By Andrew Thurston
Forget the pretense of religious harmony. Since we all have to live together, tolerating one another is the best we've got.
Professor of Religion Adam Seligman thinks pluralism has had its day, so he's aiming for something more realistic. He's trying to see if we all can just get along, despite our religious differences.
Seligman is the founder of the annual International Summer School on Religion and Public Life. Since 2003, it's brought together people of different countries and faiths (and those with none) for two weeks to explore issues of religion and tolerance in modern societies.
A Contentious World
Photo by Vernon Doucette
Nestled in the rolling green hills of southern Bosnia-Herzegovina, the quiet town of Stolac was once a tourist hot spot. Then, in the early 1990s, it became a battleground. With the former Yugoslavia tearing itself apart along ethnic and religious lines, the town's Croats herded their Bosnian–Muslim neighbors into concentration camps—the lucky ones fled or were driven out of their homes. Stolac's famed Ottoman-era mosques were razed to the ground.
The mosques have since slowly been rebuilt, but neighborly relations haven't. In 2008, the Institute for War & Peace Reporting told of profound divisions between Bosniaks and Croats, with the town splintered by separate medical centers and school lessons. Decades on, religious harmony and ethnic acceptance are still elusive.
Stolac's is the kind of predicament that Seligman hopes to help solve—or prevent from recurring elsewhere. In 2003, he chose the town for his summer school. It's not the only contentious spot he's selected. Each year, the school is held in a new location—Israel, Cyprus, and England have all featured—while classrooms have included abandoned Palestinian homes and gay-friendly churches. "It's experiential," says Seligman, "It's lived, not just read, not just discussed."
This is more of a two-week laboratory than a conventional school, mixing site visits, lectures, and small group discussions. Attendees—Seligman calls them fellows—are not necessarily scholars (community activist, priest, and police officer are the more likely professions), and they journey from across the globe, hailing from everywhere: Belarus, Indonesia, Uganda. If this disparate bunch, with its sometimes warring religious differences, can learn to get along for two weeks, maybe the people of Stolac or the Middle East can too.
Photo Gallery Click on any image below to zoom. Photos courtesy of International Summer School on Religion and Public Life archives
We're Not All the Same
The problem with most attempts at promoting interfaith and interethnic unity, says Seligman, is that they start from the wrong point. The first step shouldn't be that "At the bottom, we're the same," but that "Where we want to be recognized is in our specialness." Seligman's idea is to begin with our differences—the sticky, difficult bits we tend to avoid.
"What I've learned is that when I say, 'We're the same,' I mean, 'You're like me,' not, 'I'm like you,'" he says. "One of the things we're trying to explore with this school is, can you bring your differences to the public realm and can everybody deal with that, instead of gently walking around them—all the time celebrating difference, but really privatizing it, shunting it off?"
A sociologist by training, Seligman claims the West has pushed religion to the sidelines, pluralizing or secularizing society in an attempt to hold diverse peoples together. If we have religious beliefs or other views and lifestyles that differ from the norm, we're encouraged to keep those private—our faith should have nothing to do with our work on a school board or in running a youth group, for instance. Seligman, who is Jewish, thinks that's just asking for trouble. He contends that our religious identities aren't going anywhere and that it's time to leverage the resources they offer for conflict resolution. According to Chair of Anthropology Rob Weller, putting faith so firmly in the public sphere is an unusual stance.
Since the Enlightenment movement of the eighteenth century, says Weller, the common take on religious harmony has been that "We're all autonomous individuals and we interact with each other on those grounds; any other loyalties, communal loyalties, that we have, say as Serbs or Jews, are private."
He says that Seligman calls that long-accepted utopia into question: "The Enlightenment thing, it sounds nice, but it's not working on the ground," adds Weller as he sums up Seligman's approach. "We continue to have all these problems with communal identities after hundreds of years of this way of thinking."
A Bipolar City
With an influx of immigrants from the south and east, communal identities are a hot topic in much of Europe. Seligman has twice taken the school to England's second city, the cultural melting pot—cauldron might be better—of Birmingham. By 2024, it's expected to become a "plural" city, with no majority ethnic group; as of the 2001 census, around 15 percent of the population identified itself as Muslim. "There are huge tensions between the communities," says Seligman. "Everybody is afraid of the next bomb threat."
Resentment and fear stalk the city, sharpening religious and ethnic divides. A national newspaper recently exposed a project to monitor majority-Muslim neighborhoods with more than 200 surveillance cameras. When youth fear arrest because of their faith or politicians question the building of a new mosque, it's hard to keep religious identity locked up indoors.
Birmingham, England, the site of the 2008 International Summer School on Religion and Public Life, is home to many Sikh temples (known as gurdwaras), including the Gurdwara Nishkam Sewak Jatha.
Photo courtesy of International Summer School on Religion and Public Life archives
"There are people who recognize the tensions, recognize the potential for deep disturbance, and are trying to preempt it," says Seligman. "That's where I think we can be most effective."
One of those seeing Birmingham's uneasiness up close is Toby Howarth. The newly appointed Secretary for Inter Religious Affairs for the Church of England and a local vicar has twice helped organize the summer school. As Birmingham becomes "a kind of bipolar city, ethnically," he says it causes real "concern in terms of community cohesion, in terms of getting communities to engage with each other."
He signed up for the school after becoming tired of interfaith events where "We begin with our similarities, then we have a couple of samosas and tea, and not a lot comes out of it." Working in a city populated by groups with "very different outlooks on life," he likes that Seligman encourages people to look at the "edgy areas" of difference.
"I wouldn't say it's about emphasizing the differences; it's about starting with them," says Howarth, who hopes to establish a permanent sister summer school in Birmingham. With all the potential pitfalls out in the open, he thinks interfaith partnerships have a more solid foundation: "Then it's about saying, 'How do we build little steps toward a shared understanding?'"
In Birmingham, that could mean religious groups coming together for common secular goals, such as lobbying politicians for improved housing, supporting fundraising drives for disaster relief, and cleaning up local parks.
Suffering Your Own Discomfort
Seligman says the summer school has inspired lots of little steps: Jewish and Arab educators have launched joint programs; monthly community dinners have sprung up in Texas; and Evangelical Christians have expressed more tolerance toward homosexuals. He adds that those Evangelicals may not have "changed their idea about homosexuality," but, in a way, that's not the point. This, remember, isn't about harmony, but tolerance—bearing the unbearable—while preserving the school's other mission to maintain a "commitment to tradition and religious identity."
"The fact that something makes me uncomfortable is not a reason to reject it or vilify it," says Seligman. So, while tolerance originally referred to groups of people "whom you'd want to get rid of, but you have to suffer their presence"—in Canon Law, Seligman adds, that meant Jews and prostitutes—he wants to "turn it into suffering, being able to live with your own discomfort."
He's not exempt from that. Seligman has found himself plunged into the middle of unity services with a decidedly Eucharistic flavor and group discussions with fervent anti-Zionists. For him, that's what it's all about. He started the school after worrying that his academic work was too abstract to "change much," was "too far removed from real people doing real things."
But the world outside academia, with its mixed-up towns like Stolac and Birmingham, is a messy place. Surely encouraging us all to live together peacefully can seem like a fruitless mission?
"I couldn't say it's a thankless task," says Seligman. "Is it at the boundaries of a really deep, overwhelming problem? Yes. Are we working at something we will find a solution to? No. This is the work of generations."
If you want to play your part, Seligman suggests you have a meal with somebody outside your community: "It's a start," he says. And if you don't agree on everything, don't worry. Just deal with it. ■