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New course explores religion, politics from global perspective

| Wednesday, February 19, 2020

This spring break, eight Notre Dame students will travel far outside the Notre Dame bubble to consider the role of religion in politics from a global perspective.

Sponsored by the Keough School of Global Affairs and the University, students in the class “Holy Cross-roads: Religion and Politics from South Bend to South Asia” will travel to Oman to meet with students in a parallel course from Notre Dame University Bangladesh, a school established in 2013 by the Congregation of Holy Cross.

The aim of the course is to look at the intersection of religion and politics across three cultural contexts: the United States, the Middle East and South Asia.

“It started as a course on religion and global politics and then we thought about how to make it more broadly a cultural exchange,” professor Jason Klocek said. “The real impetus was to try to connect students here at Notre Dame and students at Notre Dame University Bangladesh, two places where Holy Cross has been instrumental in both founding and running universities.”

The two groups of students will meet at the Al Amana Centre in Oman, which has worked to foster inter-religious and intercultural dialogue since its founding in 1987. The week will be a combination of instruction, cultural activities and downtime in which the students, who will be living together, can interact more freely and find common ground.

“It just so happens that the students that are going to be coming with us and meeting us in Oman will be Muslim, so that’s just another layer of what we’re hoping to have [in] this exchange between not just students at different schools, but students with different faith backgrounds, students with different identities,” Klocek said.

The course is offered through the Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion and is part of a larger effort by the Keough School to develop a curriculum that studies the relationship between religion and global affairs. Having real dialogue is vital to looking at the issue non-normatively, Klocek said.

“In courses here, you can explore and analyze the questions but it’s hard to experience them, particularly when it comes to religion and politics,” he said. “Understanding that it’s not a question of do they mix or is there a right way [for them to] mix, but rather thinking about: ‘How do they mix in different ways?’”

A key aspect of the class is the questions it asks, a set of queries Klocek described as “questions that keep people up at night.” A recent assignment asked students to consider the recent arrest of a folk singing group in Bangladesh accused of being anti-Muslim.

“I asked the students to think about just sort of what questions does this raise about the relationship between religion and politics in Bangladesh, the future of pluralism in Bangladesh and then how does that compare to debates going on the U.S.,” Klocek said. “There are debates about school prayer, for example, in the U.S.; so again, it’s not to say what’s going on in Bangladesh is worse than the U.S., but think about why it’s going on and then how does that make us rethink what’s going on here.”

Sophomore Ciara Donovan noted the class has been particularly helpful in grounding her understanding of whether and how religion and politics should mix.

“I think our professor does a really good job of kind of trying to dispel any negative notions we have about religion in politics, but also view them through a critical lens,” Donovan said. “So, it’s also important—especially when we’re talking about the U.S. and religion — realizing that religion isn’t a partisan issue, it’s not owned by one political party. It may be used specifically by one side more than the other, but it’s not uniquely partisan.”

For Klocek, the class is an opportunity to help students be more conscious of the presence of religion on campus and in politics, which he believes is often overlooked.

“Religion and politics and Holy Cross kind of fade into the background on campus,” Klocek said. “It’s everywhere, but then at the same time you don’t notice it. You have lots of interactions with Holy Cross priests, but it was interesting to me that people might not necessarily know their history and their organization and just sit down and talk about that.”

Rather than putting religion in a box, the class tries to come to a better understanding of the ways in which religion plays an unconscious role in human decisions.

“I think we often think about religion as causing things,” Klocek said. “Most of the time in the news, you’ll get a story about how someone did something because of their religious beliefs, whether that’s violence or peace … and so one thing we’ve talked a lot about is how religion also shapes our behavior. … Maybe you’re not walking around every day doing what you do because of religion. But religion is shaping where you gather, when you gather, how you do things, who you do it with.”

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