Genuine Community Does Not Mean Equal Community: Taking a Seat at the Interfaith Table (@theTable: Intersecting Islamophobia)
By Jem Jebbia.
I remember a concrete feeling of confusion and frustration one day in my Practice of Ministry course while studying in the University of Chicago’s Master of Divinity Program. Each week, our assignment was to reflect on a particular theological theme, like ethics, interfaith interactions, or this particular week’s theme, “calling.” I said nothing through most of the class, listening to my fellow students share their stories of being “called” to ministry. While each story was distinct, my classmates seemed to share an unspoken understanding of “calling,” which welcomed their participation in this interfaith conversation. My classmates identified with different denominations of Christianity, and some with no denomination. As a practicing Zen Buddhist, I was constantly translating the language used around the table into concepts and rituals that seemed parallel in my own tradition. However, this time it felt impossible—how could I be “called” from the divine when I simply don’t believe in the divine?
I tell this story to help frame my response to Dr. Syeed’s piece, The Politics of Gender and Representation of Interfaith Dialogue and Scholarship. Dr. Syeed focuses on the issue of the “native informant” in interfaith dialogue and scholarship and the necessity to be cognizant of who is present at the interfaith table. Dr. Syeed notes that the problem with “a single-person representation of a community” at an interfaith table is that this person speaks one narrative that the rest of the table might equate to an entire communal narrative. Even if we acknowledge that one person cannot possibly represent more than their own experience and engagement with a set of rituals, beliefs, and aspects of a faith community, a tension presents between that person’s speaking on behalf of themselves and the desire of the table to extract how this person’s experience connects to the broader tradition.
We can agree that each of us comes to the table with distinct intersecting identities, as Michelle Voss Roberts describes through a concept she calls “intersectional feminism” in her piece Interfaith Dialogue and the Need for Resemblance. However, I believe the tension around representation derives from an overlooked condition of the interfaith table. The issue arises when we assume that we can sit down and begin a conversation with a basic understanding of the topic at hand and a common language with which to dialogue, that we are all on equal grounds. A catalyst in this assumption is the power and privilege we hold within certain identities that allow us to feel different levels of safety and trust the moment we walk in the door. Some of us are eager to share personal stories, and some of us feel threatened even by coming to the table at all due to marginalized identities. For example, an undocumented non-citizen might feel overly vulnerable in a conversation around immigration and national security.
As Dr. Syeed notes, even if we are to include a number of voices from a single tradition that can begin to reflect the vast diversity within Islam or another faith community, we must come to the table without an expectation that our engagement begins in the same place. I remember a moment during our Spiritual Life Council meetings at the University of Chicago when we were discussing “safe space” and the tension participants felt in agreeing to conversation ground rules while wanting to express their views honestly and openly. At each meeting, our group named the conditions they needed to feel safe enough to speak their truths. Some of the common conditions named were: speak for yourself, not an entire community, make space for others to share, don’t interrupt, and come from a place of curiosity without assumptions. As it turned out, the male-identified folks in the room felt that our practice of naming conditions was silly and unnecessary. “How can we be expected to have honest conversations when these conditions restrict us?” At the same time, a transgender Muslim student of color voiced the importance they saw in this ritual. “Saying that we create safe space does not make me feel safe automatically,” they said. “But at least it’s a start to holding each other accountable.”
How do we enter conversations with interfaith partners, knowing that we come to the table without even a basic fundamental agreement of language and terms for the conversation and moreover, an understanding of how we make meaning of our personal experiences? Coming from different religious traditions means we fundamentally differ in how we relate to practices, beliefs, and teachings. As feminist social-activist bell hooks suggests, the best way to hold this inequality is to realize that equality is sometimes impossible, but also not necessary. In Belonging: A Culture of Place, hooks explains that it is possible to build a community that exists within social contexts of inequality:
“With reciprocity all things do not need to be equal in order for acceptance and mutuality to thrive. If equality is evoked as the only standard by which it is deemed acceptable for people to meet across boundaries and create community, then there is little hope. Fortunately, mutuality is a more constructive and positive foundation for the building of ties that allow for differences in status, position, power, and privilege whether determined by race, class, sexuality, religion, or nationality.” (hooks 85)
In an interfaith dialogue, mutuality might start with thinking about how each of us possesses both power and vulnerability while exploring questions around our own humanity.
This realization gives me hope for the interfaith table, for deep interfaith dialogue. At the outset, our fundamental differences may seem prohibitive to have a dialogue in which the goal is to truly understand each other. I believe this is not the case. By naming the inequality at the forefront and seeking clarity from our conversation partners in what we initially take as shared values, we actually deepen our capacity for finding particularities that enrich knowledge of ourselves and others. In my own example, the pressure to translate “calling” eventually led me to recognize a fundamental difference between my own practice and those of my peers. Seeking to complicate the values we share, even if this dismantles perceived agreement, situates us to build more honest and genuine community.
bell hooks. Belonging: A Culture of Place. New York: Routledge, 2008.
Jem currently serves as the Senior Assistant Director for the Center for Spirituality, Dialogue and Service at Northeastern University. In her role at Northeastern, Jem directs the Global Citizenship Project, an initiative that combines experiential learning, dialogue, and applied academic research to explore global citizenship. She provides spiritual care to students of any and no faith, and advises the Northeastern University Interfaith Council. Jem has completed two fellowships for the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) and now serves as a member of the IFYC Alumni Speakers Bureau. Previously, Jem worked as the Spiritual Life Council convener at the University of Chicago, where she received her Master of Divinity degree. Jem is also an alumnus of the University of Southern California, where she studied religion, business administration, East Asian languages and cultures, and international relations.
For more information on this @theTable topic: Intersecting Islamophobia.
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