A Harvard University teacher recently visited Maryville to speak about religious literacy and promote Middle East peace.
Dr. Paul Beran, director of The Outreach Center at Harvard University's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, spoke Friday to Maryville College students in Dr. Daniel Klingensmith's class about how to approach their material on Islam.
He was also scheduled to speak at New Providence Presbyterian Church and Shannondale of Maryville this past weekend.
Beran is a researcher, writer, and teacher on civil society in the Middle East region and the West, Middle East politics, and regional human rights and development.
He teaches the Harvard University course, Introduction to the Conflict in Israel and the Occupied Territories, and directs the Egypt Forum, which is a program of training for K-12 educators on Middle East region studies and Egypt. Beran has also served as a consultant on global education and development programs in Jordan, Israel, the West Bank, Egypt, Sudan and the United States.
Beran's goal in speaking to Maryville College students was to provide them with "the academic tools to think about Islam and Muslim communities in more sophisticated ways."
Students need to learn how to critically understand diversity in the Middle East region, he said. "Students, researchers and teachers need to think in a way that does justice to religion. We need to look beyond the devotional aspects and see how it shapes culture, family history and usually history, economics and politics."
Religions can be broken to local communities, Beran said. "People can practice the same religion, use the same scripture and even be in the same sect, but their history, economic conditions and even the way they think about the world may be entirely different.
"Religions are very diverse, complex and rooted in local communities. It can become very problematic," he said. "It's hard to talk about Islam, because there are many Islams. Which one are we talking about? One Muslim shouldn't speak for 1.5 billion Muslims. We wouldn't do that with Christianity or Judaism. Why would we do it with Islam? And, why would people think it's appropriate to burn a holy book?"
Beran later talked about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
The 100-year conflict is about land not religion, he said. "Jews, Muslims and Christians haven't had issues throughout history, and they've lived in the region since the start of their faiths."
Beran's own faith pushes him to look beyond the power structure between Israelis and Palestinians.
Both ethnic groups are created equal, possess the same worth and deserve full human dignity, he said. "My readings of the teachings of Jesus have always been political, because it's about the ultimate worth of each human being. He was intimately involved and cared about all human beings."
The conflict's players have different levels of power, and laws will be essential on the road to resolving the discord, Beran said.
He then gave an analogy about an employee appealing to their boss. The power inequity can lead to misuses and abuses, which is why governments have created employment law.
"We rely on law to be kept safe, and it's designed to last for generations. At the end of the day, they're about people," Beran said.
The teacher doesn't know how the conflict will be resolved, but he's hopeful about an amicable solution. "Hope is always found in people. We're resilient and have a commitment to life and dignity."
Beran's visit was arranged by the denominational offices of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Louisville, Ky. He was hosted by the Peacemaking Committee of the Presbytery of East Tennessee.