wider than ever since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Danforth said he believes the rift is due to the debate over the true meaning of the word religion.

“The loudest voices are the people who advocate divisiveness, conflict and differences,” Danforth said. “The people who believe religion has an entirely different meaning have been strangely silent. Which is why this forum at a Catholic university is so important.”

The question of religion and politics spurred debate over whether the United States should be considered a Christian nation – a thought Danforth found troubling.

“It’s important for religion people to be involved with politics,” he said. “Faithful people believe is it their responsibility to participate in government. But for people to say this is a Christian nation? The answer has to be no … The separation between Church and state, I believe, is essential.”

One hour into the forum, four Notre Dame participants joined the discussion to add their own commentary. The discussion focused on Martin Marty’s book, “When Faiths Collide.” Panelists were in agreement with Marty’s belief that hospitality, as opposed to tolerance, is the key to uniting people of different faiths.

Lawrence Sullivan, a professor at Notre Dame with a deep understanding of native religions in South America, described how tolerance does not necessarily promote mutual understanding.

“Tolerance is based on ‘let’s all get along, let’s not bring up anything serious,’ ” he said. “But people in their guts live on serious issues. So tolerance means not turning up those issues that bands groups of people together. But if we promote hospitality, we are welcoming the other in, and presenting oneself for a deeper exchange.”

Lack of understanding can be seen in the way the Western world views the role of women in Muslim cultures.

“The veil head covering has become a visible symbol of the assumed repression of women in Islamic society,” said Notre Dame professor Asma Afsaruddin. “But many women find it a sign of liberation. The overwhelming conception we get from the media is that a woman in a headscarf is a very oppressed person.”

Brokaw did not shy away from the controversial questions. He asked Cardinal Rodriquez for his thoughts on the soon-to-be-published document from the Vatican stating homosexuals will not be accepted into the priesthood.

“People that are afraid of flying will never be a pilot,” Rodriguez said. “If someone has a fear of blood, they will never be a surgeon. The same is true for ordained ministry … I am aware that the priesthood is not for people oriented in that [homosexual] direction.”

Despite their differences, each panelist shared a belief in God. Rauf said Muslim Americans do not feel isolated when politicians say “God bless America.”

“We believe the God of Moses, the God of Jesus and the God of Muhammed are all the same God.”