Despite violence perpetrated by Islamic fundamentalists in Paris, controversy over the religious practices of Muslim students at Duke University, and a year of attacks launched by Islamic terrorists in the Middle East, awareness of the importance of interreligious dialogue remains high among Georgetown’s administration, academic centers of study, and student faith and interfaith groups.
On the morning of Jan. 7, two gunmen who identified themselves as affiliates of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a Yemen-based branch of the terrorist network, killed eleven staff members of the Paris-based satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and two French National Police officers. Two days later, an associate of the assailants who aligned himself with the terrorist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant killed a Municipal Police officer and four Jewish hostages at the Hypercacher kosher supermarket in Paris’s Porte de Vincennes district in an alleged effort to defend Muslims.
On Tuesday, a week after French police raids killed all three gunmen, Georgetown’s Office of Campus Ministry posted a blog entry on its website addressed to university students of the Jewish and Muslim communities. Authored by Vice President for Mission and Ministry Rev. Kevin O’Brien, S.J., the post expressed “support and esteem” for Jewish and Muslim students “in ardently rejecting anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and violence in all forms.”
In addition to offering the services of Campus Ministry staff members Imam Yahya Hendi and Rabbi Rachel Gartner, O’Brien also stressed Georgetown’s historical tradition of interreligious dialogue. O’Brien affirmed Georgetown’s “commitment to … remaining a safe place for all religious communities to embrace their particular identities” grounded in “understanding” among members of different faiths and standing “against bigotry and intolerance.”
Andrew Meshnick (COL ’17), who describes himself as an active participant in Jewish life at Georgetown, expressed his gratitude for O’Brien’s post. “As a Jewish student at a Jesuit university, it means a great deal to know that the non-Jewish community is there to support my community in this time of mourning,” he wrote in an email to the Voice.
Against the backdrop of international Islamic fundamentalism, however, criticisms of religious practice by Muslim college students in the U.S. have increased. Last Thursday, threats of violence that reportedly originated off campus were cited by Duke University officials as the reason for overturning a two-day-old policy that would have permitted members of the university’s Muslim Student Association to chant the adhan, Islam’s call-to-prayer, from the bell tower of Duke’s historic chapel every Friday.
Before Duke repealed its original decision, Franklin Graham, president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which is headquartered in Charlotte, N.C., criticized the university from his Twitter account for “promoting” the Muslim religion while “followers of Islam are raping, butchering, and beheading Christians, Jews, and anyone who doesn’t submit to their Sharia Islamic law,” an apparent reference to the Charlie Hebdo and Porte de Vincennes killings as well as the on-camera beheadings of two American journalists last summer by ISIL militants.
Although Georgetown’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, which was founded in 1993 as a “dynamic community of resident faculty, scholars, staff and students” to “improve relations between the Muslim world and the West and enhance understanding of Muslims in the West,” did not issue a statement regarding Duke’s policy reversal, its Associate Director, Jonathan Brown, repudiated Graham’s logic. “The idea that innocent, law-abiding Muslims in one place should be held accountable for what some small group of Muslims elsewhere does is absurd,” Brown wrote in an email to the Voice. In addition to its focus on scholarly research, publications, and events, ACMCU occasionally cosponsors “events of common interest” with Campus Ministry and student faith groups.
Despite international events and controversy at Duke, Campus Ministry and academic centers like ACMCU and the Berkley Center have helped to support student interreligious dialogue and collaboration both on-campus and beyond the gates of Georgetown. According to Georgetown’s Jewish Student Association Co-President Elizabeth Biener (SFS ’17), “interfaith prayer events and an interfaith meditation” typify recent interactions among on-campus religious groups. Last November, members of the JSA volunteered alongside representatives of Georgetown’s Muslim Student Association and Interfaith Student Association at So Others Might Eat, a D.C. interfaith organization that addresses District homelessness. (Multiple requests to interview Muslim Student Association student leaders were not returned.)
Biener also highlighted the Orthodox Christian Fellowship, which receives funding from Campus Ministry to invite student members of Georgetown’s JSA, MSA, Knights of Columbus, Catholic Daughters, and Buddhist Meditation Sangha every week to make sandwiches that are later distributed through an intermediary to local homeless men and women.
Christopher Wadibia (COL ’16), who delivered a TEDx Georgetown talk last November on the subject of interreligious understanding, echoes O’Brien’s message, collaboration among student interfaith and faith groups, and Georgetown’s interreligious exceptionalism. “I wholly believe Georgetown positively stands above all other institutions of higher learning as a place to be a religious student,” Wadibia wrote in an email to the Voice, “because of its desire to respect the religious or non-religious backgrounds of its students, and…meet them and serve them wherever they are.”