Conference speakers emphasize importance of religious tolerance

As schools all around the world celebrated World Interfaith Harmony Week, the College of William and Mary honored the week with a conference to further enhance the student body’s knowledge and acceptance of all religious beliefs.

Sunday’s conference kicked off with opening remarks by I-Faith co-presidents Jess Yon ’13 and Audrey Makemson ’13 and a speech by College President Taylor Reveley. He highlighted how religion was as crucial as the drive for power and how ignorance in faiths could lead to dangerous paths.

“This university takes the role of religion on human affairs very seriously,” Reveley said.

World Interfaith Harmony Week was established in 2010 by the United Nations General Assembly, which unanimously designated it the first week of February, as proposed by King Abdullah II and Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan. The initiative was the result of efforts by the UN Alliance of Civilizations to provide a platform for promoting peace and eliminating religious intolerance through open-minded discussion. The conference at the College was also part of President Barack Obama’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, a White House initiative established in 2011. The College is one of more than 250 institutions participating.

The conference, hosted and sponsored by I-Faith, showcased three distinguished speakers: Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy Lawrence Wilkerson, Visiting Professor and Lecturer in Political Science from Georgetown University Shireen Hunter and founder of Old Dominion University’s Institute for Jewish Studies and Interfaith Understanding Lawrence Forman. Each brought a unique take on the importance of multi-faith understanding and the dangers of ignorance in today’s world. Wilkerson, Forman and William R. Kenan, Jr. and Distinguished Professor of Humanities Tamara Sonn stayed to answer questions in the form of a panel discussion after the presentations.

The event is a major part of a one credit course held by Sonn.

“This is the first time we’re doing something like this, and I would like to see this continue and am hopeful of the discussions coming from this class,” Yon, one of the organizers of the conference and a student in Sonn’s class, said.

Wilkerson spoke first. His seminar, “Consequences of NOT Studying Religions’ Role in Global Affairs,” described his experiences and observations while working for the government, namely while working with Colin Powell. He remarked on the role of religion as a crucial influence on America’s foreign policy and our lack of understanding that it is. He highlighted the ways in which officials’ ignorance of other religions hinders effective diplomacy with Middle Eastern countries, namely Iraq and Afghanistan. He warned against exacerbating diplomatic tensions and emphasized the need for a better understanding of other religions.

Hunter, the second speaker, analyzed religion and its relationship with society at large, emphasizing philosophical and abstract dialogue about religious beliefs as crucial to analyzing global affairs in her seminar, “International Savvy: The Importance of Studying Religions in Understanding Global Affairs.” After noting the general lack of literature discussing religion as a crucial stakeholder in today’s global community, she shared her views on ideals and values. She warned against religion mixing with politics, identified religious significance within institutions of power and ultimately defined religion as a value system and ideology. She tied together concepts of legitimacy, power and leadership personalities to reinforce her primary points.

“The power of self-delusion is very potent,” she said.

The last speaker, Forman, balanced the realist perspectives of the previous two speakers with a bold, idealistic vision on interfaith dialogue in his lecture, “Interfaith Dialogue … A Way toward Healing and Reconciliation.” He combined three religious beliefs — Christianity, Judaism and Turkish Islam — in the interfaith dialogue and expanded on their compatibility. He vouched for nations to accept Jeffersonian democratic principles to tolerate and to accept religious differences. The solution, he concluded, was to have more open-minded forums beyond the World Interfaith Harmony Week. Ever since 9/11, he said, no discussion of our nation’s survival can be complete without also promoting interfaith dialogue.

The conference showed the different ways that recognizing diverse faiths can inform better foreign policy and how to better personal relationships. It also drew a lot of surprises.

“It wasn’t quite what I expected,” Rebecca Schectman ’16 said. “But it highlights the complexity of the issue. It got a lot of thoughts on my mind, and it merits further discussion among students, professors and faith leaders.”


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