September 01, 2011 | Myrna DeVries Anderson

Not long ago, as philosophy professor Kelly James Clark was traveling by car through Jakarta, Indonesia, he noticed—among the sellers of oranges and coconut juice who lined the road—a little boy shaking a donation can.

“What is he collecting for?” Clark asked one of his fellow travelers.

“He’s collecting for the jihad,” Clark’s companion replied. The boy, he explained, was soliciting money for the Muslim minority who lived on a nearby island so that they could arm themselves to kill their Christian neighbors and thereby secure majority status.

Clark has been hearing a lot of that kind of story lately: stories of oppression and even violence by members of one religious group against another. He has spoken with the family of the 19-year-old Palestinian who was tortured to death in an Israeli prison camp for throwing rocks. He knows about the American Christians who are blocking the efforts of their Muslim neighbors to build a mosque.

“All around the world, we find religiously motivated hatred, violence and bigotry,” Clark said. “My biggest concern is that religious people are going to eat each other up in the next 100 years.”

Joel Carpenter, director of Calvin’s Nagel Institute of World Christianity, agrees. And problems exist in the United States, he said: “In the States, we say we have religious freedom. It’s OK to be a Muslim, but not if you have a loudspeaker and a call to prayer.” He gave an example from another faith: “OK, you’re a Pentecostal, but your services are too noisy.”

Although faith-based intolerance can be found in all religions, Clark is particularly concerned about the track records of the three major religions descended from Abraham: “It’s Muslims, Christians and Jews who haven’t done too well in this regard,” he said.

Clark believes the solution to these problem lies within these faith traditions themselves. “We need to develop, and then act, from our own faith-based systems of peace, justice, compassion and respect,” Clark said. “We need to find Muslim, Christian and Jewish models to love one another and to work together, in spite of our differences.”

Funded by a $189,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation, Clark is initiating a conversation about faith-based religious tolerance.

“My idea of tolerance is based on respect,” Clark explained. “You respect people and so tolerate their beliefs and behaviors. You don’t tolerate people. You’re not putting up with people. Because everyone is an image-bearer of the divine, they are deserving of infinite respect. That respect can and should ground tolerance.”

Religions must develop more tradition-specific views on hospitality, kindness to strangers and treatment of those of other religions, Clark maintains. (In the Qur’an, he added, it is stated that there is no compulsion in religion.) Clark’s approach is to get representatives of the three faiths talking amongst themselves.

This interfaith conversation will take two forms: a book and a conference. The book, Abraham’s Children: Liberty and Tolerance in an Age of Religious Conflict (Yale University Press, forthcoming), is a collection of essays in defense of religious liberty and tolerance. The essays are authored by five Christians, five Muslims and five Jews, among them former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, human rights advocate Rabbi Arik Ascherman, and Calvin and Yale emeritus philosophy professor Nicholas Wolterstorff.

A standout entry to the volume, Clark said, is the essay contributed by Abdurrahman Wahid, Indonesia’s first democratically elected president (see excerpt p. 21). “The title tells it all,” Clark said. “‘Omnipotence Needs No Defense.’ He’s saying, ‘We don’t need to kill people for Allah. He’s just fine without our help.’”

The book is not intended for academics, Clark said, but for a wider audience. “The essays are pretty accessible. They’re clear, and they’re motivational.”

They were also tough to edit, he conceded, not least because two of the contributors to the book, Iranian philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush and Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen, are currently under fatwa. “They defended moderate Islam, and radical Muslims don’t like that,” Clark explained.

The translation of the essays—into Arabic, Hebrew, Indonesian and Turkish—was another big challenge. “I’ve got four translators working on that now. It’s taken an unbelievable amount of time to do that,” Clark said.

“It’s going to be a remarkable publishing event,” Carpenter said. “This is not a liberal, secular project; this is a deeply religious project. That’s what’s new and fresh about it.” (The Templeton grant is being administered through the Nagel Institute.)

The other focus of the project is a conference, titled “Liberty and Tolerance in an Age of Religious Conflict.” Timed to coincide with the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, the conference will take place Thursday–Sunday, Sept. 8–11, at Georgetown University.

The two-day event, co-sponsored by Georgetown’s Berkely Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, will feature nine of the contributors to Abraham’s Children: Clark, Wolterstorff, Ascherman, Jerusalem Times publisher Hanna Sinioria, peace activist Nurit Peled-Elhanan, scholar and peace activist Lea Shakdiel, human rights advocate Ziya Meral, Muslim activist Hedieh Mirahmadi, and journalist and human rights defender Rana Husseini.

Peled-Elhanan, whose daughter was killed in a suicide bombing, works to promote dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. She summarized the topic of her contribution to both Abraham’s Children and the conference in this way: “Spiritual leaders should do much, much more to save the children of the world and stop the carnage both in Israel-Palestine and in other places.”

The speakers will participate in panels from the Jewish, Christian and Muslim perspectives on religious tolerance, and Wolterstorff will deliver the keynote address. The conference will conclude with an interfaith service in commemoration of Sept. 11, 2001.

This project is Clark’s most recent effort to address the problem of religiously motivated intolerance—but not his first effort to address the problem from a religious point of view. “I’d written on this topic academically, published half a dozen articles on religious liberty from a Christian perspective, but academic articles don’t get read by many people, and I’d grown increasingly concerned about religiously motivated violence and intolerance,” he said. “This seemed like a really timely topic, and it seemed like a project believers of different faiths needed to work on together.”

Clark is already looking to take the message further, and he hopes to hold future conferences in Nigeria, Turkey, Israel and Indonesia. The largest Muslim country in the world, he said, Indonesia offers protections for religious liberty. Yet he told a story about that country: “This spring, a Christian pastor criticized Muhammad, and he was given three and a half years in prison. A lot of Muslim fundamentalists didn’t think that was severe enough, so they burned four churches to the ground.”

Kelly Clark

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