A Discussion with Daniel Tutt, Director of Outreach and Educational Programs, Unity Productions Foundation, and Lecturer, Marymount University and George Mason University, Washington, D.C.
February 23, 2018
Background: In February 2018, undergraduate student Casey Hammond interviewed Daniel Tutt as part of the Doyle Undergraduate Fellows Program. Tutt leads the scholarly development of Unity Productions Foundation (UPF) films and directs the outreach and educational programs at UPF. Tutt is also a lecturer at Marymount University and George Washington University. In this interview, Tutt reflects on his personal and professional work in the intersection of interreligious dialogue and social justice. He also answers questions on UPF’s work in this field. He discusses why UPF concerns itself with changing the discourse on Muslims and Arabs and how the power of film and storytelling are integral components of reshaping this narrative.
Why did you decide to enter this field, and how did you get to where you are now?
There is an interfaith movement that started in the 1970s and grew significantly after September 11. I came into the field in about 2004 in Washington, D.C. during the height of the second Iraq War. I was interested in the way that religion might serve as a peacebuilding antidote in that context. I found in interfaith work a creative alternative and a source for peacebuilding. And I met a bunch of people who were in the D.C. area trying to do broad interfaith coalition-building work. Coming from a predominantly white, West Coast/Oregon background, it was a big deal to be introduced to the level of diversity. The other aspect that attracted me to interfaith work was that it was very intentional about reaching beyond the Abrahamic religions. We engaged Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Hindus—the representation was really good. I was very attracted to the idea of building broad interfaith coalitions as a vehicle for addressing religiously motivated violence. That’s what initially drew me into the field.
How did you start working with Unity Productions Foundation?
After I was in the field, I began to notice that conflict issues, discrimination, and prejudice was stemming from the Middle East and was forming around Islam and Muslims. I wanted to understand the sources of this prejudice, and I began to pursue an academic and practical interest in Islam. I started my graduate work at American University in this field. Concurrent to that, Unity Productions Foundation had an opportunity to find someone that would run a national, interfaith program that would be focused on interfaith but trying to also build, specifically, an understanding of Muslims and Islam. So it was a perfect fit. My academic interest were going that way, and I had this interfaith background, so it was a marriage of these two worlds.
What area is your formal academic training in?
Philosophy with a focus on ethics, primarily, and religion with some work in peacebuilding. Most of my peacebuilding stuff was actually derived from work in the field. Academically, my stuff was more philosophy, ethics, and religion.
What does interreligious dialogue mean to you, personally and professionally?
Interreligious dialogue for me personally always invokes an imagery of crossing of borders and of breaking down barriers that are both internally and externally imposed on us. I experience interreligious dialogue in a very emotive sense, not so much a rational sense. Therefore, for me, interreligious dialogue is a deeply cathartic experience. I always shed something that I was holding onto in dialogue, so in that sense it is a therapy in a certain way, on an experiential level.
Number two, interreligious dialogue is the main catalyst for assisting the understanding of my own Christian roots, so that was another big insight of why I was drawn to the work. I was a wayward believer, and interreligious dialogue—precisely because it introduced me to people who had a lot of grounding in their faith tradition—assisted me in reflecting on my own grounding. It helped me rekindle a lot of connections with my faith and forced me to look in the mirror at my own faith trajectory in ways that were surprising. I always relate to interfaith dialogue as something that possesses a cathartic capacity. For me it is very experientially potent. It has a lot of personal resonance.
Could you illustrate one of those experiences for me when you felt this catharsis?
Because I have a philosophical interest, most of the experience came about either in shared prayer experiences or in deep conversations about the nature of divinity or explorations into theological concepts with interlocutors who are grounded in a faith tradition.
One experience I can tell you about is when I participated in a dawn prayer at a Hindu temple in India with Jews, Hindus, and myself and experiencing a type of prayer that was ecstatic. I was raised Episcopalian and it's very rigid for the most part—formalist, kind of baroque, sort of what they call "high church." In this moment, I really felt that transcendent experience, and it was really powerful for me. Walking away from it, it was not a New Age erasure of religious difference, but it was something that made me hungry to repeat that experience through my own language and religious discourses.
Other examples are seen when you organize interfaith groups, which I love the most; helping to play a role in facilitating good harmony amongst diverse groups in achieving some project whether it be community service, some event, or some activity that is in common. Seeing people operate together, in common, in unison, or in action and then organizing that also gives me a lot of joy.
Along that same vein, what does social justice mean to you?
Well, in the context of interfaith work I would consider social justice at two levels. One, at the level of a discourse around injustice, which means that it is addressing the different problems that we experience today across cultures. It seeks to manage the different concepts of justice. Social justice in interfaith contexts would be the achievement of some consensus around a project, goal, or problem, that would possess the capacity to address a profound problem in a way that is inclusive of different conceptions of the discourse of justice. In that sense, it is a high bar. It is lot to ask to achieve social justice in that sense.
More practically, social justice is also a more spontaneous thing. I don’t think that groups necessarily have a preformatted, rational deliberation amongst themselves before they act. I don’t think the rational action actor thesis of social action is accurate. I would problematize that. I would suggest that justice comes from below and comes in ways which even surprise the groups advocating for justice. In other words, justice is something that is discovered in a struggle; it is immanent to a struggle. It is not that we decide and then we act. It’s we act, and then we face new struggles that force us to decide.
If you look at something like Black Lives Matter, I think it is a clear example. Which is, where is deliberation and reason really happening there? It is an ambiguous question; it is a difficult question. I would say that I am interested in both these models—one the consensus model of justice versus spontaneous justice from below. I made a film project that I am still working on, which is to try to understand all of the protest movements that kicked off starting in Tottenham, outside of London, in 2010, which was then a domino effect transferred to what is known as the "Movement of the Squares": Cairo, Tahrir Square, Gezi Park, Turkey, transferring to some ways in Greece, Indignados movement, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter. That is what I would consider a spontaneous justice from below.
Unfortunately, interfaith has not done a great job at engaging with justice from below. Why? Because most interfaith is still very much an elite leadership model, which necessitates a consensus theory of justice from on high. "We can deliberate about it and then act." I think the distinction is helpful. Below and rational deliberation. I think interfaith activists need to ask themselves how they can get involved with justice from below action.
You mentioned that you grew up in a semi-rural place in Oregon. How has your faith/beliefs shaped your work and understanding of social justice?
For me, Christianity has always been an interesting religion because I don’t relate to Christianity through a law-based, prohibition-based framework. Meaning, I have never felt that I am going to offend the higher powers by being critical of Christianity. In fact, I think Christianity is a great religion because I can be deeply critical of it. Which is interesting because in an interfaith context, especially within minority religious groups in America, not everyone wants to be critical of their own religion. I have always related to my religion in a very critical way. When I was in college, I actually abandoned being a Christian and became a Buddhist for a while. Interfaith is what sort of brought me back to Christianity in a way that was fuller and more complex. I have always felt like an outsider to my own faith tradition. I have always had a difficult time finding a congregation that feels very much at home to me. In other words, Christianity is interesting to me because it allows me to be non-institutionally affiliated yet still a part of this community.
In what ways can interfaith dialogue and intercultural dialogue help to build peace in our communities?
I differentiate intercultural dialogue from interfaith dialogue. Interfaith dialogue ought to be, and often is, grounded in and composed of participants that have pretty explicit commitments to a faith tradition, whereas the participants in intercultural dialogue have different boundaries and definitions of identity. I think that distinction is important. For example, if you look at the Muslim community today in America, there is a big debate internally about whether we should accept the designation of what’s called a "cultural Muslim," as there are cultural Jews. Does a cultural Muslim belong in an interfaith dialogue conversation? I think the answer is yes, of course they do. At the same time, maybe that dialogue should be happening amongst Muslims. Maybe it isn’t necessary for interfaith. Especially because when it comes to Islamophobia, one of the tendencies of neo-orientalism is precisely to privilege a cultural Muslin as the best kind of Muslim. It is a very common trope in the Islamophobic literature and movement today. We have to be very careful of that tendency.
I think that intercultural conflict and interreligious conflict are often two separate things. When it comes to interreligious conflict, I personally perceive most of that conflict to be overdetermined by Islam and Muslim issues. Look at the issue of hate crimes in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. From the standpoint of the perpetrators, they all think they are all attacking Muslims when they don’t realize the massive percentage of Arabs who are Christian, or they don’t know the difference between a Sikh and a Muslim. Unfortunately, we have to face the reality that interfaith itself is often driven and overdetermined by geopolitical and other issues of power that prevent the very premise and principle of interfaith from working effectively.
What is the premise of interfaith? We are all equal; we all focus social oppression in different ways. Which is true! It is the basis of common ground. Say we hold an interfaith dialogue on the issue of class. Everyone from different religious communities experiences class. Therefore, we can have some solidarity on that issue. However, when you look at it from the standpoint of religious-based discrimination, not every religious community is facing the same level of discrimination. It becomes a bone of contention, which goes back to my whole point to you about the evangelical issue of actually not introducing Islamophobia in those dialogues, because the Christians perceive themselves to be experiencing more discrimination. It is even worse because the discrimination they experience, or they think they experience, goes unnoticed. Everyone in this society talks about Islamophobia and accepts it as a true thing. But nobody wants to recognize that actually people are out to get Christian values. It is a wound that goes unacknowledged. It is even more difficult to address.
Then, how can interfaith work help to build peace?
The global scene has been experiencing a massive resurgence in religious identity. Religious identity is something that is qualitatively and categorically different than it was, say, 20, 30 years ago. I always use the example of the Palestine-Israeli conflict. It has only been in the last 15 years that the signifier of Islam has been associated with Palestinians. Before, it was socialism, Pan-Arabism, and nationalism. All of a sudden, they became Muslim or identified in this way. It has to be periodized historically, and so now that is a new reality. Many people in France criticize religion under the banner of laïcité. They criticize a reality which they have a hard time accepting.
I think religious actors in this milieu of interreligious dialogue can have the good sense to understand the way that religious identity functions. One of the big conflicts is the secular-religious divide, the divide of the new atheists. The debate over religion that they introduce is often premised on a very condescending notion that, “You are forming a conception of religious identity which is infantile. This is absurd; our civilization has grown out of this. Why are you turning to religion in this way?” Well, I think interreligious dialogue can assist in making an appeal to the why and how—how people are expressing their religion for social justice or common good.
Part of the problem we have in interreligious work is a media problem. Religious actors have a very difficult time articulating their effectiveness. They may be doing incredible things in the world of peacemaking, or social justice promotion, but they aren’t getting the proper attention for that. Nor are they willing to put themselves out into a hostile media environment to try to overturn conceptions about religion. In the age of Twitter and social media, in order to gain media attention you have to play with the devil. You have to make a lot of noise. A lot of well-intentioned peacemakers that may be religiously devout, they are not willing to do that.
Nonetheless, one way this can directly happen is a type of communication around the work that is being done. If that can be communicated more effectively, that could be one concrete way. That leads to peacemaking in an abstract sense. As a student of peacemaking, you know that you have to make a distinction between different layers and segmentations of violence. A culture of otherization, say in the West of Islamophobia, is not a culture of direct, negative violence. It is kind of more abstract, more detached form of violence, which is latent in discourse, is latent in public conversation. Peacemaking then becomes a way to modify the public discourse. That is how I think of it in this context because I am a domestic actor. In this context, the best thing that can happen is effective communication that is also willing to dramatize itself for the sake of shifting discourse in a polarized time.
In your own words, how would you describe UPF’s mission?
We are trying to offer an alternative image of Muslims and Islam within a media apparatus that is deeply hostile and often adversarial to authentic and common portrayals of Muslims. We are trying to offer something that is not exactly niche but that is widely consumable to a set of American audiences that are very, very broad. Each of our programs is designed with particular audiences in mind. Our main mission is set around the redefinition of this public discourse. Now, the images and media that we present about a culture and people all goes to form and reinforce the public discourse. We are trying to make a little contribution to broaden that image so that the discourse can be enhanced, improved, added more resources, broadened, and made more complex.
With that said, we also have a very interesting set of commitments to a core constituency of practicing Muslims in the West. If we didn’t have this aspect, we would be beholden to the standards that the media industry creates. But we are actually beholden to this constituency in many ways. First, that means the kinds of images and stories we set out to make are collaboratively generated from that base. Then it has to be appealing to the media industry and production houses that we work with—mainly PBS. Often times our films are not appealing in the same way that a production company that doesn’t have a commitment to practicing Muslims would produce a story about a particular issue. We are going to be stressing different tensions and different themes. Most filmmaking is derived from an idiosyncratic vision of a director. But with our mission, we have directors to an extent, but we also have a broader commitment to the Muslim community that animates and determines our stories.
The other aspect of our mission is to try and affect some material change within the culture and wider society with the media tools we have created. Each of these films can be considered tools, which we then distribute to educational institutions, awareness campaigns, through projects that try to build bridges between two communities that may be facing tension. We may make a film that deals with themes that would help heal a divide between Christians and Muslims. Then, we receive funding to actually go out and make that happen at a local level. That is our applied mission.
Could you now share a story about how your work through interreligious dialogue has aided your social justice endeavors and has been a critical component to it?
I would say the best example is the work we did with training police and law enforcement. Every year since 9/11 the Justice Department requires about 600,000 civil servants to have training in counterterrorism. As part of that they have to touch on the religion of Islam. Muslim leaders have had no say in the curriculum of that training until we came in and worked with the Department of Justice to reformulate that training. We were able to actually go out and deliver it to police stations in cities like Boston to rural places in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. Those were really powerful because they were opportunities to seize an education moment around this topic of Islam and Muslims to push, in the clearest way I’ve ever seen made visible, a shift of perception.
Not amongst everyone—I’m not claiming it was miracle work. But I think whenever you give a presentation, a training or presenting a film, out in the field, whether it be at a church, community center, school, or police station, you will have some slim minority of those who are outright hostile to the topic. Maybe they have been fed a persistent stream of news that is Islamophobic, or maybe they have their own stubbornness inside—who knows. But, there is a "moveable middle," which is the audience you want to sway the most. The objective is to humanize and go through a de-otherization. The de-otherization usually happens through associations of that group with important cultural signifiers that you hold in common. If I go to Montana and introduce the concept of Muslims in America to a church of people who really have no personal relationship to Muslims, typically I share a set of information that is not theologically derived or abstract. I actually couch it in American stories of veterans who are Muslim, the fact that many slaves brought to America were Muslim, stories of valor of Muslims who did heroic things for our country. Through those personal narratives, you are able to do a significant amount of de-otherization. And basically, they get to the point where they see the contradiction of their former position. They see it for being determined by fear that is set by something they don’t know.
One thing that I find equally frustrating as a student and from a professional perspective is when groups undertake initiatives and hold focus groups, but then there are no follow-ups. Where are the deliverables? How does UPF measure its success?
We try to measure our success in many ways. In general, we have been unable to measure longitudinal success and long-term impact. This is one area that is a perennial problem for non-profits because we receive a lack of support and lack of resources to institute evaluation programs, unless you are like the World Bank. We are a fairly small non-profit. As a consequence we get project evaluations. Each project can get a snapshot of its immediate impact. I know the evangelical campaign will be effective in terms of hitting the people that it hits in the moment, before and after. We do a before and after test. I don’t know if the people who participated in the program after one, two, three years where their mindset or views go. That is a question mark. Another problem with that is I can measure knowledge changes, but I cannot measure action or willingness to take action. We have thought about trying to do a polling together of all of the dialogue participants that we’ve touched. We have their emails, so we are tracking them in some way and have done phone interviews. Really, the merits of each film from the standpoint of its broadcast, from the awards it receives, from all the filmic success that it achieves, that also gives an evaluation. And what they show is about 85 percent to 90 percent effective for most people. It works—"works" meaning there is pretty noticeable shifts in knowledge and willingness to take action from before and after.
Could you share an experience where you launched a campaign and it was not as successful as you anticipated it would be?
One campaign that was unsuccessful—successful and somewhat unsuccessful—was a campaign we did around a film called Enemy of the Reich. That campaign was difficult because the protagonist was a Muslim South Asian. Many of the Jewish-American interlocutors had a hard time relating to Muslims that are not Arab as not being really Muslim. The reasons for that are complicated and have to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In other words, their ideal interlocutor would be an Arab Muslim, not merely be any Muslim. They conceive of it in these terms because they have been dealing with Arab difference. It was hard to gain traction with that film because we had misjudged that for conservative Jewish groups. They didn’t care about South Asian Muslims as much.