Discussing differences opens gateway to interfaith dialogue

On Tuesday night, I attended an event hosted by the Rutgers Hillel Center for Israel Engagement called “Debunking Myths About the Middle East: Examining Human Rights Violations Against Minorities in the Islamist World.” The talk, attended by a standing-room-only crowd of Jews, Muslims and other Rutgers students, was given by two women: human rights attorney, author and award-winning filmmaker Brooke Goldstein and physician, author and human rights activist Dr. Qanta Ahmed.

With earnest importance, they presented human rights issues affecting minorities across the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan based on their own experiences living, working and researching in those areas. Issues they discussed included the indoctrination of children and coercion of societal outcasts to become suicide bombers in the name of religion, the separation of children from their homes to force them into terrorist groups and harsh bigotry and murder that has incited stifling fear through minority populations. At the core of their arguments was a tragic reality.

Goldstein spoke of a child with Down syndrome to whom terrorists strapped a remote-controlled bomb that they set off at a polling station during an Iraqi election. She recounted her interviews with Palestinian children who declared that they wanted to become suicide bombers. Ahmed told the story of a Christian woman declared a blasphemer and imprisoned for asking for water from her Muslim fellow field workers. All their stories signaled critical issues of a scale and seriousness I had not previously realized, and that resonated with me powerfully.

Both Ahmed and Goldstein made an extensive effort to point out that the groups responsible for these human rights violations do not represent Islam, but are a perversion of the religion. However, the question and answer session rapidly escalated into a fiery argument over the use of the term “Islamists” to label these terrorists whoact in the name of their religious beliefs.

Though Ahmed argued that the term is commonly used in political science and academic literature, used to differentiate a violent religious ideology, many Muslim students argued that the term “Islamist” itself, referring to murderers and terrorists, demonizes all Muslims.

The argument got out of hand. Questions that became focused solely on attacking the credentials of the speakers left Goldstein and Ahmed feeling personally attacked, and they left unceremoniously before calm returned. This saddened me because, as a consequence, the very real issues of human rights abuses being discussed that evening were not addressed.

But one positive thing that came out of the evening was a discussion among a few Muslim and Jewish students that took place once the speakers left. In our Hillel building, I witnessed for the first time since I have been on campus a productive dialogue between students with clear differences. A handful of students stayed afterwards, and we began to inch toward a level of understanding between the groups and a mutual eagerness and willingness to listen and communicate.

That evening I learned of and became sensitive to the attack many Muslims feel when “Islamist” is used to describe people and actions that are demonstrably evil. The term is often heard differently than how the program’s speakers defined it.

I sympathize with this concern articulated by many of the Muslim attendants because I love Israel and believe the Jewish people, like all other peoples, have a right to self-determination in our own national home. This makes me a Zionist. Yet many, including some Muslim students in that room, define that term differently and demonize it.

Though I left unhappy with many aspects of the event, I left reassured. Most of the students at Rutgers are still young, and we are still shaping our views and ourselves. It is great to be in college, where we are encouraged to open up to different views and challenge many things that we once accepted without question. In the end, Hillel created an environment that pushed students to dispel close-minded thoughts and beliefs.

We live in an era where conflict often promotes one-sided arguments from both sides. Students often talk over each other rather than to each other. I am elated that the event fostered productive conversation that I hope will continue in the future.

Sarah Harpaz is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in planning and public policy.

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