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After All the Turmoil in Higher Education in Response to the Israel-Hamas War, Diversity Educators Continue to Miss the Mark on Religion

Over the last few months, I, like many of my colleagues involved in interfaith engagement, have had countless conversations with people trying to understand the Israel-Hamas war and respond to its implications for college campuses. My advice to all of them revolved around providing the opportunity for students, faculty, and staff to have open conversations where they are not compelled to take sides. From decades of interfaith research, I can tell you one thing for certain: informal interactions with others from diverse religious, spiritual, and secular backgrounds, when done intentionally, are the key to genuine appreciation that goes beyond tolerance. Researchers consistently find that students who study, dine, or socialize with people from diverse religious and spiritual backgrounds become more appreciative of religious diversity. It is likely that this type of engagement facilitates humanizing peers and colleagues to see the complexity of their narratives. But more importantly, these opportunities tend to be localized, low-risk, and, for the most part, low-stakes. I teach a large undergraduate class about diversity. The 120 students in my class continuously express the same thing: the desire for low-risk, low-stakes, localized conversations where they can explore their beliefs without censorship. The relatively large discussion sections (~30 students each) attempt to provide these opportunities, but they are admittedly too large. I argue that most of our students may not have the information needed to form an opinion, but more importantly, that we seldom provide opportunities for them to talk about their big bugaboo: religion. The religious underpinning of the history of Israel and Palestine is one that is undeniable. Surely, the issue has become multifaceted, with elements of race, ethnicity, politics, and even gender and sexuality infused into the mix. To begin to address the complexity of the situation through a pedagogically oriented approach, we need to normalize conversations about beliefs. We need to foreground religious and spiritual beliefs. Otherwise, we will continue to miss the mark. There is a wave of programmatic efforts taking place at universities across the nation in response to the war and its implications for different communities on campus. The DEI speaker business is likely booming. But sitting students in an auditorium to listen to a speaker, despite the nature of the work they are doing, requires a certain activation energy that puts these events outside of the low-risk, low-stakes parameter. Even if small group discussions are facilitated after such events, that does not take away from the formality of the interaction and the need for students to seek it out in the first place. We need to take the conversation to the students. What if we invited the students to engage in pairs or groups of three or four not in a large auditorium but in their usual spaces: the dining halls, the student union, the campus center, athletic facilities, and residence halls are all potential avenues for engagement where students could stumble across the opportunity to engage with complex ideas related not only to faith but to our positionalities as complex beings who are all impacted, albeit to various degrees, by the war in the Middle East. A few weeks ago, one of my colleagues objected to my desire to focus on the conflict in the Middle East. They noted that the diversity and inclusion agenda is being “hijacked by the geopolitical conflict” and that not everything has to be “interfaith.” Although the climate disaster in the Arctic and the loss of the ice caps is a major issue that warrants education and advocacy, there is an acute need for addressing this particular domain of diversity. What if we used the geopolitical conflict as an anchoring point for the DEI agenda? What if we actually saw the various issues as interconnected instead of diminishing the efforts to talk about a worldwide incident that has a direct and indirect impact on our students? Despite the turmoil that ended up displacing executives from top universities, we seem to continue to miss the mark by implying that the war in Gaza is somehow independent from the same systems of injustice we continue to face here in the United States. I find myself compelled to finish this editorial by highlighting that this is not a commentary on the conflict in the Middle East. My positionality as Syrian and Muslim complicates any statement I make in this regard. This editorial is about how, as educators, we need to responsibly and thoughtfully engage with students in constructive and profound dialogue in ways that we may not necessarily be accustomed to but that are nevertheless necessary. Dr. Musbah Shaheen is an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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