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Inside the First Amendment - To stop the madness, put a face to faith

  • Written by Charles C. Haynes

  No quick fix — diplomatic or military — will dissolve the centuries of distrust and rivalry that fuel the sectarian conflict in Syria, where Alawites and Shiites are pitted against Sunnis with Christians caught in the crossfire.

  The same can be said of the many other religious and ethnic wars raging around the globe.
  In the past week alone, Buddhists burned Muslim shops and homes in Burma, a Muslim mob stormed a Coptic church in Egypt, and radical Sunni Muslims attacked minority Shiite Muslims in central Pakistan.
  Americans may be tempted to see religious violence as someone else’s problem, living as we do in country blessedly free of holy wars for much of our history (thanks, in large measure, to the religious liberty principles of the First Amendment).
  But our angry culture wars, while rarely violent, are warning signs that no society is immune from the pernicious effects of religious division and intolerance. Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, hate crimes motivated by religious bias are all found in the United States today.
  Humanity faces many daunting challenges in the 21st century. But none is greater — or more urgent — than the challenge of negotiating new ways to live with our religious and ethnic differences.
  That brings me to the good news this week. While the world debates how to respond to the latest atrocity in Syria, some 800 schools in 20 countries are taking the long view by preparing the next generation to do better.
  These schools, including 100 in the United States, are part of an initiative called “Face to Faith” that is offered free to schools by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. (Disclosure: I serve as U.S. advisor to the program.)
  Face to Faith is a simple, but profound, approach to dispelling stereotypes and creating understanding across religious differences. Through videoconferencing and secure online community, students engage one another directly in civil, but robust, dialogue about issues of faith and belief that matter to them.
  It works.
  Students in Indian schools, for example, are connecting to students in Pakistani schools — an extraordinary development in a region long plagued by inter-religious animosity and violence.
  Through direct engagement, students are able to put a human face on the “other” and build bridges of understanding across religious and cultural divides.
  As one high school student in Utah put it, “the opportunity to participate in this program has blown all the misconceptions that I had out of the water and caused me to try harder to understand people from all places and circumstances.”
  Although Face to Faith is in only 100 American schools thus far, plans are underway to expand that number to 1,000 public and private American schools over the next several years.
  In a world torn by sectarian violence and hate, the success of Face to Faith is a reminder that we can — and must — do much more to help young people experience our common humanity.
  “Even though religions don’t have the same laws, beliefs and concepts,” said a student from New York, “Face to Faith has taught me that people hundreds of miles away are going through the same experiences as me.”
  Reading and math are important. But even more important are the kinds of human beings that read the books and do the math. Learning to respect one another across our deepest differences is the real work of education.

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: religiousfreedomeducation.org Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

In Other Words - There We Go Again

  • Written by Donald Kaul

  So we’re going to war in Syria. Maybe. We won’t know for sure until Congress gets back from the vacation it’s taking from its other vacations.

  One can live in hope, however. What would autumn be without a fresh war in the Middle East to occupy us?
  I know, the Obama-Bush administration is saying that it’s not going to be a real war, that we’re simply going to conduct a punitive raid to teach Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad a lesson.
  But you know how those things go. One lesson leads to another, and before you know it, we’re bombing cities to save them, sending in troops, and rebuilding the society we helped knock down.
  After that formula worked so well in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, it’s no wonder President Barack Obama wants to try it in Syria.
  The desire for a Syrian raid, according to occasionally reliable sources, arises from a box of red crayons that Obama keeps in his desk drawer in the Oval Office. Every once in a while he takes one out and draws a line in front of some action that an enemy power must not cross. With Iran, it’s the production of a nuclear bomb. With Syria, it’s the use of poison gas.
  Well, to make a long story short, Assad seems to have used poison gas on his own people and thus must be punished.
  You see, it’s OK to bomb people with conventional weapons or to incinerate them with napalm (as we ourselves did many times in Vietnam) or to put them in jail and torture them (remember Abu Ghraib?). It’s OK to mine farm fields so that long after a war is over peasants will be blowing off limbs on a consistent basis.
  It’s even OK to obliterate entire cities with a single bomb that vaporizes all in its path. (Maybe not OK exactly but perfectly understandable under the proper circumstances.) But if you use poison gas, you are a monster and a lowlife.
  Who can argue with logic like that?
  Some do, of course. Not only do Russia and China (always the spoilsports) object to the proposed U.S. action, but the British parliament has refused to go along with it. It seems that many Brits remember being fooled into helping out with the Iraq War only to find that the dreaded “weapons of mass destruction” were a figment of Dick Cheney’s imagination. They’ve seen that movie and they don’t like the ending.
  The nice thing about being an American is that you don’t have to worry about history because you have no memory of it. Our national motto should be: “A mistake worth making is worth repeating.”
  The other question surrounding this issue is: Will a raid do any good…that is, teach Assad a lesson?
  Probably not. Assad won’t strike himself on the forehead and say “What a fool I’ve been. I’m going to resign and spend the rest of my life reading the Federalist Papers.”
  Assad is a nasty piece of work. I doubt that a limited strike such as this one looks to be will have much effect.
  So why do it?
  There’s that red-line thing, I suppose, but somehow “You cross that line and I’m going to tell Congress” lacks something as a threat. Not that I’m against consulting Congress, if its members can be located.
  In any case, the last time bombing worked out for us was Kosovo, but that was a two-month campaign of intensive bombing, supported by our allies.
  Our allies are hiding behind sand dunes this time.
  I predict it will all turn out badly. I’ve been predicting that on the front end of every single development in the Middle East for the past 20 years and I have yet to be wrong.

OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. OtherWords.org