Ending the ‘clash of civilizations’

A recent University conference created a safe space for crucial dialogue about religion.

Lolla Mohammed Nur

As a child, Nurah Gentry said she had always been taught that Copernicus was the first astronomer to hypothesize that the sun was at the center of the solar system. It wasnâÄôt until after she took two astronomy classes at the University of Minnesota that the anthropology and religious studies senior began hearing about the contributions of medieval Muslim scholars to EuropeâÄôs Renaissance.

Building bridges and clarifying misconceptions about the historical relationship between Eastern and Western civilizations was the theme behind last weekâÄôs conference titled “Shared Cultural Spaces: Islam and the West in the Arts and Sciences.”

The three-day national conference hosted by the religious studies program and funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities presented the research of 17 scholars from various branches of Islam. Their messages were unified by a common theme: Dialogue is the first step toward tolerance and pluralism. They argued that West and East have historically interacted by exchanging discoveries and ideas, the fluidity of which continues today.

“[The event was] not just about history, but whatâÄôs the continuity? How did [this dialogue] continue into the modern world?” said Nabil Matar, conference co-organizer and English faculty member.

“The point was to show thereâÄôs a continuity of historical interaction between civilizations and âĦ [that] Islam is the civilization that had the greatest impact on the West and in the making of the West.”

He said the notion of a “clash of civilizations,” a term coined two decades ago by political scientist Samuel Huntington, didnâÄôt exist during the medieval period âÄî the time period the conference focused on âÄî because Islamic civilization engaged in mutual cooperation with the rest of the world, whether through trade, academic enquiry or religious debate.

“No civilization prospers unless it is in dialogue, and that was the reason for IslamâÄôs success: From day one, it was in dialogue,” he said. “As it expanded into Africa, Persia, Spain and India, Islam encountered various civilizations, languages and people. And the secret was that it was willing to engage them all.”

Although the conference was open to all audiences, Jeanne Kilde, director of the religious studies program, said organizers targeted students because most young Americans donâÄôt have the language to equip themselves to talk about other faiths. She said she thinks this is because the mediaâÄôs discourse on religion is usually polemical.

“This [event was] one way a lot of students [could] âĦ start hearing people talk about religion. You donâÄôt have to agree; they donâÄôt have to convert anybody in any form or fashion âÄî but to start thinking about how religion is important,” she said.

This curiosity about religion is what has led to the rapid growth of the religious studies program, she said, which already has 60 declared majors since its inception three years ago.

“Students understand that when they get into the job market, various career tracks âÄî from education to law to public policy to nonprofit work âÄî theyâÄôre going to be working with folks of all sorts of religious backgrounds, and they need to know how to feel comfortable with that.”

University junior Jenna Hamann said she realized the need to develop knowledge of diverse religions, which is why she declared a religious studies major. Growing up in a small town exposed her to only one Christian denomination.

“But [in the Twin Cities] everyoneâÄôs different. I feel I need to understand where others are coming from and try to get on the same page with them.”

Although Hamann doesnâÄôt think she has misconceptions about Islam, she said she attended the conference because sheâÄôs not as informed about Islam as sheâÄôd like to be.

“ItâÄôs amazing how much of an impact Islamic culture had on us, and we donâÄôt realize it. We give more credit to the Greeks, and itâÄôs not taught in schools,” she said. “ItâÄôs a shame that no one is interested in religion. People are afraid to even learn about it. Sometimes, they just donâÄôt want to offend anyone.”

I agree that people avoid talking about religion because the subject is so politicized, as last yearâÄôs heated national debate about the proposed Islamic cultural center near ground zero demonstrated. But what made the conference unique was the feeling of safe space to discuss religion. Atheists, humanists and Muslims of various traditions came together to exchange ideas about controversial religious topics in a public arena. From terrorism to womenâÄôs roles in the mosque and the WestâÄôs discourse of the “other,” only a few topics were left untouched.

There were times when the presentations provoked heated debate among audience members, and there was not a single topic with unanimous agreement.

“Dialogue is a part of what America does. ItâÄôs what we need to do. We live in a society where weâÄôre all different religiously, ethnically and nationally,” Matar said. “[Dialogue] has now become essential; itâÄôs no longer a luxury. We need to know where others come from and what their kind of frame of reference is âĦ in order to work together.”

He said the point of the conference was to create a safe space to engage in dialogue that will move the conversation about Muslim Americans forward.

“I may not be able to enter into a different worldview, but I need to understand it,” he said. “You may not accept it, but you may respect it. It may help you to place the âÄòotherâÄô person in a world that makes sense to you.”


Lolla Mohammed Nur welcomes comments at [email protected].