Interfaith Panelists Recognize and Accept Differences

Five University Groups Discuss How They Can Work Together to Improve Humanity’s Future

By Heba Abdel-Karim and Lolla Mohammed Nur, Engage Minnesota

“Imagine a world where people from different religious backgrounds come together to create understanding and respect by serving their communities.” – Interfaith Youth Core (

Lolla Mohammed Nur Heba Abdel Karim

On April 9, the Hillel Jewish Center, in union with the University of Minnesota’s Muslim Student Association, hosted and organized an interfaith discussion that brought together people of different faiths. The topic of the event was “humanity’s future,” and representatives of a number of different faiths spoke about how they see humanity progressing, and how our differences, as well as similarities, can better the community.

A little over a hundred people entered the room, determined to try something different: to go beyond their normal routine, talk to others of various faiths, and get to know them. Unsurprisingly, that’s what made the event—believed to be the first of its kind at the U—such a success. Attendees left politics aside and peacefully interacted with one another. In the end, they saw how similar, yet diverse and unique, we all were.

“I think that what group representatives, members, and the audience all liked the most was the atmosphere: nobody was on the defensive, nobody was being hostile, no group was being labeled with negative stereotypes,” comments EngageMN writer Lolla Mohammed Nur, pictured above to the left of Heba Abdel-Karim.

“The positive atmosphere was almost contagious!” says Mohammed Nur. “Some asked very insightful and sincere questions, and it was obvious that all audience members were there to genuinely learn about different faiths and beliefs. Everybody was there to help promote the message of religious tolerance and awareness.”

The panelists came from various campus organizations, such as Campus Atheists, Skeptics and Humanists (CASH), Baha’i Campus Association, Muslim Student Association (MSA), Hillel Jewish Center and the American Baptist Church.

“We are not here to prove that our religion is the correct belief, but we are here to acknowledge our differences, for it builds our identity,” said the American Baptist Church’s Jon Hartman in his introduction. “It’s important to recognize differences, so as to learn from them, but what’s more important is to recognize that we have common goals to better the community.”

A Baptist’s Peaceful Message

Hartman, the son of an American Baptist pastor, talked about the importance of religious pluralism in our society.

“Religious pluralism goes beyond mere tolerance for diversity and requires that we build positive relationships and work with one another. It is a state in which we respect one another’s religious identities, develop mutually enriching relationships with each other, and work together to make this world a better place.” Hartman quoted from the Bible, where it states that a “nation will not take up sword against sword…” (Micah 4:3) to reiterate his, and the panel’s, message of peace.

“Peace will restore in the future,” Hartman optimistically stated in his part of the discussion, “and everyone will have a place in the world.”

An Atheist’s View

Andrew Buttler, co-chair of CASH, gave a view of how atheists envision humanity’s future. “It’s impossible for me to represent all atheists,” he started out. “Many resist any label for their beliefs at all.”

Buttler then explained the main aspects of atheism as he saw them. Empiricism was an important one: Atheists believe that everything they know about the world comes from observations. “Through empiricism, it is viewed that ethical values are derived from human need as tested by experience.”

Buttler also acknowledged, as did Hartman, that working to benefit society maximizes happiness. “Do good work for your society and you feel happy. The two are almost always associated with each other.”

The Baha’i Faith: Working to Eliminate Prejudice

The Baha’i Faith also spreads the belief of the unity of mankind (as well as religions), and aims to eliminate all forms of prejudice.

Ben Grimes, treasurer of the Baha’i Campus Association, described the faith by stating, “It is the newest of the world’s major religions and is founded upon the principle of unity in diversity, embracing the cultural and religious diversity of the world and striving to show how such diversity adds beauty and color to the world of humanity. We must search for ways to bring humanity together.”

Muslim Student Association: Islam a Progressive Way to Define Humanity

Members of the Muslim Student Association (MSA), James Faghmous and Malik Harfi, spoke about how Islam envisions humanity’s future compared to the other faiths. Harfi began: “Our realities begin with one true God, the all-knower, the all-knowledgeable who created all of humanity. When he created existence, he also created the laws by which everything runs. But humans have the choice of which path we take. We are all born, we all die, and we all take a path. To follow this path harmoniously to God,” he continued, “is Islam.”

Faghmous added that Islam was sent to all humanity, not to a specific tribe or group. “It came as a progressive way to define humanity.” For instance, Faghmous explained that Muslims must pay zakat (charity) to the poor and needy, for it is one of the five pillars of Islam. This zakat must comprise 2.5 percent of one’s annual savings.

For the same reason that Muslims pay zakat to the needy, they also wish for a better world. “We are held accountable for everything because it is essentially not ours; we believe that it is all owned by Allah and to him everything shall return,” Faghmous said. Muslims believe that money, for instance, is granted by God, and that He knows how much we own.

In the same manner, we care for the world because it is was created and is owned by God. For this reason along with others, “We need to create harmonious existence, and be sensitive to everyone’s religious differences.”

The Story of Rabbi Hillel

Eve Shapiro and Brad Serber, representatives of the Hillel Jewish Student Center, began their discussion with the story of Rabbi Hillel, one of the most important figures in Jewish history.

The story begins with a non-Jewish man who wanted to become a follower of Judaism. While standing on one foot, the man asked different rabbis to teach him the Torah. Each rabbi declined, saying that Judaism was too complex to understand.

However, when the man asked Rabbi Hillel to teach him, Hillel agreed by replying with the following quote: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation [commentary]; go and learn.” Although there are other renditions of the story, all have the same message: love your neighbor as you love yourself. This powerful message of loving one another was the embodiment of the interfaith panel discussion, and all present could relate to it.

The Jewish panelists also explained the concept of Sadakah in Judaism, which is the act of paying ten percent of one’s annual income to ensure that people are helping each other. The simple fact that the same word for charity is used in both Islam and Judaism illustrates the similarities shared in diverse religions when it comes to supporting the humanitarian cause.

As Eve Shapiro said, “We are all people–humans. We all deserve rights to a fulfilling life.”

What Next?

Unfortunately, for many participants, the panel discussion ended too soon. All present-–whether they were Atheist, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or Baha’i–-seemed to have enjoyed themselves. After the panel discussion, audience members held informal conversations, walking around and introducing themselves to one another. It was wonderful to see believers of various or no faiths to come together, and to start on the path of understanding each other.

The event was such a success that “the Interfaith Youth Core wants to work with the organizations that participated in the panel on doing future activities such as the interfaith discussion,” says Kafiya Ahmed, MSA advertising coordinator. “They hope to continue a tradition of interfaith dialogue at the University of Minnesota.”

The Interfaith Panel Discussion was a huge step forward, and although communication is just the beginning, the panel left everyone with the message that open dialogue is the basis of teaching tolerance and understanding one another.

Heba Abdel-Karim currently resides in Fridley, Minn. and is a student at the University of Minnesota. Lolla Mohammed Nur is a freshman and an international student from Saudi Arabia. She is currently a biology major at the University of Minnesota but is exploring her newfound interest in poetry and cultural diversity.

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