In relations with Middle East, Yale must talk religion

Dean Salovey, I forgive you.

I know, these days I am meant to call for your head. You limit speech. But you also kind of allow it. But you also really limit it! His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI came all the way from Rome, and you couldn’t even arrange for him to speak at Yale? He has some pertinent things to say about religion. Perhaps you would have if the Holy Father had offered to speak about the Church’s programs in China. I jest.

But enough about you. It’s your friends in Woodbridge Hall that have thrilled me recently with a decision that got buried in the news. Allow me to jog your memory: Yale will not build a campus in Abu Dhabi.

You may recall the plan. Yale administrators were gaga over the opportunity to teach Art School classes in the United Arab Emirates. Yale would join the flock of Western institutions selling their names and talents for hoards of cash. Most notable among these is New York University. NYU students, faculty and alumni complained about the United Arab Emirates’ human-rights record and feared cheapening the NYU name with a second-class degree-granting institution. The University of Connecticut nixed a recent plan to build in Abu Dhabi because of concerns about travel restrictions for Israelis. (Most Arab countries will not allow you in if you have visited Israel.) NYU’s president John Sexton, obsessed with raising NYU’s international profile, ignored such concerns. According to Abbey Fenbert, a columnist at NYU’s Washington Square News, Sexton described his interview with the Emir as a “spiritual experience.” In response to growing American opposition, the Emirates royally decreed that a few of their national laws won’t apply on the campus. Selectively allowed freedoms include things like being Jewish and being gay (both of which are popular among NYU students, I’m told).

We can imagine that the world would benefit from a real liberal-arts education in Abu Dhabi. If any of the United Arab Emirates’ poorly paid migrant workers got even a whiff of labor history, or if any of the elite classes read some Locke, the United Arab Emirates might be a better place. Yale can go on and on about the benefits of cultural exchange with the Middle East, but we have a sneaking suspicion that the reason we question the United Arab Emirates’ laws and freedoms (rather, lack of freedoms) — the reason the United Arab Emirates wants to buy sexy Western names for itself at all — has something to do with Islam. Sexton’s metaphysical experience notwithstanding, the advocates of study abroad rarely talk about religion. Religion talk on college campuses and among the chattering classes tends to slip into one of three problematic categories. The first is to characterize all religion and especially Islam as a monolithic dogma of intolerance and hatred. Let’s avoid that.

The second is to “do interfaithing.” Interfaithing flattens all religion into one thing: Be nice and don’t eat at certain times, or something like that. The third category of religion talk, which I call “multifaithing,” goes like this: There are many religions. Each of us comes from one tradition — Jewish, Christian, Muslim, atheist, Buddhist, Hindu — and therefore cannot judge any other. Of course, whatever Jew is in the room speaks as the authority on the thing called “Judaism,” the Muslim on “Islam” and so on. As if there were one essential form of “Christianity” or “Buddhism” or “Hinduism.” And, even if there were, it seems strange to allow your Jewish roommate to say “Judaism is X” any more than you would allow him to say “Islam is X.” More importantly, this prevents conversation about real problems.

There must be a better way to talk about religion, which recognizes its importance for billions without cheapening the very real crimes committed in religion’s name.

I have written before about Irshad Manji, who directs the Moral Courage program at NYU. She wrote “The Trouble With Islam Today.” To say that there is trouble in Islam today is out of bounds in most multifaith circles — who am I to judge and to demonize the culture of 1.2 billion? Manji understands today’s Muslim leaders in places like the United Arab Emirates to pervert true Islam. True Islam, Manji writes, justifies liberalism. She uses the Quran and Muslim tradition to advocate for the basic rights of a liberal society. Religion isn’t just a tool for oppression. It is a tool for empowering people to actualize good. This is how Manji talks about religion, just like the Pope. As Yale rethinks her future in the Middle East, it seems that Yale should listen.

So next time the Pope is in town, let’s book him.

Michael Pomeranz is a junior in Silliman College. His column runs on alternate Mondays.