Learning to Engage with Religious Diversity

By: Yomna Sarhan

April 14, 2014

As I listened to Eboo Patel discuss his passion for interreligious dialogue and social entrepreneurship, I began to reflect on my own experiences. As a Muslim growing up in Cairo, I was literally surrounded by millions of other Muslims. However, my school was affiliated with the Evangelical Church, and so most of my friends and teachers were Christian. I was exposed to religious diversity at a young age, but it was a topic never to be mentioned or explored at school. When it came time for religion class, the Muslims and Christians would separate into different classrooms and then later regroup for the other subjects. Religious diversity was never discussed in school, public places, or the media because people often thought that there was no need.
For the longest time, I also thought that there was no need. Across the street from my house in Cairo was a large, old church. I would hear the bells every Sunday morning and from my balcony watch dozens of worshipers enter the church gates. Apart from a handful of church weddings, I had never attended a church service. Although I was intrigued by the church and was curious to attend, it wasn’t too common for a Muslim to attend a Christian service and vice versa. Although Egypt has been home to the most vibrant forms of religious diversity, there has been a tendency to focus on tolerance rather than understanding and dialogue.

While religion has remained a hushed topic in Egypt’s public sphere, it has become increasingly salient with the rise of sectarian strife all over the country. While my experience only represents one of so many, it alarms me that it took place in a middle-class setting in Egypt’s largest and most developed city. I can only imagine the situation in less developed cities both in Egypt and worldwide where Muslims and Christians live side by side and are taught to tolerate each other rather than openly engage in interfaith dialogue.

At the opening ceremony of the Wheatley International Affairs Conference, Eboo Patel spoke about his Mormon girlfriend from high school and how she helped strengthen his faith in Islam. I found this story to be one of the most powerful moments of his speech as I instantly thought of my Protestant best friend who pushes me every day to become a better Muslim. The wealth of religious diversity at Georgetown and the vibrancy of interfaith dialogue have fueled and enriched my religious journey.

On a larger scale, I believe that interreligious dialogue is a necessary tool for social development and national reconciliation efforts, which are especially pertinent to countries that struggle with sectarian tensions. There is so much to learn from those of different faith backgrounds, and it is important to extend that opportunity to all youth worldwide.

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Learning to Engage with Religious Diversity