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SATURDAY, OCTOBER 20, 2007
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Calhoun Community College hosted a religions panel discussion of four different religions:Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism. Panelist Setareh Tajbakhsh of Huntsville, a native of Iran, said her introduction to the U.S. was in a small Long Island, N.Y., community, where she was the only Shi’i Muslim.
Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer
Calhoun Community College hosted a religions panel discussion of four different religions:Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism. Panelist Setareh Tajbakhsh of Huntsville, a native of Iran, said her introduction to the U.S. was in a small Long Island, N.Y., community, where she was the only Shi'i Muslim.

Faith on campus
Calhoun panel discussion calls
attention to religious diversity

By Melanie B. Smith
msmith@decaturdaily.com · 340-2468

Two Muslims, a Hindu, a Buddhist and a Jew sitting on a panel Tuesday in Huntsville tried to present their faiths in a few minutes each.

They did it with aplomb and not without humor.

“I’m a practicing Jew,” said panelist Laura King. “I am trying to get it right.”

She was responding to a question asking panelists’ views on fundamentalism and mysticism during Calhoun Community College’s religious diversity program. King said she is open to all aspects of her faith.

The two-hour event at Calhoun’s campus at Cummings Research Park was a plan for exposure, organizers said. Kermit Carter, dean of students, said Calhoun’s mission includes teaching students to value diversity.

Such a forum is seldom seen in or around Decatur. Interdenominational events sometimes draw Christians across church lines, but interfaith gatherings are rare.

The 9,000-plus students at Calhoun are religiously diverse, even if the majority of them are from Christian backgrounds, Carter said.

“There are a lot of strong Bible-believing Baptists here, and we know about them,” Carter said. “We don’t know so much about the others.”

Posters promoting “Interfaith Dialogue: Common Ground in an Increasingly Diverse Nation” invited students to “see ways to make room for conviction and tolerance.”

Learning about religious differences is the natural place to start appreciating diversity, said Alicia Taylor, dean of the Huntsville campus, in introducing the program.

Distinctives

Linda El-Amin of Huntsville asked audience members how many of them believed in a Creator God, prophets, angels and a final judgment. Most raised their hands.

“If that is the case, how are we different?” asked the third-generation Muslim who recently moved from Michigan. Islam teaches those beliefs, she said.

Her experiences led her to Islam, she said, while others’ experiences may have taken them to other religions.

Setareh Tajbakhsh of Huntsville, a native of Iran, said her introduction to the U.S. was in a small Long Island, N.Y., community, where she was the only Shi’i Muslim. The experience helped her see what her faith shared with other religions.

“We are all believers,” she said.

Tajbakhsh said she wants Islam to step out of its past and into a new world reality.

Buddhist Jeff Simpson of Huntsville, who has degrees in religion and law, said Buddhism is not a religion, a faith or a set of beliefs.

“It’s a way to operate in life,” he said.

Laj Utreja, a native of India who has lived in Huntsville for 30 years, said the term “Hindu” was given by foreigners to a way of life. What separates people is their birth in different places and cultures, but as all water goes to the ocean, all truth is one, he said.

Religion in headlines

News of the day was on audience members’ minds as they asked panelists questions about the following:

Jihad: Tajbakhsh said the word “jihad” means “struggle in the way of God,” and for her that means not fighting a holy war but caring for her family.

“It’s obvious that politics takes man where there is no God or humanity left,” she said of terrorist acts.

A Palestinian homeland: King said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s efforts are in line with the idea of a peace accord setting up two states, one for Israel and one for Palestine. That has been the direction since the Oslo accord, she said.

Separation of church and state: Some presenters said the separation is one of America’s strengths, while others said government leaders’ faith should not be left at home. Islam does not teach separation, said Tajbakhsh. Simpson called separation of church and state “an illusion” in the U.S. today.

Similarities

Calhoun president Marilyn Beck said the non-graded program was an opportunity to listen and learn similarities among faiths, not just differences.

Student Susan Wood, 21, who takes classes at the main campus and in Huntsville, said she thought she would be hearing academic presentations about the varied faiths.

“This was more like a debate,” she said.

Zakiya Douglas, 19, a student at the Huntsville campus, said her aim was to see how religions differ today from their origins, which she is studying in history.

Interfaith Mission Service of Huntsville led the event. The Rev. Frank Broyles, program director, said the ongoing “Interfaith Dialogue on the Road” has reached more than 2,200 people.

He called Tuesday’s program “a summary of a summary” on religion.

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