Two Weeks of Exploration of Faiths and Cultures at Summer Institute

By Ma Yani ’11 M.A.R.

From June 6 to 18, I was delighted to be able to participate in the Summer Institute “Paradigms and Practice:  Approaching Islam-West Relations,” co-hosted on the Yale Divinity School campus by the Yale Center for Faith & Culture and Pathways for Mutual Respect, a New Haven-based organized founded in 2006 to facilitate trust across religious and cultural divides.

SummerAs a student at YDS, I organized a welcoming dinner for approximately 20 participants along with Rebecca Hernandez, a nursing student at Yale.  The whole of the institute may be summed up in that first evening when I prepared dinner alongside Rebecca.  I am a “Follower of Isa (Jesus)” who comes from a practicing Muslim family in Asia, while Rebecca is a Muslim who comes from a practicing Christian family in the United States.  We also have another commonality: our fathers were full-time clergy members, a pastor and an imam. Our faiths turned each of us to the other side of the coin—from adherents of the faiths of the majority to adherents of the faith of the minority.

Among the summer Institute participants were students and activists with diverse backgrounds:  Christian, Muslim and no faith tradition; Iranian, Turkish, Ugandan, Canadian, Muslim African American, Muslim Anglo-Saxon, Iranian American, Philippine, Lebanese/Salvadorian American, Indian, Italian, Ghanaian, German, Kenyan and Malaysian/Chinese. Participating students came from schools around the United States and abroad, including, among others, Dartmouth, Hartford Seminary, Trinity College (Dublin), Notre Dame, Luther Seminary, the National University of Iran, and American University.  One other Yale Divinity student participated, Aidan Kwame Ahaligah ’11 S.T.M., a Presbyterian from the Agbozume-Volta Region of Ghana. Almost all students received scholarship aid to attend the Summer Institute, ranging from $200 to $2,000.  Scholarships were provided through private donations to the Summer Institute Scholarship Fund.

The diversity of the students and the lecturers led to a high level of critical engagement and reflection and, occasionally, difficulty in reaching a consensus, as each person held different personal values, inherent patterns of narrative and expectations. Even the theme of the seminar, “Approaching Islam-West Relations,” was used as a reference point from which the definitions of the words “Islam” and “West” were contested.

Early on in the institute, we took the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) test designed to provide information about orientations toward cultural difference and commonality found within an identified group. The results indicated that, while this diverse group appreciated patterns of cultural difference in values, perceptions and behaviors, it collectively overestimated its level of cultural competence. Credit should be given to the Summer Institute for enabling growth in cultural competence within this group by creating a “secure” environment in which participants were asked to focus on commonalities as well as differences and intention in addition to expectation. The participants quickly adapted to one another through the frequent opportunities for introductions, along with displays of artwork and self-expression. 

Lectures by PFMR Founding Director John Hartley on Faith and Globalization, which was given on the first week, and Language, and Discourse and Social Performance on the second week, enhanced our ability to better understand the interactions and processes embedded in a complex relationship such as “Islam-West” relations. These interactions and processes are dynamic; therefore, exploration of discourse-related issues of identification, approaches and concepts are needed in order to promote fruitful engagement between the changing actors and communities. The framework for exploration of related issues was realized through daily discussion groups that helped participants understand that each individual carried personal understandings of what was real, imagined and perceived. Such exposure also allowed us to comprehend the complexity of language, discourse and social performance and cultivated our respect for others. 

DinnerGuest speakers included Joseph Cumming, director of the Reconciliation Program at the Yale Center for Faith & Culture; Miroslav Volf, director of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture; Ed Martin, who is involved with relief and peace-building efforts in the Middle East; Narges Erami (Yale Anthropology); Jimmy Jones (Al-Azhar University); and Philip Gorski (Yale Sociology). Main lectures were conducted by Hartley, David Johnston (University of Pennsylvania), and Jonathan Wyrtzen (Yale Sociology).

Johnston, who lived and worked for 15 years in Algeria, Egypt and the West Bank, taught Islamic Reformism in a Globalized World and Paradigms and Practice of Muslim-Christian Dialog, with a focus on an historical survey of Islam and Muslim activists in the areas of humanity, feminism, ecology, Islamic law and Qur’an interpretation. Wyrtzen’s classes were entitled Means-End Variation in Contemporary Islam Activism and Religious Nationalism in the Middle East: The Case of Palestine-Israel/ Israel-Palestinian.

Afternoons were filled with creative workshops that made the hot summer days pass without notice. Our evenings were a mix between quiet reading, writing, and “hanging-out” at various “Halal” restaurants in New Haven. Now that the institute has concluded, I am still reading some of the gripping handouts, feeling very content that my endeavor in doing comparative studies between Islam and Christianity at YDS ended in this way. The course requirements for the M.A.R program at YDS has limited the number of courses that I would like to take on Islam. Fortunately, the Summer Institute has not only filled the gap for the knowledge that I hope to acquire but has also given a good overview on Islam, faith and globalization so that I can study and research related topics independently.

The lessons taught and the interaction among participants contributed immensely to my cognitive and interpersonal skill development in interfaith matters and relations.  Rebecca and I are now beginning to study Qur’an interpretation with a Turkish group in West Haven, and we both know that our relationship will continue even after the Summer Institute is over.