Meet Reasa Currier of the HSUS—a different kind of interfaith activist

By DAVID CRUMM, ReadTheSpirit Editor

What’s the mission of an interfaith activist?

Often, the vocation involves bridging religious barriers in our communities, combating bigotry, defending human rights, and courageously promoting peace in global hotspots (see InterfaithPeacemakers.com for more).

This week, we’re introducing a different kind of interfaith activist who is crisscrossing the nation on behalf of animals: the Humane Society of the United States’ Reasa Currier. Her title is long: Strategic Initiatives Manager for Faith Outreach, a division of the HSUS.

FAITH & PUBLIC POLICY UNITE

Reasa Currier speaking to a grup (1)

Reasa Currier of Humane Society of the United States speaks to a group.

Reasa Currier’s mission is clear: She connects with religious leaders and activists who are motivated by their faith to join in widespread efforts on behalf of animals.

She’s relatively new to the job, yet her potential impact also is clear: In June 2015, Tennessee enacted tougher penalties for animal fighting, a campaign in which the Southern Baptist Convention played a key role thanks to Reasa’s work on behalf of HSUS with Russell Moore, president of the influential Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“It’s not just a step away from the cruelty and savagery of animal fighting; it is a move away from the exploitation of the poor through expanded gambling,” said Moore, who attended the June 11 signing of the legislation in Tennessee.

The anti-animal-fighting campaign is aimed at more than owners and promoters of animal fights. Reasa reminds faith leaders that this business represents a dangerous lure for poor Americans, often drawing them into ever-deeper cycles of gambling and also bringing their children into the bloody world of animal fighting.

Fighting rings are dangerous environments for vulnerable men and women, Moore and other religious leaders argue. In a public letter endorsing the Tennessee law earlier this spring, Moore warned that a “relationship between animal fighting, gambling and organized crime continues to grow.”

Are you surprised that kids are involved? One Tennessee newspaper featured a photo of a small boy proudly showing off his fighting bird.

Reasa says, “We’ve been involved in opposing dog fighting and cock fighting rings all across the country and we often find that children are present. We’ve found playpens set up near the fighting for small children. We’ve even seen children exchanging money as they gamble on the fights. That’s why we’re focusing on keeping children away—and we also support making it illegal for anyone to attend an animal fight. All too often, police raid a fight and nearly everyone walks away with no consequences.”

Many religious leaders find such a cause is in perfect alignment with their values. (Here is Baptist Press coverage of the Tennessee effort.)

WHY FAITH GROUPS CARE

Animal welfare and creation care may not be high priorities in your congregation—but they could be, Reasa argues. She can show teaching documents that span centuries and, in some cases, millennia.

Buddha receiving honey from a monkey (1)

Sacred relationships with animals run deep in the Dharmic religions, especially Buddhism. Buddhists are not supposed to harm any sentient being. Moreover, the Eastern idea of reincarnation means that an animal you encounter might represent a friend or relative you knew in another life or might know in the future. Plus, animals play a major role in sacred stories. In this painting from a monastery in Laos, a monkey brings the Buddha a stick containing a portion of honeycomb.

“Many Americans are aware of the ancient tradition of  compassion toward living things in the Dharmic faiths,” which include Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh traditions, Reasa says. “But, all of the world’s faiths have some teaching on animal stewardship—so I’m not trying to convince people to accept something new. It’s right there in their religious traditions. A lot of my work is connecting with faith leaders to lift up the teachings that they already have in their communities.”

The majority of Americans are Christians, although they may not often explore their teachings on animal welfare. The Christian connection draws on ancient roots of compassionate stewardship of land and animals in Judaism—a message of care for life that also extends into the other “Abrahamic” faith: Islam.

Many iconic Christian leaders—from St. Francis to the founder of United Methodism John Wesley—were famous for advocating animal welfare. ReadTheSpirit magazine has one of Wesley’s sermons on the topic. During his lifetime, some of Wesley’s harshest critics poked fun at his soft heart for animals and joked that they could spot a Methodist farmer’s barnyard by the kinder ways he treated his animals.

“Christians have a great and ancient history in understanding there is a sacred relationship between the farmer and the land, the land and the community and that includes the welfare of animals,” Reasa says. “There are so many scriptures that speak to this relationship.”

Given this deep consensus, Reasa says, “The easy part of my work is getting endorsements from faith leaders for issues the Humane Society is supporting. Sometimes it only takes a call or an email to tell them about an issue we’re working on—and they’ll want to be part of it. The hard part of my job is building community among the individuals we reach. We need to establish ongoing connections around animal stewardship.”

While Reasa’s work is in the U.S., she points out to religious leaders that efforts on behalf of animals and the environment can build relationships in the burgeoning Southern Hemisphere, where Catholics, Protestants and Muslims all have been experiencing growth. Uniting North and South is a message championed this year by Pope Francis.

REFUSING TO SLIDE INTO DESPAIR

methodist-theological-farm-photo-by-reasa-currier

Click on this photo of the seminary farm to visit the United Methodist website where Reasa published her article. (Photo by Reasa Currier.)

As she travels, Reasa writes and speaks about signs of hope she sees nationwide.

“The news about climate change and the challenges of creation care can quickly turn to conversation about hurricanes and poverty and tragedies—and that can lead to a kind of helplessness,” she says. “The problems can seem to be of such magnitude that it’s just hopeless to try to make a difference as an individual.”

HSUS is well aware of that danger. That’s why the organization promotes lots of individual initiatives like The Humane Backyard, which people can work on wherever they live. Here’s how HSUS describes the idea:

In addition to providing food, water, and cover, a Humane Backyard gives wildlife a safe haven from harmful pesticides and chemicals, free-roaming pets, inhumane practices (such as wildlife trapping), and other dangers in our human-dominated world. Whether you have an apartment balcony, suburban yard, corporate property, place of worship, or community park, you can turn it into a habitat for wildlife, people, and pets.

For her part, Reasa lifts up small but significant examples she spots, while on the road. Recently, she published a column about a seminary that has established a community garden that is changing the way people think about the food they eat.

“I was impressed with their garden,” Reasa says. “They aren’t sinking into helplessness. They are doing something—planting a garden, harvesting vegetables and making a commitment that all their food is sourced in a sustainable and humane manner. They get their meat and dairy from local farms that have high animal-welfare standards. And the vegetables they grow are letting them cut back on the amount of food they’re buying that has to be transported thousands of miles.”

Want to get involved?

Learn about the Faith Outreach division of HSUS.

th Cover Dr Seuss What Pet Should I GetThis week, ReadTheSpirit is publishing several columns packed with ideas you can use with friends. If you found this story about Reasa Currier interesting, then you’ll also want to read our story about the importance of Pope Francis’s campaign on creation care—and you’re sure to enjoy the OurValues series exploring the historic release of a new Dr. Seuss book: What Pet Should I Get?

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Children and FamiliesChristianJewishMuslimNatural WorldPeacemaking

MSU ‘Bias Busters’ sort out the mysterious realm of religion

Front cover MSU guide 100 Questions about Muslim Americans

CLICK this cover to visit our Bookstore and learn about ordering your copy.

By JOE GRIMM

The MSU Bias Busters series of guides to cultural competence embarks on a new direction this week: We’re heading into the realm of religion.

The series, from the Michigan State University (MSU) School of Journalism, started in 2013 with 100 questions and answers to everyday questions about several groups. There are now guides for Indian Americans, Hispanics and Latinos, East Asian cultures, Arab Americans, Native Americans and, to help international guests, Americans.

Why did our MSU team decide to start this new series on religious minorities? Because such guides are needed by so many men and women, these days. Americans in countless neighborhoods and professions need to know how to interact with our neighbors and co-workers from minority faiths and cultures.

Why did we start this new series with Muslims? Because these men, women and children face the greatest misunderstandings right now, according to nationwide studies.

Recently, Pew researchers reported that prejudice against Muslim Americans is “rampant among the U.S. public.” The Pew team added: “We have a long way to go in dispelling prejudice against Muslims. Muslims were the group rated most negatively of all religious groups.”

Can our guide books really make a difference? Yes!

Here’s the goal of our overall series of 100 Questions & Answers guides: We answer the questions that real people ask every day wherever Americans gather. We answer the questions that no one else is answering in such a convenient and authoritative form. We have blue-ribbon readers across the country advise us as we answer these questions for readers—so you can trust what we’re telling you in these pages.

In your hands, these guides will help you get to know co-workers, neighbors or fellow students in your school. And that process of getting to know each other, concludes the Pew team, is the way to build healthier communities.

The Pew team used a thermometer chart to show Americans’ relatively warm vs. chilly attitudes toward minorities. The team’s report concludes: “Knowing someone from a religious group is linked with having relatively more positive views of that group. Those who say they know someone who is Jewish, for example, give Jews an average thermometer rating of 69, compared with a rating of 55 among those who say they do not know anyone who is Jewish. Atheists receive a neutral rating of 50, on average, from people who say they personally know an atheist, but they receive a cold rating of 29 from those who do not know an atheist. Similarly, Muslims get a neutral rating (49 on average) from those who know a Muslim, and a cooler rating (35) from those who do not know a Muslim.”

WHAT QUESTIONS DO WE ANSWER?

MSU Bias Busters Class works on 100 Questions about Muslim Americans

PHOTOS OF THE MSU BIAS BUSTERS: TOP PHOTO shows an MSU editing circle—clockwise from front: Arielle Rembert, Julia Gorman, Sarah King, Cheyenne Yost, Zhenqi (Bruce) Tan and Kate Kerbrat. MIDDLE PHOTO shows our editors Amanda Cowherd and Kyle Koehler collaborating on the new guide. BOTTOM PHOTO shows class members—front from left: Lia Kamana, Stacy Cornwell, Arielle Rembert and Julia Gorman. Second row, from left: Kate Kerbrat, Amanda Cowherd, Kyle Koehler, Zhenqi (Bruce) Tan, Cheyenne Yost and Sarah King.

The full title of our newest book, as listed on Amazon, is 100 Questions and Answers About Muslim Americans with a Guide to Islamic Holidays: Basic facts about the culture, customs, language, religion, origins and politics of American Muslims.

These guides are designed to answer the everyday questions that people wonder about but might not know how to ask. The Muslim-American guide answers:

* What does Islam say about Jesus?
* What does the Quran say about peace and violence?
* What is the difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims?
* Which countries are predominantly Shia and Sunni?
* Do Muslims believe in heaven and an afterlife?
* Do Muslims believe that non-Muslims are going to hell?
* Is the Nation of Islam the same as Islam?
* Are honor killings a part of Islamic teaching?
* What does Islam say about images of God?
* Do women who wear the hijab play sports or swim?

The guide’s Foreword is by John L. Esposito, professor of Religion and International Affairs and of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. He is founding director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and author of the popular book, What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam.

Esposito wrote, “The Muslims of America are far from monolithic in their composition and in their attitudes and practices. They are a mosaic of many ethnic, racial and national groups. As a result, significant differences exist in their community as well as in their responses to their encounter with the dominant religious and cultural paradigm of American society.”

Esposito was one of 20 experts who helped MSU students in one way or another through the creation of our new guide. The students began by interviewing Muslims, and consulting with our experts, to determine the 100 commonly asked questions we would answer in this book. Then, the students researched the answers and, once again, consulted with our experts to verify the entire guide.

BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE …

Another new feature in this new book is a nine-page guide to Islamic holidays. Written by Read the Spirit’s Holidays & Festivals expert Stephanie Fenton, it explains their timing, meaning and significance.

The guide also has a recording with American Muslims pronouncing Arabic words such as Muslim, Islam and Allah. Muslims told students that these are often mispronounced and the audio addresses that. (Visit the ReadTheSpirit bookstore now to learn how to order your copy of this inexpensive new book. When you get your copy, the first thing you’ll want to do is listen to this helpful audio track. In most e-readers, the audio plays within the digital book; in the print edition, a QR code lets you click on that page—and play the audio on your smart phone.)

The series is evolving and becoming more elaborate.

The next guide will focus on Jewish Americans and is expected to have videos.

CARE TO READ MORE?

JOE GRIMM is visiting editor in the Michigan State University School of Journalism. In addition to the MSU series, Joe has written two books about careers in media. You can learn about all of Joe’s books in our ReadTheSpirit bookstore.

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Categories: HolidaysJewishMuslimPeacemaking

The Naomi Schaefer Riley interview on growing your congregation

Cover Got Religion by Naomi Schaefer Riley for Templeton

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Anxious Christians, watching young adults slip away from congregations by the millions, have built an entire industry around “church growth.” So, this new book by journalist Naomi Schaefer Riley is both eagerly awaited news—and a startling surprise.

What’s the big surprise in Got Religion? How Churches, Mosques, and Synagogues Can Bring Young People Back? Riley’s extensive research, backed by the Templeton Press, shows that the advice hawked by a lot of would-be church-growth experts simply isn’t worth the money. And, congregations of any size—whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim—have an opportunity to welcome back young adults by focusing to the basics of religious community: hospitality, compassion and sincere relationships.

Frequently, self-proclaimed experts walk into congregations and promote investment in technology to bring young adults back to worship. Her book concludes: “Perhaps the most striking element that is absent from the accounts of successful religious institutions in this book is—technology. When I asked the academics, religious leaders and journalists who cover religion which institutions were doing the best job and how, my respondents barely mentioned Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or Tumbler, let alone the institutional websites that congregations often spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours creating.”

And when Riley went out and talked to young adults nationwide? Yes, she reports, they did “expect a basic level of technological literacy from their churches and synagogues. … Of course they would like to see an updated Facebook page from their religious instutions with information about where services will be or what time events will take place—but I could not find one example of a technological innovation that brought someone into one of these religious institutions or an instance in which it convinced them to stay.”

In fact, young adults are even willing to forgive the technological limitations of their houses of worship. They’re seeking, first and foremost, something that congregations once understood was their core value—forming communities.

Today, ReadTheSpirit magazine is highly recommending Naomi’s book for individual reading and for small-group discussion. Click on the book cover and order a copy today. Invite friends to discuss this book with you.

Here is Riley’s message—after an impressive body of national research—in a few concise lines: “Religious leaders who are successfully connecting with young adults realize that sleek advertising is not going to bring people into the pews. The barriers to entry are not matters for a public relations firm to tackle. Young adults want community. They want a neighborhood. They want a critical mass of people their age. But they want to see older people and younger people in their religious institutions, too. They want a way to serve, and many of them want a way to serve sacrificially for longer periods of time. They want the racial and ethnic diversity of their country reflected in their religious community. … They want to feel welcome whether they are single or married. And while they may appear to be experiencing an extended adolescence, when they are given responsibility, they often are inclined to take it.”

Is this refreshing news—or what!?! For religious leaders bemoaning the mass exodus of young adults? Riley’s message is: The opportunity to welcome them back is right there in your hands and in your own timeless mission as congregations.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed the author. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH NAOMI SCHAEFER RILEY
ON ‘GOT RELIGION?’

Naomi Schaefer Riley used with the author's permission.

Naomi Schaefer Riley used with the author’s permission.

DAVID: I imagine that many of our readers will be surprised by the conclusions in your book, but I see your work mirroring the No. 1 “Key Takeaway” from Pew’s study of the millennial generation: “Millennials have fewer attachments to traditional political and religious institutions, but they connect to personalized networks of friends, colleagues and affinity groups through social and digital media.” Most people reading Pew’s No. 1 point may focus on the final phrase in Pew’s conclusion “through social and digital media.” And Pew is correct in explaining how millions of millennials achieve community through social media. But your book looks past that final phrase to focus squarely on Pew’s main point: Young adults want to connect socially with a community.

NAOMI: Absolutely. My research for this book included going out and finding success stories to the extent they exist. When I went around the country and visited a variety of religious institutions–Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, evangelical and mainline Protestant–I asked the young adults I found there to describe what drew them in. I was surprised that nobody gave me answers involving technology. It wasn’t mentioned as something drawing them in.

What people described was a personal sense of human connection with the community. In New Orleans, when I visited Redeemer Presbyterian Church, I found that the people there focused on where they are—the neighborhood they are in. The pastor there prides himself in saying to visitors: Is there a church that’s closer to your home that you’d rather belong to? You don’t hear that from most religious leaders. He says that because he wants to warn people ahead of time that this church is very focused on the neighborhood. He walks everywhere. The members of the church really like the fact that they run into each other on a daily basis. They like seeing each other in coffee shops and bars and stores.

DAVID: Now, you also make it clear that digital technology is a way of life with young adults and congregations ignore that at their peril. Millions of adults want their congregations to connect in ways that make common sense in their lives today. For example, they want an easy-to-find website with the location and the upcoming schedule. The Redeemer church website provides all of that information on its opening web page. However, you also conclude that Twitter or Facebook “campaigns” aren’t going to bring young adults through the doors.

THE DAILY QUESTIONS:
WHERE ARE YOU?‘ AND, ‘WANT TO GO …?

NAOMI: This focus on Twitter and Facebook among some of the people who are advising congregations is a misunderstanding of how young people think about technology. These are just tools—just a means of meeting other people. Most people are using these tools to say things to other people, like: “Hey, I’m at the Starbucks now. Where are you?” Or: “I’m headed to the bar later. How about you?” Or: “Want to go to the park?”

These tools aren’t magic. What we need to look at more closely is the spontaneous way that young adults use these tools to create human interaction. If you’re a congregational leader and you think that young adults will flock to you because of the coolness of your new technology—you’re missing the point.

DAVID: One of the fascinating examples in your book is called CharlotteONE, and the program’s website also makes it clear that these organizers understand what people really want on a website: the upcoming schedule. As we publish this interview “Upcoming Dates” is the top headline item on CharlotteONE’s website. This Charlotte program is an example of a bunch of local congregations all coming together to produce a “local” event aimed at orienting young adults to local houses of worship.

The program’s website boils the conclusions of your book down to a simple line: “CharlotteONE helps 20-to-30-somethings get connected, make a difference, and find their purpose.” At the moment, they explain: “We are a collaborative effort of nearly 50 local churches to provide young professionals with greater opportunities for establishing significant roots in Charlotte.” This is right in line with the central findings of your book.

NAOMI: One of the big obstacles that religious leaders and communities face in attracting young people is: Where do we find the resources? You have people in the pew now and you have an obligation to serve them. So, how much time and money should you spend on bringing in people who are not there–and who aren’t showing much interest about coming?

So, a group of religious leaders got together in Charlotte and found that they all were throwing up their arms in weariness over trying to create their own individual programs for young adults. Together, they came up with the idea: What would happen if we all contributed to this one big flashy gathering for young adults each week? Sometimes it’s a lecture. Sometimes it’s music.

DAVID: Since your book is about attracting young adults to Jewish, Christian and Muslim congregations, we should explain that this particular example is very diverse but the CharlotteONE example is a Christian program. Sponsors include Catholic and mainline and evangelical congregations.

NAOMI: Yes, whatever the program might be in a particular week, this is always a Christian gathering with a Christian theme. But the real focus for the sponsors are these tables they set up representing all of the different churches in the Charlotte area. There are maps to help visitors see the locations. And, as everyone gathers, you’re supposed to walk around and talk to people about what you’re looking for in a church community. Some people might want to find a Catholic church; others might want to find a more evangelical congregation.

Because of its focus, CharlotteONE has an almost 100 percent turnover every few years. It serves as a funnel for young adults to think more about belonging to a church, attending on Sundays and putting down their roots in a local community. One characteristic of the Charlotte area overall is a transitional feel among the young professionals who live and work there. People are moving in, getting new jobs and then, like a lot of young adult life now, people expect to be drifting from job to job, roommate to roommate, friend to friend. CharloteONE is intended to help people put down some roots in the middle of that process.

DAVID: I could see this working in a big, healthy Jewish or Muslim community like the ones in metro-Detroit as well. There might be weekly regional gatherings for young adults co-sponsored by a number of congregations. This could work, of course, with Christian groups just as it does in Charlotte, but I think this is a part of your book that could apply to other faith groups as well.

WHAT DO ‘THEY‘ WANT?
INVITATIONS TO SERVICE

DAVID: Let me ask about another key finding in your report: Congregations nationwide are missing a big opportunity if they don’t reach out to young adults with opportunities for service, either within their own communities or within other needy communities. This is fascinating: You conclude that many young adults today are looking for ways to provide much more significant service—even longer-term sacrificial service. I hope that religious leaders pay close attention to that part of your book.

I know, just from young adults I’ve known in recent years, this certainly is true. They’re not so sure that America has a secure “career path” waiting for them, so they are eager to consider alternative ways to work and provide service. I know a lot of young adults who have considered the Peace Corps, for example. This is very much in line with the big Pew study of “Millennials” that calls this generation: “Confident. Connected. Open to change.” As I read that Pew study, it’s a portrait of a generation open to invitations for service. Your research draws an even more pointed conclusion about this, right?

NAOMI: This is the first generation that has grown up and gone through school with this sense of community service as part of their curriculum. For many people in their 20s, community service actually was a part of their curriculum in high school and college. They don’t need to go the religious route to find opportunities for service, but this possibility of service is an opportunity for religious groups.

DAVID: One amazing point we should stress about your book: You say almost nothing about the religious teachings that should come from houses of worship. You do say a lot about the need for religious leaders to be honest and welcoming and reflective of the diversity in our country. But you really don’t write about theological themes. That’s one reason, I think, that this book can be so successful across faith lines.

NAOMI: That’s right. This book is not about changing your theological outlook. This book is about seeing your church, synagogue or mosque as an institution that needs to figure out how to get the next generation involved. And if you look through the chapters from different religious perspectives, then some things I write about will be more applicable to you than others.

But the most important message here is the importance of face-to-face contact focusing on your neighborhood. Young adults today have one of the lowest rates of car ownership in our history. Young adults want to walk places. Young adults want to know about their neighborhood. Second, young adults need to be treated as adults. Twenty somethings are perfectly capable of being in charge of any number of so-called “adult” issues in your congregation. That’s a point I can’t stress enough. It’s true that these young adults don’t have the traditional markers of adulthood. Many are waiting years to get married. Many may live with their own parents. They may not look like traditional adults to older leaders in religious communities. But they are very capable adults and we need to invite them to lead and to serve.

This really is about talking to young adults and saying: You really are valuable members of our community.

Gayle_Campbell_teaching_kids_in_HondurasCare to read more from …
our own Millennial columnist?

Contributing columnist Gayle Campbell has written several series of OurValues columns about the values that motivate her Millennial generation. If you click here, you’ll find 15 of her columns, grouped into three series, including: “Doing Good,” “5 World-Changing Truths” and “5 Millennial Truths.” In many ways, Gayle’s columns mirror the conclusions drawn in Naomi Schaefer Riley’s new book. If you are planning a small-group discussion of Naomi’s book, you may want to include some of Gayle’s columns, as well, which include discussion questions.

Care to see the idea?

Author and columnist Benjamin Pratt shares a vivid greeting card about building strong relationships that he often sends to young couples.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Author InterviewsChurch GrowthJewishMuslim

Dr. David Myers: Psychology of Sunni-Shi’a division is wisdom we all can use

Map of the Islamic World

MAP of THE MUSLIM WORLD: Click on this map to see it in a larger format. The nations colored dark green on the map are predominantly Muslim, illustrating the fact that most of the world’s Muslims are not Arab. According to Pew worldwide research, the largest Muslim countries, ranked in order of Muslim population, are: Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, China, Syria, Malaysia, Russia and Niger.

David Myers

Click the logo to read David Myers’ “Talk Psych” columns.

HOPE COLLEGE Professor of Psychology DAVID MYERS is a household name among college students and teachers, because he is the author of textbooks widely used on college campuses. His scientific writings, supported by National Science Foundation grants and fellowships, have appeared in three dozen academic periodicals, including Science, the American Scientist and the American Psychologist. Myers recently wrote a fascinating column on psychological principles behind Sunni-Shi’a conflict within Islam. He invited us to share his thoughts …

Psychology of the Sunni-Shi’a Divide

Why is there so much animosity
between groups that seem so similar?

This excerpt is used with the author’s permission. The full text originally appeared in POLITICO magazine, where you can read Dr. Myers’ entire column. Dr. Myers opens his column by explaining that Sunni-Shi’a divisions do have deep historical roots—but, he notes, so did the long and brutal Catholic-Protestant conflicts in Ireland. In addition to historical factors, Myers suggests four psychological principles are at work in such divisions. Thoughtful readers will realize that these factors are crucial for understanding a wide range of inter-religious and cross-cultural conflicts. Myers writes …

1) No matter our similarities with others, our attention focuses on differences.

In the 1970s when the Yale psychologist William McGuire invited children to “tell us about yourself,” they zeroed in on their distinctiveness. Those who were foreign-born often mentioned their birthplaces. Redheads volunteered their hair color. Minority children mentioned their race. “If I am a Black woman in a group of White women, I tend to think of myself as a Black,” McGuire and his colleagues observed. “If I move to a group of Black men, my blackness loses salience and I become more conscious of being a woman.” Straight folks sometimes wonder why gay folks are so conscious of their sexual identity, though in a predominantly gay culture the sexual identity self-consciousness would be reversed.

So when people of two subcultures are nearly identical, they often overlook their kinship and become laser-focused on their small differences. Freud recognized this phenomenon: “Of two neighboring towns, each is the other’s most jealous rival; every little canton looks down upon the others with contempt. Closely related races keep one another at arm’s length; the South German cannot endure the North German, the Englishman casts every kind of aspersion upon the Scot, the Spaniard despises the Portuguese.”

2) We naturally divide our worlds into “us” and “them,” ingroup and outgroup.

We inherited our Stone Age ancestors’ need to belong, to live in groups. There was safety in solidarity. Whether hunting, defending or attacking, 10 hands were better than two. Like them, we form social identities.

But the benefits come at a cost. Mentally drawing a circle that defines “us” also defines “them.” Moreover, an “ingroup bias”—a preference for one’s own community—soon follows. In experiments,even those in arbitrarily created groups tend to favor their own group. In studies by Henri Tajfel, Michael Billig and others,people grouped together by something as random as a coin toss or the last digit of their driver’s licenses felt a twinge of kinship with their number-mates, and favored their own group when dividing rewards.

3) Discussion among those of like mind often produces “group polarization.”

In one of my own early experiments, George Bishop and I discovered that when highly prejudiced students discussed racial issues, they became more prejudiced. When less prejudiced students talked among themselves, they became even more accepting. In other words, ideological separation plus conversation equaled greater polarization between the two groups.

So it goes in real life too. Analysis of terrorist organi­zations, for instance, has revealed that the terrorist mentality does not erupt suddenly, on a whim. It begins slowly, among people who share a grievance. As they interact in isolation, their views grow more and more extreme.

By connecting like-minded people, the Internet’s virtual groups often harness group polarization for good purposes, as when connecting and strengthening fellow peacemakers, cancer survivors and rights advocates. But the Internet echo chamber also enables climate-change skeptics and conspiracy theorists to amplify their shared ideas and suspicions. White supremacists become more racist. Militia members become more hostile. For good or ill, socially networked birds of a feather gain support for their shared beliefs, suspicions and inclinations.

4) Group solidarity soars when facing a common enemy.

From laboratory experiments to America immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, shared threats foster unity. During conflict, we-feeling rises. During wars, patriotism surges.

In one of psychology’s famous experiments, the psychologist Muzafer Sherif, in 1954, randomly split Oklahoma City boy campers into two groups for a series of competitive activities, with prizes for the victors. Over the ensuing two weeks, ingroup pride and outgroup hostility increased—marked by food wars, fistfights and ransacked cabins. Intergroup contacts yielded more threats—and stronger feelings of ingroup unity—until Sherif engaged the boys in cooperative efforts toward shared goals, such as moving a stuck truck or restoring the camp water supply.

YOU MAY ALSO ENJOY reading David Myers’ online columns with Dr. Nathan DeWall in Talk Psych.

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Categories: MuslimPeacemaking

Interfaith Cooperation Brings Health and Hope

Interfaith Health and Hope Coalition conference in Detroit

PHOTOS (From Top): Two scenes from the one-day conference sponsored by the Interfaith Health and Hope Coalition. Then, the Rev. TIMOTHY AHRENS, pastor of First Congregational Church, a United Church of Christ congregation in Columbus, Ohio; KELLY HERRON, executive director of Cabrini Clinic in Detroit; MELISSA DaSILVA, director of operations for Advantage Health Centers; MARCELLA WILSON, president of MATRIX Human Services; RENEE BRANCH CANADY, chief executive of the Michigan Public Health Institute; the Rev. Dr. URIAS BEVERLY, director of the doctor of ministry and the Muslim chaplaincy programs at the Ecumenical Theological Seminary; and TOM WATKINS, president of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority. PHOTOS by Joe Grimm of the Michigan State University School of Journalism.

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine

Religious and health-care leaders gathered in Detroit for a one-day conference to discuss collaborating more closely as they serve needy families. As Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine, I was at the heart of that gathering as moderator for the conference’s lineup of speakers.

That’s where our publishing house wants to be: connecting men and women with diverse religious and health-giving resources. Why? Because, as ReadTheSpirit expands to publish many new kinds of books, our core mission remains: publishing information that builds healthy communities.

In this column, I will tell you more about the inspiring conference in Detroit, but first—you’re also sure to be inspired by these resources …

WHAT HAPPENED
AT THE DETROIT CONFERENCE?

The annual one-day conference was hosted by Michigan’s Interfaith Health and Hope Coalition. The coalition involves many groups, but it’s 2014 gathering was chiefly sponsored by the St. John Providence Health System. Dr. Cynthia Taueg represented St. John, which has a long history of promoting Faith & Community Nursing and St. John also is part of an innovative Healthy Neighborhoods program in Detroit.

Addressing the crowd, Dr. Taueg said improving neighborhoods begins with improving individual lives: “We understand that you can’t have healthy communities without healthy people.”

As a lifelong Detroiter, Dr. Taueg said, “We’re at a crossroads in Detroit. By the time I finally transition from this life, I want people to say: Oh, you’re talking about Detroit? I know that’s one of the healthiest places in America to live.”

To achieve such a grand goal, Dr. Taueg said, health systems must work with faith communities. Throughout the day, Jewish, Christian and Muslim clergy talked with the crowd about the importance of promoting expanded health-care coverage and getting congregations more involved in caregiving partnerships, overall. Also, Taueg was joined by leaders from other health-care programs who talked to the crowd about current challenges in meeting their larger goals.

The Rev. Timothy Ahrens, pastor of First Congregational Church, a United Church of Christ congregation in Columbus, Ohio, talked about his own public campaign for expanded health coverage in Ohio.

Faith leaders must play a role, he urged. “You represent hope. Your imaginative faith brings hope alive. Your brain and spirit—wired to hope—allow others to grab hold when the waters of despair are sweeping over them.”

Kelly Herron, executive director of Cabrini Clinic in Detroit—known nationwide as America’s oldest free clinic—said that religious groups need to continue supporting free clinics. Even as medical coverage expands nationwide, many men, women and children will continue to need help.

“We’re the safety net for the safety net,” she said.

Herron also urged religious leaders to help members in their communities navigate the complex new layers of health care. She described how her clinic is helping clients to register for health coverage, but signing up is only the first step.

“As they are approved, our patients cry. They’re so happy. They are overwhelmed,” she said. “Then, they ask us: ‘Now what?'” Countless men and women are coming into health-care systems this year for the first time. Many of them have no experience accessing doctor’s offices, hospitals and pharmacies. Congregations can share helpful information to smooth this often rocky transition.

Melissa DaSilva—director of operations for Advantage Health Centers, which specialize in linking government programs especially with people who are struggling with homelessness—told the crowd that health care is more than a matter of dispensing treatment.

“Health care is also about helping people to achieve wellness by obtaining a housing wage and affordable housing,” she said.

As DaSilva urged participants to think broadly about health and caregiving in their communities, many heads nodded and pens scratched notes about her recommendations. Other speakers echoed her broader vision of the challenge shared by health care systems and religious groups.

Marcella Wilson, president of MATRIX Human Services, talked about the MATRIX method of linking a wide range of programs to help men and women move out of chronic cycles of poverty. It’s not enough simply to treat a medical condition, or provide a shelter, or serve food—or provide any one response disconnected from others, she said. Helping people climb out of poverty requires many kinds of partnerships. She urged faith leaders to find out how they can contribute to such efforts, wherever they are based.

This is hard work, Wilson told the crowd. “As leaders in a city with desperate need and boundless optimism, we need to remember that vision without backbone is hallucination!”

Renee Branch Canady, chief executive of the Michigan Public Health Institute, echoed Wilson’s and DaSilva’s appeals for broad vision in meeting the needs of people living in poverty. Canady’s nonprofit advocates at all levels—from local communities to Washington D.C.—on behalf of collaborative programs to build healthier communities.

“I don’t want my grandchildren to still be having this conversation,” Canady told the crowd. One way to inspire the hard work of forging cooperative new programs is to tap into our deepest values, including the values within faith communities. “We must invite our values to the table with us,” she said.

Adding to the list of issues that congregations can address, Canady said one challenge religious groups might tackle is easier access to everyday, healthful activities. An example: Many neighborhoods don’t have safe and barrier-free areas where residents can go walking each day.

“We must look at the built environment around us,” she said. “If we want people to get exercise by walking more, then we have to provide places they can walk. We have to make the healthy choice the easy choice. Can people walk around your neighborhood?”

The Rev. Dr. Urias Beverly told the crowd about the deep roots of these issues in the Abrahamic faiths. Beverly is the director of the doctor of ministry and the Muslim chaplaincy programs at the Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit. He also serves as professor of pastoral care and counseling,

“Health and religion have been wedded as long as there have been men and women on the earth,” Beverly said.

Tom Watkins, president of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority, closed the conference by reminding faith leaders that mental health issues are an essential part of congregational caregiving.

“There is not a zip code in the United States that is not touched by the mental health care system,” Watkins said. “And if your own family and friends have not been touched by mental health issues—then it’s only a matter of time before someone you know is a part of this.”

He urged religious leaders to go home and spread the word: “Without quality mental health care—you don’t have quality health care.”

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

 

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Philip Jenkins interview on his book for the WWI Centennial

Cover Philip Jenkins The Great and Holy War on World War I

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

A flood of books, DVDs and TV specials are marking the centennial of World War I. The war has been a major theme on Downton Abbey and Mr. Selfridge. But you may never guess from most of this media that the war had anything to do with religion.

That’s why—if you care about religious diversity and the role of faith in global war and peace—then you must get a copy of Philip Jenkins’ new The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade. ReadTheSpirit online magazine highly recommends this unique and important look at how the First World War reshaped global conflicts we are still wrestling with a century later.

Jenkins writes this in the opening pages:

“The First World War was a thoroughly religious event, in the sense that overwhelmingly Christian nations fought each other in what many viewed as a holy war, a spiritual conflict. Religion is essential to understanding the war, to understanding why people went to war, what they hoped to achieve through war, and why they stayed at war. Not in medieval or Reformation times but in the age of aircraft and machine guns, the majority of the world’s Christians were indeed engaged in a holy war that claimed more than 10 million lives.

“Acknowledging the war’s religious dimension forces us to consider its long-term effects. In an age of overwhelming mass propaganda … nations could not spend years spreading the torrid language and imagery of holy warfare without having a potent effect. … The war ignited a global religious revolution. … It transformed not just the Christianity of the main combatant nations but also other great faiths, especially Judaism and Islam. It destroyed a global religious order that had prevailed for the previous half millennium and dominated much of the globe. The Great War drew the world’s religious map as we know it today.”

What readers will find in the book’s nearly 400 page are stories that will surprise and, in some cases, utterly shock contemporary readers.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Philip Jenkins. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH PHILIP JENKINS
ON ‘THE GREAT AND HOLY WAR’
AT THE CENTENNIAL OF WWI

DAVID: The fact that religious fervor was at the heart of World War I will come as a surprise to many of our readers, who largely see TV shows about the patriotism that drove men to enlist. So, I’m going to start our interview by quickly listing just a few of the historic religious events that took place on the eve of this war:

There’s no wonder that people around the world thought the End of the World might be at hand, right?

Philip Jenkins, photo by James Rasp used with permission.

Philip Jenkins, photo by James Rasp used with permission.

PHILIP: And there are so many more dates you could include in that list! Certainly you could include in 1917 both the Russian Revolution and the appearances that are known to Catholics around the world as Our Lady of Fatima. Then, if you add General Edmund Allenby capturing Jerusalem in 1917—well, when people picked up their newspapers, it began to seem as though they were reading a direct commentary on the Book of Revelation.

By 1917, all the nations involved in this war were deep in despair. It had begun to seem as though this terrible war might carry on until every man in Europe was killed off. If you were alive in that era, then you were reading all of these headlines in the newspapers—including stories out of Portugal about these apparitions of the Virgin Mary and the sun dancing in the sky. Some of this news becomes absolutely baffling. If you don’t believe the Apocalypse is imminent, then you don’t have much imagination.

SHOCKING CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVES

DAVID: We’ll return to some of the amazing spiritual visions from World War I in a moment, but I want to ask you right away about some of the really shocking Christian perspectives you’ve documented in this history. And let’s start with Lyman Abbott, one of the most famous theologians and writers in America in that era. Earlier in his life, before the Civil War, he fought against slavery shoulder to shoulder with Henry Ward Beecher. He was a progressive who backed Theodore Roosevelt. And yet when World War I came around?

PHILIP: Like a lot of the leading Protestant clergy of his day—including a lot of the liberal and progressive clergy—Lyman Abbott entirely accepted that the war was necessary. But, then, he went far beyond that to see the war as a crusade. He had a vision of the war in which the Allies represented absolute good and the Germans represented absolute evil.

DAVID: I found an online link where people can read Abbott’s most infamous publication about the war, “To Love Is To Hate.” But give us just a brief summary of his message.

PHILIP: In today’s terms, we would say that Lyman Abbott declared the war a Jihad. He didn’t use that term, of course, but he was declaring this a holy war. In that piece you mentioned, “To Love Is to Hate”—and in other pieces he wrote—Abbott said that anyone who died in the war was a martyr. Fighting in this war was a matter of sacrificial Christian good. Fighting in this war was sacred.

DAVID: He called the German leadership murderers, pillagers of churches, violators of women and he declared, “I do well to hate.”

And, Abbott certainly wasn’t alone. Let’s talk about another figure in your book over in the UK: the Bishop of London Arthur Winnington-Ingram. I don’t want to leave readers with the impression that Abbott may have been an odd exception in this era. The Bishop of London went much further than Abbott and declared that this was “a war for purity.” He told young men in the Allied armies to “kill Germans … kill the good as well as the bad, kill the young as well as the old.”

PHILIP: He was making statements so outrageous that there were even people at that time who considered his statements outrageous. Before the war, he had been fairly pro-German. But, during the war, he accepted the idea that this was a crusade and, in today’s terms, he talked about the war very much like we would describe a “Jihad” today.

DAVID: But those voices weren’t the worst—as incredible as that may seem. Some major religious leaders—including the famous Brooklyn preacher Newell Dwight Hillis—said that the Allies should practice eugenics. Today, after the Holocaust and so many other tragic attempts at genocide around the world, we now regard “eugenics” as an ugly word. But here was this highly respected preacher calling for “the sterilization of the ten million German soldiers, and the segregation of their women, that when this generation of German goes, civilized cities, states and races may be rid of this awful cancer that must be cut clean out of the body of society.”

PHILIP: Hillis was taking eugenics ideas and, by 1918, he was saying that the only way to deal with the Germans was to eliminate the race chiefly through sterilization. What’s especially interesting about him is that he’s not some crazed writer off in some corner. His pamphlets and books were circulated in the millions. This was an age of mass circulation of printed and visual media. However crazy he seems to us, he had a major impact. Abbott, Ingram and Willis cannot be easily dismissed. In their time, they were widely heard around the world.

DAVID: It’s amazing to think that they could play with this kind fire in their preaching and writing. Of course, the world hadn’t experienced the Holocaust, yet.

PHILIP: No, but the Armenian Genocide took place in World War I in 1915. If you were an American reading the daily newspapers, you were aware of that. And here was Hillis arguing that genocide isn’t bad, as long as you direct it against the right people and, for Hillis, it was the Germans.

Of course this is chilling to read today.

DEAD ARISING & ANGELS DESCENDING

The Bowmen of WWI by Arthur Machen which became the Angel of MonsDAVID: Within your nearly 400 pages, there is so much more that readers will discover! “Lawrence of Arabia” is in this book as well as General Allenby’s battle at Megiddo, which led people to call him “Allenby of Armageddon.” There’s his historic march on Jerusalem. You take us to Hollywood and report on some of the blockbuster movies that were produced about the war. I found your book to be a real page turner with one intriguing story after another.

Just as Allenby’s forces clearly bought into the religious fervor of the era, I want to ask you about a couple of the most famous battlefield “miracles” of World War I. The religious zeal around this war wasn’t limited to preachers on the home front. The men in the trenches often were telling about the importance of their faith in the midst of these terrible battles. And, in a number of cases, some of the men were claiming miracles.

I think the most startling story in your book is about “The Angel of Mons.”

PHILIP: It started when a Welsh fantasy writer, Arthur Machen, wrote a short story about the Battle of Mons, where a small and heavily outnumbered British force had won a victory against a much larger German unit. In Machen’s short story—which he called The Bowmen and which he didn’t claim was true—the Battle of Mons is won when these thousands of British soldiers from the Middle Ages suddenly arise and fight off the Germans with arrows. Machen was well known as an author of fantasy stories.

But, Machen soon was amazed to find people telling him that the story is true! People begin saying they were there at Mons and saw these bowmen arising. Then, as the story was retold, the vision of the bowmen morphed into a vision of angels coming to defend the British. This story of angels coming to the defense of the British—”The Angel of Mons”—becomes one of the central, defining stories of the First World War.

But that story Mons isn’t the only one about angels or about the dead rising. You find these stories absolutely everywhere you turn. Many people saw apparitions in this era. These stories like the “Angel of Mons” fit into this larger Apocalyptic narrative about the war.

COUNTING COSTS; LOOKING FOR SCAPEGOATS

DAVID: No one seems to have counted the cost of these extremes to which they were going during the war. The same could be said of the Second World War, too. But we end your book shaking our heads that no one could envision what titanic forces they were setting in motion during the 1914-1918 conflict.

PHILIP: A very large proportion of the participants in World War I believed that they had been involved in a Holy War, even after the war. Then, this poses two questions: If you’ve just won a holy war, then what are you supposed to do? And the other question is: If you’ve just lost a holy war, what do you do? The winners then encounter even more questions because they thought they would enter an age of perfection and, soon, it was obviously not the case. Even worse, the losers wanted to find the scapegoats who led to their defeat. This sets up the rise of Naziism and other Fascist and nationalist movements.

Very soon after the war, there was a sense that this was just one phase of worldwide conflict and another one would come along.

DAVID: One of the interesting post-World War I perspectives you include in the book is the fear of writers like C.S. Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer that the world is moving into an increasingly pagan era. While a lot of Christian leaders, during WWI, were saying that this was a Christian crusade—Lewis and Bonhoeffer and others realized that something much more troubling was spawned by the war.

PHILIP: I describe this as a “Christian war,” but many orthodox Christians are very troubled by what they see in this era. Many evangelicals are troubled by the idea that, if a soldier fights and dies in a national cause, then the soldier gets a straight pass to heaven no matter what else he’s done in his life. That’s the most extreme and vulgar expression of holy war. And, as you’ve just pointed out, a lot of the ideas that arise during this war are occult. Spiritualism runs riot throughout the war and afterward, especially among the families of the millions of dead, hoping to speak to their loved ones again. The religious spectrum in that era is as extreme and bizarre as the array of religious movements we saw in the 1970s.

‘A DECISIVE STAGE IN RESHAPING ANTISEMITISM’

DAVID: Most of our readers, I assume, know that the end of World War I contained the seeds of World War II. The popular version of this story is that the Allies forced such draconian terms on Germany that a second war was inevitable. Your book points out that there were other evil seeds beyond the terms of the final peace treaty. One of the worst outcomes of the WWI era was a rise in antisemitism.

PHILIP: When the First World War starts, there is almost an era of good feeling among the major nations fighting on each side. Everyone thinks: We’re in this together. We have a common citizenship. We will fight together and then, after the war, we will be one united nation. Jews believe this wholeheartedly as World War I begins and, in Germany, many Jews see their service in the war as a final emancipation. They’re becoming fully German as they fight for their nation.

But, by about 1916, the question already is arising in many places: If we’re fighting a holy war and we’re God’s greatest nation—then why aren’t we winning this war? We must have missed something. There must be someone within our gates who is causing this problem for us. Some very troubling things begin to happen regarding Jews, especially in Germany and Russia.

By the end of the war, there was this widespread search for scapegoats. Naziism arises in the 1920s as a veteran’s movement aimed at preventing another failure like what happened in World War I. But, this scapegoating process begins during the war. And, as we know, the Jews come out of this era as one of the most-blamed groups. The war marks a decisive stage in reshaping antisemitism. The two most important things in 20th-century Jewish history are the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel and neither of those could have happened without the First World War.

DAVID: At the very end of your book, you describe the dramatic redrawing of the world’s religious map that was a result of that era, a century ago. One major impact was the explosion of Pentecostal movements worldwide. Today, that’s a huge population often estimated at a quarter of the world’s 2 billion Christians. You also point out how dramatically the First World War reshaped the Muslim world, literally redrawing international boundaries and setting up future conflicts.

You describe the scope of this change in a dramatic way. You write that, while the entire war lasted only four years, the scope of religious changes in that era was like moving from the 1850s to the 1950s in just a few revolutionary years. I’ll close our interview with your book’s last line: “Only now, after a century, are we beginning to understand just how utterly that war destroyed one religious world and created another.”

CARE TO READ MORE FROM PHILIP JENKINS?

CARE TO READ MORE ABOUT WORLD WAR I?

ReadTheSpirit online magazine has been publishing many perspectives on Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, because we are moving through the 150th anniversary of that war. Starting this summer, we are publishing a series of unique stories, columns and historical profiles to mark the centennial of World War I.
Here are some we already have published …

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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PBS debuts BBC landmark film on ‘Life of Muhammad’

BBC and PBS The Life of Muhammad scene 01

‘The Life of Muhammad’ narrator Rageh Omaar spends a lot of time hiking over rocky hills.

Reporting and Review By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine

When the British television network, BBC Two, unveiled its three-hour series, The Life of Muhammad, in 2011, British journalists and top Muslim leaders were invited to a special preview screening. They were met by network executives crowing about this historic event: They called it the first full history of Muhammad’s life produced for “Western TV.”

However, their claim was debatable. Millions of Americans already were familiar with the PBS network’s 2002 documentary Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet. That two-hour PBS documentary has subsequently been shown in countless schools, congregations and small groups nationwide—and around the world. The BBC officials were claiming that their three hours were so exclusively focused on Muhammad’s life that their film was a Western-media “first.” In truth? The BBC was splitting hairs in making its claim.

That’s one reason American media coverage of the August 20 PBS debut of that BBC series is muted, compared with the debut in the UK. Most American viewers assume that public television already has covered the Prophet’s life.

The documentary's narrator and chief journalist Rageh Omar in a typical segment of 'The Life of Muhammad.' Here, he speaks to viewers with Medina in the background.

The documentary’s narrator and chief journalist Rageh Omar in a typical segment of ‘The Life of Muhammad.’ Here, he speaks to viewers with Medina in the background.

In fact, there are a lot of similarities between the productions. For example, Karen Armstrong appears as one of the main “talking heads” in both productions. Also, both the BBC and PBS networks bowed to Islamic requirements that only Muslims are allowed to visit the sacred cities where most of Muhammad’s life unfolded. In the case of PBS, the American convert to Islam Michael Wolfe was the chief correspondent and, as an observant Muslim, was allowed to film in the sacred cities. In the UK, BBC executives tapped Director Faris Kermani and chief on-screen correspondent Rageh Omaar. Both are Muslim. Curiously, as PBS promotes its debut of the British series, press releases emphasize only that Rageh Omaar has worked as a journalist for the BBC and for ITV News. In fact, in the British press, he was better known in 2011 as a correspondent for Al Jazeera’s English-language network.

On balance? Both documentaries were produced with an obvious awareness that these films could do more harm than good. There is a painstaking balance to both films that occasionally makes them slow going for casual viewers. Contrast these films with the much more provocative documentaries about Jesus and various eras of Christian history—some of which wind up on American cable TV channels each year—and you will feel the weight that PBS and BBC officials clearly feel on their shoulders.

How do these two productions differ? As its title indicates, the PBS series really is about Muhammad’s legacy and focuses quite a bit on the millions of diverse Muslim families in the U.S. The BBC series stays for all three hours with the Prophet’s life, spanning the 6th and 7th centuries. Overall, the BBC series is heavily weighted toward British experts and media personalities.

‘LIFE OF MUHAMMAD’—WHAT WE THINK:

Rageh Omaar on location in 'The Life of Muhammad.' In this sequence, he is showing viewers around the Masjid al-Qiblatain, an ancient and world-famous mosque in Medina that Muslim tradition says is the place where the Prophet Muhammad commanded Muslims to change the direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Mecca.

Rageh Omaar on location in ‘The Life of Muhammad.’ In this sequence, he is showing viewers around the Masjid al-Qiblatain, an ancient and world-famous mosque in Medina that Muslim tradition says is the place where the Prophet Muhammad commanded Muslims to change the direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Mecca.

Our Read The Spirit viewpoint: If you care about world religions and the growing religious diversity in the United States, this is “must see” television. You may even want to purchase the entire ‘Life of Muhammad‘ series on DVD, via Amazon. As Editor of Read The Spirit, I watched all three hours and can highly recommend the film. In tackling one potentially controversial issue after another, Omaar carefully presents various points of view and, in the course of the series, paints the kind of balanced portrait of Islam that fans of Karen Armstrong’s books will be comfortable watching on their TV screens.

The BBC deliberately costumed Omaar in this series as a humble journalistic traveler. Wherever he appears around the globe, he always is wearing a simple navy-blue or sometimes charcoal shirt, no tie, comfortable khaki slacks and sturdy hiking boots. Over his shoulder is a simple brown tote bag from which he occasionally pulls a book or some notes. We often see Omaar’s “talking head” popping up in dramatic settings to explain what we are seeing. The other experts he interviews usually are sitting in comfortable scholarly offices or libraries. At one point, Omaar does remove his traveler’s uniform to demonstrate for viewers how Muslim pilgrims to Mecca change into simple white garments. The production design of this series tells us loud and clear: These are all reasonable people talking wisely and compassionately about one of the world’s great faiths.

In other words, it’s a series you’d expect to watch in a class on world religions. Presumably, that’s where most of the DVDs for sale on Amazon are headed.

‘LIFE OF MUHAMMAD’—WHAT OTHER JOURNALISTS SAY:

In the UK, the conservative-leaning newspaper The Telegraph assigned two journalists to cover the BBC Two debut. The newspaper’s TV writer Chris Harvey called The Life of Muhammad “an excellent primer, tracing Muhammad’s journey from orphaned son to prophet of a new religion. … I enjoyed it.”

However, the Telegraph’s religion writer Christopher Howse was less impressed. He criticized the great lengths to which BBC Two went to please Muslims with the series, including bowing to Muslim requirements that only Muslims are allowed inside the sacred cities. The BBC would not have been so deferential in reporting on Judaism or Christianity, Howse argued. And, he has a point. On the other hand, the PBS network made the same choice by tapping Michael Wolfe for its film.

The more liberal-leaning newspaper The Guardian assigned Riazat Butt, a veteran religion writer with long experience in covering Islam, to cover the British roll-out of the series. In general, her columns on the documentary reported positive reactions. Her main criticism was that the filmmakers seemed bent on checking off an inventory of “typical” elements in Muslim culture.

Riazat Butt wrote, in part: “Even though we didn’t see the Prophet, we did see shots of praying (tick!), veiled women (tick!), jihadi references such as the planes flying into the twin towers … and veiled women praying (double tick!). There were also shots of camels. My score card is full. The opening episode deals with the circumstances and society that Muhammad was born into. It charts his childhood and early years—being orphaned, being taken in by his uncle—and the narrative is interspersed, interrupted I’d say, with shots of Rageh praying, Rageh brooding, Rageh climbing over rocks in a manful and foreign correspondent-like way.”

Want to see the series? Be sure to check local TV listings in your region as public television show times vary widely.

AND: Consider ordering the earlier PBS documentary from Amazon: Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet

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