Yale gathering sees youth as pivotal to improving U.S.-Muslim relations

By Chris Meserole '09 M.Div., 'l0 S.T.M.

If U.S.-Muslim relations are to improve, one of the most critical elements will be to engage Muslim and American youth.

ConferenceThat is one of the key points to emerge from a series of intense workshops and speeches at a Feb. 21-23 gathering hosted by Yale Divinity School, partly in response to President Barack Obama's call for a "new beginning" in relationships between the United States and Muslims the world over.

One year ago this June, during a speech in Cairo, President Obama laid out his challenge.  Now Yale Divinity School is playing a direct role as influential leaders press ahead to explore ways to turn vision into reality.

The three-day workshop gathering, held at Yale's new Greenberg Conference Center, included prominent scholars, policy makers, activists, and public figures from throughout the U.S. and Middle East. The goal of the workshop was to develop a common format and agenda for a major international conference in Egypt June 16-18. Named "A New Beginning: U.S.-Muslim Relations", the conference will be held at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria, and is intended to build on President Obama's historic 2009 speech. 

Over two days of keynote speeches, plenary sessions and break-out working groups, the workshop at Yale went a long way towards meeting its mandate.
The real success of the workshop seemed to come out of the working group sessions on the last day of the gathering. Each group focused on one of three topics -- Technology and Science; Culture and Media; and Education -- and developed specific proposals for how that topic should be addressed at the conference in June. 

The most common theme to emerge from the proposals was the vital importance of engaging Muslim and American youth.
"What if we make this conference focus on fifteen to thirty-five year-olds," asked David Fairman, managing director of the Consensus Building Institute in Cambridge, MA.  "What would a conference centered on that demographic look like? How would it be structured, and what kind of technologies and social networks would it use?" 

Cynthia P. Scheider, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on cultural diplomacy with the Muslim world, also emphasized the importance of youth. "If you want to engage youth, you need to do it online and through culture. Each should figure prominently in the conference." 

Harold Attridge, the Rev. Henry L. Slack Dean of Yale Divinity School, described the gathering as two days of "fruitful discussion" about how the Alexandria conference should proceed, as well as how "institutions in the US, such as Yale, might collaborate with their counterparts in the Middle East, such as the Bibliotheca Alexandrina."

IsmailOne highlight of the workshop was the opening keynote address by Ismail Serageldin, executive director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, who spoke of the need for greater understanding between Islam and the West.

"The question is: can we build networks of goodwill that transcend the divisions which exist today?" Serageldin asked. He went on to outline numerous ways in which those divisions might be overcome, from translation projects to media reforms to the online dissemination of historical, religious, and scientific knowledge.

Another highlight was a plenary session on "The Use and Abuse of Religion in Conflict, Dialogue and Alliance." Headlined by Miroslav Volf, the Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology and director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, the session explored both the origins of religious conflict and the possibilities for religious peacemaking.

"The more popular the democratic ideal is," Volf contended, "the more likely it is that religion will insert itself into the public realm, and that clashes will result."  Accordingly, said Volf, as democracies flourish and as religion inserts itself, "faiths need to learn to be more democracy-friendly."

At the conclusion of the gathering, Attridge wa not the only participant impressed with the outcome.

"I feel strongly we're taking the right steps at the right time in the right direction," said James Movel Wuye, co-director of the Interfaith Mediation Center in Kaduna, Nigeria, a peacemaking partnership dedicated to putting an end to Muslim-Christian conflicts in northern Nigeria. "Peace is divine, and it is only when you work for peace that you will truly work for a new beginning."

A leading coordinator of the workshop, Visiting Professor of Islamic Studies at Yale Sallama Shaker, said, "This conference provides a human touch to President Obama's speech.  The fact that we can succeed and make a difference -- that will be our job."

In addition to Yale, a number of other institutions are involved in organizing the coming conference, both in the U.S. and Egypt, such as Cairo University, Fayoum University, Ain Shamas University, Mansoura University, the American University in Cairo and Al-Azhar University.