An Interview with Interfaith Activist and Harvard Divinity School Professor Dudley Rose

by Matt B. on October 9, 2010

Can you talk a little bit about the anti-Islamophobic inter-faith petition effort you’ve been involved in?

Sure. It’s been something, I think, that’s probably been on the minds of a lot of us in the faith communities over the last while. This [the Park 51 project in lower Manhattan] isn’t the first of the mosques to be objected to and the kind of acrimony – and really misinformation – with which they’re being characterized, which is very concerning to a lot of us, and the kind of passion behind it that, quite frankly, is a little bit scary.

This, for many of us, I think, has come to a point where we’ve said, “Look, it used to be that if people were idiots, you could let it be and presume that it would get seen through. But a couple of things have happened: one is that people outside of this country and within as well, but there’s much more widespread media coverage of, say, like this guy from Florida, who’s got 50 parishioners, but it is now being heard as the voice of Americans in Afghanistan, that actually the stakes have risen, and there also seems to have been a real capturing of the imagination of a lot of the American public by a very right-wing ideology. And so, a lot of us have been feeling as if it’s time for us to say something….

When you think of even how Bush responded to 9/11 and there was this sort of reaching out to the Muslim world or the Muslim community, though a number of missteps along the way, but there was this real effort to be sure that we didn’t get some nations sort of characterized, or mischaracterized, in caricatures. Now, you’re not seeing that kind of thing in the country nearly as much. I mean, all this business about Obama being a Muslim, as if that’s an incriminating indictment, even if it were true.

John Boehner was asked about the guy in Florida, and his comment was, “Well, you know, under the American system, you can build a mosque in New York or you can burn Korans, and who knows if they’re, you know, they’re probably not the right thing to do, but you have the right to do it,” you know, that sort of very skillful putting – juxtaposing those two situations, as if they’re similar. It’s stunning to me that here’s a guy, the leader of his party in the Congress, you know, just craziness.

I understand your group here in Massachusetts held a rally in front of the State House.

That’s right.

What exactly were, or are, you hoping to achieve here in Massachusetts?

Well, I think that one of the things that we wanted to achieve is a real clear statement across a variety of religious constituencies, that the political position that often gets equated with the Christian position of – what everybody calls “Islam phobia” – but this kind of hatred and fear of Muslims and of Islam and this sort of outright condemnation of it as a religion of violence and religion of, you know, the devil or whatever….[T]here are people of faith across a great many traditions and shades of color within those traditions who simply reject that and really want to have that voice out there.

I think, that, as I said, the guy from Florida…he’s being seen as a spokesperson for all…Americans. In some ways, we’ve had a very long history here, but certainly in very recent years, a sense [of how] a particular brand of Christian expression is identified with the whole of Christianity.

So have you, in the inter-faith efforts here in Massachusetts, made a particular effort to foreground, say, the partnerships between Muslim leaders and other faith leaders? Or has it been a more general expression of a faith-community-wide solidarity?

Well, some of both…[E]ven in our city, there was a great controversy around the mosque in Boston [that opened last year in Roxbury], and there was a great deal of reaching out in the inter-faith community – to Muslims, in particular – in this news conference and protest that we called on the Common. There were Muslims, Jews, and many others involved, and all kind of supported…this very specific issue…this very specific group of Muslim-Americans.  So it’s…a sense that there’s a particular inflection point right now.

I’m wondering myself what the most effective counter-argument or sort of countermove might be in response to some of this Islamophobic stuff. I’ve wondered whether, as lofty as the sentiments can sometimes be on our side of the issue, and as correct and indefeasible as the arguments can be, sometimes I wonder whether a visual might not be more effective in this instance, something like, you know, a picture of ‘this America,’ the one where Muslims and other faith and non-faith leaders are working side-by-side….

I think that’s absolutely right. When we were beginning to put together the idea of a petition that we would then present publicly, one of the things that I said to the group at the point, you know, I’ve been around for a long time in a religious establishment, and we’ve been very good at putting petitions out that largely talk to ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with that. I mean, you say their arguments are lofty and, you know, that we would think correct. But they don’t have an impact.

I was talking to a student today about a project that he’s doing, actually about immigration, but talking about relating it to the Civil Rights Movement….And we talked about those kind of visual moments in the Civil Rights Movement, and you know, when the cameras captured things that were so repugnant that people could no longer stare them in the face and just countenance them.

So I agree with you. I think that was part of why being at the State House that was filmed. It got an actually fairly decent amount of coverage for what news coverage you get these days. They didn’t mischaracterize it and they gave certainly good sound bites, but it was taped by the media center at Andover Newton (Theological School).…And I think many of us are going to start to use those kinds of tapes around in worship services and things like that, to get at least some picture of flesh and blood people saying, “Enough. This is who we are, not that.” So I agree with you entirely.

So was this…a culmination of a campaign or will there be additional work in the coming weeks?

There will be additional work. You know, it’s sort of a funny world that we live in here in the Boston area. We work on our academic calendars. So it’s hard to be a culmination in September; it’s much more complicated. We were all kind of coming back and the idea arose and it got some energy and we all came together. But I think the idea is for there to be more, I don’t think there’s a – it’s a pretty ad hoc group at this point, and I don’t think there is any definite idea. I couldn’t tell you today what will happen next, other than trying to leverage what already has, but-

It sounded like a couple hundred faith leaders from around the state?

I think that’s probably right; they were there. But even that was a rather informal gathering, and there were people who found out about it later and who would have come. And also, I haven’t looked at the petition here recently but I know, even as of the middle of last week, it was over a few thousand. [Readers can view the petition here:]

Now, are you hoping for a particular legislative or political response from leaders on Beacon Hill?

I’m not aware of any effort on the legislative front. I mean, in some sense it’s not clear to me that the legislation isn’t already in place. It’s just that we got – our spirit seems to be proceeding against the spirit of legislation that’s already in place about human rights and human respect and all of the things that this nation stands for. So if I were – and I’m speaking now only for myself – my hope is we would have more of an electoral effect rather than a legislative effect.

What lessons do you think that folks who care about this issue, Islamophobia, now can draw from previous efforts toward inclusion in America? I’m thinking particularly about times when anti-Catholic sentiments were popular, and obviously the Civil Rights Movement offers a lot of lessons. What do you draw on when you think about formulating these efforts and issues?

I think that’s a great question. It’s easy to be cynical and to be right and be cynical, but we have – you know, we have very short memories about the kind of insidious language and public sentiment that we brought to bear against Catholics, against Jews, against black Americans, and claimed moral ground in doing it….[In] the most recent business with gay marriage, you know, the same arguments that were brought against miscegenation were brought against gay marriage with very little recognition that we were on the same turf that we had been before.

Same with blacks’ inclusion in the military and “don’t ask, don’t tell” today.

True. Exactly. So for me, part of it is putting that out and reminding us – you know, when you think of Martin Luther King and you think of Martin Luther King Day as just one example, it was a much more complicated and difficult and contentious picture than we often draw and we idealize even the violence against the martyred sometimes. But to realize how much the public sentiment was against them and against him, you know, in my tradition to get about confession, you know, you get on to remember our capacity to turn – to weaponize the materials of our faith.

I worry about this sometimes, the way that it seems to me that [King] has been in a way icon-ized out of political relevance – like he’s so perfect, his times were so severe that nothing can compare and we can’t really draw any relevant analogies to what we face today.

…I’ll say something that’s fairly scandalous, but I think the whole business of idealizing and setting them in stone in historical moment, to me, is often flawed. And I think I would even say in the – forming the biblical canon, you know, because you have the sense then by many people that you have written…infallibly what God was saying without having to take responsibility for what is God saying today. You know, there is a sense that God spoke and that what’s going on today is of lesser import and that we really don’t have the – either the responsibility to take it more seriously or the belief that we can be in the same kind of moment as those who were building a church back 2,000 years ago, in that example. And I think that…it just makes it so ideal and it makes it so high that it effectively just makes people stop in their tracks.

…I’ve heard my contemporaries express this sentiment and I felt it myself sometimes: ‘If only I’d been born so that I could have grown up in the Civil Rights Movement – that was my time; I was born too late. There’s nothing as interesting or as inspiring, or things that could be as inspiring or that call upon us in the same way.’ Not only that, but you know, if you think that God was only working 2,000 years ago or 50 years ago, it’s hard for me to imagine how that wouldn’t seep into your consciousness…and change…how you think about your political challenges today. ‘Well, if he’s not even interested in these challenges today, how can I be?’

Yeah. There’s a certain way in which it really does divorce the transcendent…from our present circumstances.  Very dangerous.


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