Navigating Identity and Privilege in Multifaith Engagement on a College Campus

The Following Blog Post is an excerpt from "Navigating identity and privilege in MultiFaith Engagement On A College Campus" Originally Published in the Journal of College and Character, Special Issue on Religious, Secular, and Spiritual Identities Convergence, VOLUME 19, ISSUE 1. FREE ACCESS TO THIS SPECIAL ISSUE IS AVAILABLE FOR A LIMITED TIME.

To be successful global citizens, students need greater religious literacy and competency engaging diverse religions and worldviews. Effective multifaith work in higher education is a form of intercultural engagement: When done well, this work does not belong just to religious life professionals but involves a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach. This article explores how issues of privilege and intersectional identity impact multifaith work, drawing on specific case studies and on relevant scholarship in race and gender studies, intercultural studies, and social justice studies. Practical suggestions are offered for introducing identity and privilege to students in the context of multifaith engagement.

Diversity education and intercultural competence are becoming increasingly important to the educational mission of colleges and universities preparing students to succeed as global citizens in diverse communities and workplaces. Among these competencies are religious literacy and the ability to work effectively with people from diverse religions and worldviews. It is the central claim of this article that effective multifaith work is a form of intercultural engagement, that issues of privilege and intersectional identity impact this work, and that multifaith practitioners need to take seriously the relevant work in race and gender studies, intercultural studies, and social justice studies. These claims are explored through our context at Elon University, a medium-sized, private, liberal-arts school located in the southern United States, and through our work in religious and spiritual life (Harter, Seigler, & Abrahams) and inclusive community development (castor).

These aforementioned issues are made all the more urgent by the spike in hate crimes targeting Muslims in the last two years, while all hate crimes, including those targeting Jews, have also increased (Levin & Grisham, 2016). Both Europe and the United States have seen a rise in nationalist and nativist movements, with increasing incidents of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism (Garner & Selod, 2015; Green, 2015). Within this context, greater religious literacy is needed to counter bias and misinformation. College offers prime opportunities for students to build positive relationships with people from diverse religious traditions and worldviews. Our immediate national context further justifies connecting multifaith engage- ment with social justice and intercultural studies more broadly, particularly race and racism studies, because religious bias is often racialized. Currently, this is most evident with Islam, a global religion with considerable racial, geographic, and theological diversity, yet Muslims are racialized whenever they are “homogenized and degraded by Islamophobic discourse and practices” that assume they are all the same (Garner & Selod, 2015, p. 17). This is apparent in the common conflation of Muslim and Arab identities, even though most Muslims are not Arab, and many Arabs are not Muslim (Selod, 2015).

All of this underscores the importance of multifaith education on college campuses. That said, the dominant model of interfaith organizing is to bring diverse people together for dialogues and discussions, but many students are not yet ready to engage constructively in multifaith dialogue. As a result, such discussions either evade real difference and disagreement, or they become polarizing debates. It is our contention that relevant work in neighboring disciplines—including work on identity, privilege, and intercultural development—can help multifaith practitioners move beyond this common impasse into deeper and more meaningful engagement with diversity and difference.

One preliminary note on language is helpful. There are subtle differences between the terms interfaith and multifaith and between intercultural and multicultural that result from how the terms have been used historically. As we discuss in the following, interfaith has often focused on common values and more generic religiosity, and Elon University adopted the term multifaith to reclaim the real differences that exist between traditions and worldviews. In more recent years, the term interfaith has gained deeper meaning, and therefore, unless specifically indicated, we use the two terms interchangeably in this article. The term multicultural often conveys diversity while intercultural suggests intergroup relations. In our multifaith programs, we aspire both to recognize difference and to create opportunities for building relationships across difference and fostering authentic religious pluralism (cf., Eck, 2006).