What is the place of religion in the public space and discourse of a global city like New York? To what extent does the history of immigration by Jews and Catholics to the United States offer a model for thinking about Muslim immigration? How do religious and secular communities in Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia negotiate limits on free speech? What is the relationship between religion and modernity?
LAIC Public Initiative
These were some of the big-stakes questions addressed by participants in our first LAIC Public event, a roundtable conversation on “Islam and the Global City” that took place on Wednesday April 8th in a packed Casa Hispánica lobby. As LAIC professor and department chair Jesús Rodríguez-Velasco explained in his opening remarks, LAIC Public is a new departmental initiative that seeks to foster conversation about issues of broad pubic interest among invited guests from the New York area community and students and faculty from within Columbia University’s Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures. This first roundtable focused on Islam both in order to discuss a timely subject and because multiple members of LAIC are currently pursuing research on multiconfessional Iberia and the history and practice of comparative religion. We anticipate that future LAIC Public events will branch out toward other issues that occupy the attention of both scholarly and general audiences, from the art and culture of Hispanic New York to the history and future of mass media, among many other issues of contemporary significance.
Participants in “Islam and the Global City” brought a wide range of perspectives and experiences to the conversation.
LAIC doctoral student Marta Ferrer spoke about her interest in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century peninsular spiritualism and the relationship between gender and religion.
Eliana Kanefield, a LAIC undergraduate student, explained how her research on Islamic Iberia and her involvement in cross-cultural dialogue between Jewish and black communities in the Washington, DC area have informed how she thinks and talks about religion.
Zead Ramadan, an activist and Northern Manhattan business owner who serves as a board member of the Council on American-Islamic Relations of New York and as board chair of the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Education Center, spoke about his own experience as an immigrant participant in New York’s multiracial Muslim community.
Director of community partnerships at the Interfaith Center of New York Sarah Sayeed addressed the relationship between religious and cultural practice, the importance of interfaith dialogue, and history of and potential for religious reform movements driven by Muslim intellectuals.
As the event’s moderator, I sought both to facilitate conversation among the participants and to add an occasional comment related to my own research on the intellectual and cultural history of medieval and early modern Iberia.
Conversation began with local concerns, such as recent debate over a Muslim community center and mosque once planned for lower Manhattan and called, at least initially, the “Cordoba House.” An early and vocal supporter of the development, Zead recalled his bewilderment at the project’s opponents, who thought that “Cordoba” was a reference not to a peninsular medieval history of communication and exchange among Christians, Muslims, and Jews, but rather to militant Islamic expansion into the “West.” Sarah noted that to work through these sorts of contentious debates at the intersection of theology, history, and urban planning, we need a variety of models of interfaith dialogue, which tends to emphasize universal values and shared human experiences over and against narrow sectarianism or apologies for violence. As all the panelists agreed, such dialogue requires not only a deep familiarity with local constituencies, but also a commitment to history and a sense of humility, an awareness that what counts as orthodoxy or authenticity in any particular place and time is contingent.
To embrace this contingency is to see contemporary New York as but one data point in an enormous constellation, which is why our roundtable conversation quickly moved beyond local episodes and experiences. Noting the speed with which information, images, and people now travel, Marta asked Sarah about shifting gender norms in an extremely diverse global community of Muslims. This question about the role of women as lay and clerical leaders both within and beyond the Muslim community stimulated a debate about protocols of scriptural interpretation and the politics of religious renewal and reform. Eliana subsequently posed the paradoxical but shrewd question of whether the exclusion of particular religious groups from global networks of connection might paradoxically help to create as well as challenge group identity. Adversity, the panelists agreed, can indeed have unintended positive effects, but because those effects are so unpredictable, it is usually preferable to focus instead on mitigating its causes.
A final major theme of the roundtable concerned what it means to be a public intellectual: How might we collectively foster communication between members of the academic community and a larger group of knowledge producers and audiences outside of the “Ivory Tower.” Zead and Sarah both underscored the importance of writing and speaking in an straightforward style, a skill that everyone acknowledged to take much work, especially for scholars and students accustomed to a narrow group of specialized interlocutors. But as was evident from the roundtable’s numerous audience questions, which ranged from historical queries about Islamic rationalism in the early modern Ottoman Empire, to theological inquiry about prohibitions on the representation of the prophet Muhammad, to deeply personal unease over the divergent pull of religious and national identities, this work is well worth the effort. There is both a need and a desire for informed and accessible conversation about issues of general interest.
In sum, our roundtable on “Islam and the Global City” was an exciting and dynamic first step for the LAIC Public initiate, which will continue to reimagine the boundaries of intellectual inquiry and public debate in the semesters ahead. Thanks to all the participants and audience members for their attendance and many thoughtful contributions!
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