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Interfaith conference emphasizes tolerance

In the week following the 10th anniversary of 9/11, journalists and students convened at Duke to explore America’s complex relationship with Islam.

The Duke Islamic Studies Center hosted a one-day conference in the Bryan Center Thursday for members of the Religion Newswriters Association, titled “Muslims in America: The Next 10 Years.” More than 60 religion journalists from media outlets across the country attended the panels and roundtable discussions, which were open to all interested Duke students and faculty.

“One of the concerns we have is that stereotyping and hatred of Muslims just based on their religion will be very bad for the country in the long run,” said Gilbert Merkx, director of the Duke Center for Islamic Studies. “We have a long tradition of religious freedom in America, but if we start to stigmatize one religious group, it undercuts tolerance.”

In the keynote address, Eboo Patel, founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core, compared public perception of the media scandals associated with the Muslim-American and Catholic-American communities.

“The public’s view of Muslims and Catholics has actually been radically different even though [some] stories—the priest pedophilia scandal and Muslim extremism—are clearly terrible stories,” Patel said.

He attributed this difference in part to the greater presence of Catholicism in civic life, whereas many Americans had more limited contact with Islam in America before 9/11. Patel, however, was optimistic about the future of interfaith relations, citing changes in American Evangelical attitudes toward Catholicism since the election of former President John F. Kennedy in 1960.

In spite of the struggles faced by Muslim Americans, Patel said he sees current religious discourse as beneficial in the long run.

“American Catholics have gone through this; American Jews have gone through this; some say American gays have gone through this—they have gotten through it, and they have helped America become better,” he said. “One of the underlying premises of this talk is America changes.”

The second part of Patel’s speech addressed issues of religious understanding.

“[Interfaith cooperation] is going to go from a niche to a norm,” he said. “That means that pastors coming out of Duke Divinity School… are going to be asked in three, four, five years, ‘What experience do you have building bridges between different communities?’”

In his conclusions, Patel said interfaith understanding benefits all.

“I think that this country is about religion being an agent of cooperation and not a barrier of division or a bomb of destruction,” he said. “It’s not about freedom for Muslims—it’s about freedom for everybody.”

After the keynote address, four Duke students participated in a panel that addressed issues of Muslim-American identity for the post-9/11 generation.

“The problem of religious bigotry against Muslims isn’t a new problem,” said sophomore Connor Cotton, who attended the conference as part of his role on the Duke Undergraduate Faith Council. “It’s a new phase of the problem of religious bigotry in general.”

Sophomore panelist Noha Sherif, when discussing her freshman year, noted a general lack of understanding of Islam within the Duke community.

“More often than not, people would barge into my dorm room—men would barge into my dorm room to see my roommate—and I didn’t have my scarf on,” Sherif said. “I found myself watching my every move… trying to represent Islam in the best light I could.”

Sherif noted that the University provides opportunities to engage in conversation about religious issues.

“Luckily, we’re on Duke’s campus, where there is a dialogue 100 times a day, every single day, so if you want to talk about something, you can do that,” she said.