The Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, a leading center of theological education and interfaith cooperation offered a program on Thursday night to respond to the national debate about the rights and role of Muslims in American life. A panel of religious scholars, including Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and Baptist leaders, spoke out against what they described as Islamophobia.
The event, announced as "Against Islamophobia," incorporated a panel discussion, a joint statement, and a multifaith prayer vigil and culminated with an event at Zaytuna College, the only Muslim liberal arts institution in America, which is located on the top of "Holy Hill" in Berkeley. "Holy Hill" is home to a number of the seminaries that make up the Graduate Theological Union, a consortium of Christian seminaries of different denominations and study centers that include institutions for study of Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Arts & Religion, Religion & Science and women's studies.
Munir Jiwa, director of the Center for Islamic Studies, pointed out how an attack by whites is usually labeled "gun violence," but if a Muslim is involved, it becomes "terrorism." Islam and Muslims are tagged with the "terrorist" name. Rita Sherma, director for Hindu Studies, called on people to move beyond tolerance to understanding. Religious traditions like Hinduism and Islam are all too easily considered alien and thus "worthy of suspicion."
Naomi Seidman, director of the GTU Center for Judaic Studies, noted that people who are considered "outsiders," as Jews, Muslims, and HIndus are often labeled, are often those who bring about change. "It's outsiders that make America what it should be and what it could be," she said, and this is a time to claim that diversity and strength.
Sharing a letter that his congregation sent to the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California, the Rev. James Hopkins, chairman of the American Baptist Seminary of the West and pastor at Lakeshore Baptist Church in Oakland affirmed their pledge "to build bridges between strangers and ourselves and by example encourage others to do the same; to refuse to keep silent when we see others speaking ill of strangers, judging them without coming to know them or when we see them being excluded, wronged or oppressed."
The evening session at Zaytuna included talks by co-founders Sheik Hamza Yusuf and Imam Zaid Shakir. Sheik Hamza observed that Americans are often a-historical, not remembering the lessons of history. In addition, much of history is presented as a series of wars and times of violence. This is not, he declared, characteristic of human nature. There are many times when people have found ways to live together. America, he said, is an experiment in finding out how to do this, and "there are people on both sides who don't want this to happen."