Christa Kelly, News Editor
This year’s Christensen Symposium highlighted the importance of interfaith relationships and dialogue in remedying global issues. On Thursday, Oct. 3, over a hundred students gathered in the Hoversten chapel to listen to religious leaders Hamdy El-Sawaf and Munib Younan speak about their life experiences, work, and opinions on the shifting, and often tumultuous, world.
El-Sawaf, an Imam at Masjid Al-Iman in Minneapolis and a psychotherapist, and Younan, a retired bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, began the convocation by discussing the “context in which [they] are living” and how that context impacts the “practice of [their] faith”.
El-Sawaf answered the question by discussing his experience of being Muslim in the United States. He spoke about the “whole environment”, specifically the difficulty in navigating specific areas, such as those of “race, ethnicity, language, and color.”
“It’s extremely difficult,” said El-Sawaf.
Relationships were one of the aspects that El-Sawaf focused on as being the most difficult. “It wasn’t that difficult for me… to understand them,” he said about people from different cultures. The problem was the pressure he felt “to assimilate and to remove myself.”
All of these pieces, El-Sawaf said, could lead to conflict.
Younan answered the question differently, by explaining how his religion helped him see the world. He had grown up among different cultures and religions, with Jewish, Christian and Muslim places of worship all less than five minutes from where he grew up in Jerusalem.
“I had to live with and understand the other religions… it forms your identity to understand how God created us diverse,” said Younan. “And God did not create us only one nation, one color, and so it gives you a broad understanding of what you are, of your identity, and it makes you see a person who is ready to reach out to others.”
This idea formed Younan’s views on the importance of interfaith dialogue and diversity.
“Living with other religions,” he said, “you must build friendships and trust… that other religion is part of my humanity, my humanity would be deficient without the Muslims, without the Jews, and without the other people.”
When asked about his experience being a religious minority in his country, Younan answered with strong words.
“I never feel that I am a minority in my society,” Younan said. “I consider myself to be an integral part of my society… an original element in my society… I consider myself an utter Palestinian, equal to any other Palestinian.” He said that he found the idea of being a minority to be an insult and refused to acknowledge it, arguing that it implies that some citizens were less than others. He also rejected the idea that he was persecuted. “We speak today about equal citizenship, equal rights, and equal responsibility,” said Younan. He later went on to directly speak to Augsburg students. “You are not a minority. You are an equal citizen… if you feel like a minority you are betraying your religion and your citizenship.”
His urge for Muslim Americans to reject the idea of being part of a religious minority was controversial for many students. During the question period at the end of the symposium, he was asked about his views. In response he repeated his insistence that no one should consider themselves a minority.
El-Sawaf seemed to disagree as he spoke on the persecution he experienced. “When it comes to suffering and discrimination,” he said, “I look at it systemically. It is part of our life, who we are, whatever we are.” He described some of the experiences he had been in due to his religion. He ended his story by stating “to be telling people that I am not discriminated against, that I am not suffering- why won’t you understand?” He later added about the effects of Islamophobia that “there is suffering, there is no doubt about it.”
El-Sawaf also stated about suffering that “you have to have it in order to succeed.” He also had hope for individual actions. “If someone kills just one, he kills the whole humanity. And if you save one, you save the whole humanity. In suffering, we have to support each other…by doing this you stop will stop discrimination and I am going to stop suffering.”
Finally the speakers were asked how they remained hopeful. El-Sawaf answered by referencing stories of prophets having great faith in God and being rescued. Younan spoke about the interfaith work that was coming together.
“This is a sign of hope,” said Younan.
This article was originally published in the October 11, 2019 issue.