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April 9, 2004 :: No. 208

Building Bridges Between Cultures and Religions
by Valerie Orleans

“We’re calling it a reverse Fulbright,” said Ben Hubbard, chair and professor of comparative religion. “Instead of going to different countries, we’re bringing the scholars to us.”

On April 10, 16 Muslim scholars from Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh will arrive on campus to learn more about Muslim life in Southern California. While here, they will share insights about their countries, religious practices and beliefs with the campus community in classes and during an open forum, “Q & A: Islamic Scholars,” noon-1 p.m. Monday, April 12, in the Gabrielino Room of the Titan Student Union.

“This is part of ongoing relationships the university likes to nurture with other countries,” said Hubbard. “Not only do we receive the benefit of learning more about Muslim life in the four countries these scholars represent, but they get to see, firsthand, how Muslims live in America.”

Hubbard believes this glimpse of how different religious groups in America mingle and interact will be instructive – particularly for those who live in areas where a free press is almost nonexistent.

“Many of them feel that Muslims in America are persecuted, and while there are certainly some hate crimes, I think they will be surprised to see how easily Muslims are able to practice their religion here,” he said.

In addition to their visit at Cal State Fullerton, the scholars will tour a Muslim television station and visit a mosque. They also will participate in a breakfast meeting with a group of rabbis and Christian ministers at Temple Beth Sholom.

In return, Hubbard and other American scholars will travel to some of the visitors’ homelands this summer.

“I think trips like this are a modest attempt to improve relationships between predominantly Muslim countries and the West,” Hubbard explained. “When you think about it, Jews and Muslims often have more in common than Muslims and Christians.

“Jews and Muslims are both monotheistic religions; they both revere Moses; their customs – such as diet and circumcision – are similar; and they both have a great deal of respect for the Hebrew prophets. There is far more similarity than both groups usually see.”

Some of these foreign scholars are attempting to teach courses in world religions in their homelands – a development Hubbard believes is positive in helping those in Muslim countries better understand other religious traditions.

“With some of the interfaith groups I work with, we have an expression, ‘Dialogue or Death.’ It means that we can either communicate with one another and try to work out our differences, or we can fight one another,” said Hubbard, who is interested in developing more interfaith programs.

“I think there is a growing realization among religious groups that we are more alike than different,” he said. “In the ’60s, Catholics and Protestants started meeting together, and that fostered a sense of community between the two groups. Once that began happening, it opened up the idea of other groups working cooperatively together. With the establishment of the 1965 Immigration Reform Act, America saw a huge influx of not only European Christians, but of Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus from other parts of the world. With this influx, there was a great deal of curiosity about other groups and, admittedly, some distrust. By learning more about one another, we can dispel many misconceptions and learn how to live together peaceably.

“Inviting foreign scholars to our campus is a positive step in developing relationships.”