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A TALE OF TWO RELIGIONS

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  • Ed Kent
    A TALE OF TWO RELIGIONS Chicago Jewish News, Dec. 30, 2005 Professor Sam Fleischacker had a vision. Imagine Jewish and Muslim students poring over a sura of
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 18, 2006
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      A TALE OF TWO RELIGIONS
      Chicago Jewish News, Dec. 30, 2005

      Professor Sam Fleischacker had a vision.

      "Imagine Jewish and Muslim students poring over a sura of the Koran
      together or a page of the Talmud," he wrote in a statement about the new
      program he is launching at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
      "Imagine them learning together about the influence of Islam on Judaism,
      and vice versa. Imagine them discovering the similarities in Jewish and
      Muslim conceptions of law and of Scripture, in theology, or in their
      experiences as minorities in the West, both in the past and in the
      present day."

      Fleischacker's ambitious dream is now a giant step closer to
      realization. Beginning with the new semester in January, UIC, along with
      Chicago-Kent College of Law, is establishing a Jewish/Muslim Studies
      Initiative; its centerpiece is a course available to students at both
      institutions. Public lectures, one of which has already taken place, and
      a theatrical performance will augment the academic program in its first
      year.

      The course, "Judaism and Islam: Interactions and Intersections," will be
      co-taught by Rachel Havrelock, UIC professor of Jewish Studies; Azim
      Nanji, a visiting professor, religious scholar and the author of a
      number of books on religion and Islam; and Sheldon Nahmod, a professor
      of law and co- director of Chicago-Kent's Institute for Law and the
      Humanities.

      Fleischacker, a professor in the philosophy department, has long
      envisioned just such an initiative, he said in a recent phone
      conversation. "I've been concerned with Jewish-Muslim dialogue for many
      years," he said. "I think that Judaism and Islam in many ways are closer
      than Judaism and Christianity. They both share a strong monotheism, and
      they shared a very good history until the early 19th century."

      Today, he said, as is well known there is tremendous anti-Semitism and
      hostility towards Israel in the Muslim world, yet "one on one I've had
      very lovely interactions with Muslims, and they are very interested to
      know more about Judaism." Especially since Sept. 11, "I thought such
      interactions were crucial, yet I haven't found very many venues where it
      takes place," he said. An exception is Chicago's Interfaith Youth Corps,
      where high school students of many religions work together on social
      justice projects.

      Yet, Fleischacker said, he was looking for a different type of setting.
      "Because I'm a professor I believe in intellectual work," he said.
      "Dialogue breaks down because people have terrible misimpressions of
      each other, false views about the Talmud, about the Koran. I think
      universities can contribute something that you don't necessarily get
      outside of universities."

      Last year, Fleischacker chaired the UIC Jewish Studies program after
      another professor left and his idea for the initiative began to come
      together. "We have a very large Muslim population and also a significant
      Jewish population, and I thought it might be an appropriate, interesting
      thing to do," he said. With help from the Jewish Studies program, the
      school itself and Chicago-Kent, the idea for the program quickly came
      together.

      Fleischacker's ultimate vision is "to bring Jewish professors to teach
      Islam and Muslim professors to teach Judaism -- well-trained, scholarly
      people with a deep interest in the other tradition, and who are not
      prejudiced. It would provide them with an opportunity to learn the
      tradition itself more than they would ordinarily do and provide an
      incentive for scholars in the two disciplines to get to know each other."

      For students, he said, "it would provide a wonderful opportunity for
      Jewish and Muslim students to work on each other's traditions together.
      It will be interfaith dialogue in a scholarly setting. People will be
      permitted to say whatever they like, to explore without taking political
      poses-a more intense but also more open discussion, informed and guided
      by a scholar who is something of an expert on both traditions."

      The program was formally launched in November with two public lectures
      on Jewish-Muslim dialogue by anthropologist, diplomat, writer and
      filmmaker Akbar Ahmed, considered one of the world's leading authorities
      on contemporary Islam. Ahmed is also a partner in a series of public
      dialogues with Judea Pearl, father of slain Wall Street Journal reporter
      Daniel Pearl. That type of public dialogue is something Fleischacker
      would like to see more of, particularly in Chicago.

      He and the other scholars involved in the initiative are hoping to bring
      in more speakers and in the spring will sponsor a production of "From
      Tel Aviv to Ramallah," a well-received hip-hop play written and directed
      by Havrelock, the UIC Jewish Studies professor. The play looks at the
      Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the daily lives of young people on
      both sides of the divide. No date has yet been set for performance.

      Havrelock, who will co-teach the course, said she hopes the new
      initiative will "establish a comparative cultural context for the study
      of two traditions often believed to be antithetical. By studying Islam
      and Judaism together, students will learn about a long history of
      conceptual cross-pollination and cultural contact between the two
      traditions."

      As for Fleischacker, he has bigger plans that include the launch of an
      informal working group among professors of Jewish and Islamic Studies,
      modeled on ones that already exist between Catholic and Jewish scholars.
      Ultimately, he said, he hopes for representatives of the program "to go
      out to mosques, synagogues, community centers, to meet with people and
      give public lectures. If all goes well we'll have a full- fledged
      Muslim-Jewish center.

      The benefits of that will be great, he believes. "Among the most serious
      rifts in the world today is the one between Jews and Muslims,"
      Fleischacker said. "Universities can play an important role in enabling
      dialogue, fostering understanding and developing cooperative relationships."
      --
      "A war is just if there is no alternative, and the resort
      to arms is legitimate if they represent your last hope." (Livy)
      --
      Ed Kent 718-951-5324 (voice mail only) [blind copies]
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