In the basement of The Crossing church, a small group of students gathered Nov. 28 to discuss their respective creeds and what interfaith dialogue meant to them.
Led by student fellows of the recently opened Center of Religion and Global Citizenry, the space gave students a way to facilitate interreligious conversations.
But while efforts such as this event to facilitate inter-religious conversations are ongoing, some UW students feel less welcome than others. According to the 2017 campus climate survey, non-Christian religious students feel less welcome on campus than their Christian peers.
Though the university must be unaffiliated with a specific religion, UW sophomore and Muslim student Zahiah Hammad believes the Christian presence on and round campus is “overpowering,” especially following the finalization of the new St. Paul’s University Catholic Church on Library Mall.
“It’s dark, it’s midnight, and [my friend and I] see this mosaic lit up,” Hammad said. “If I’m a freshman coming to this campus and I didn’t know about this before, and I see this mosaic, I’m automatically thinking, ‘is this university a Christian or private university?’”
Christian students are able to seek the Calvary Lutheran Chapel, St. Paul’s and University Presbyterian Church and Student Center on Library Mall alone. For students of other religions, there are significantly fewer places on and off campus.
This disparity coincides with the fact that Christian students reported feeling the most welcome on campus while Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and students of other faiths reported they were more likely to feel excluded and less likely to feel respected and welcome.
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Religious minorities report feeling less welcome
Coming to UW, Hammad knew she would not find a Muslim-majority community. But, for her, the nervousness balanced out with the excitement of the opportunity to learn about other faiths.
Being a hijabi woman on a predominantly white and Christian campus, Hammad feels students do not approach Islam with the same open mind and curiosity as she does.
“Because I wear a scarf, people automatically know what religion I am. That comes with a lot of labels that I don’t personally identify with,” Hammad said. “They already think they know who I am and what my stance on what things are and that’s difficult for me.”
For UW fifth-year senior Keith Lyster, however, he has felt the Catholic community has been largely accepting. A member of St. Paul’s, Lyster said Lutheran Memorial took in those without a space during the church’s recent reconstruction.
“They were just really excited to bring in another Christian group to work together towards some goals that they had,” Lyster said. “I thought that was really cool — Christian unity on campus.”
But some members of minority religions do not feel as at home on campus as Lyster, a Christian student, does.
UW sophomore Nesha Ruther, a Jewish student, feels her college experience is different from others, specifically from that of Christian students like Lyster. UW sophomore Arielle Bordow, also Jewish, said religious marginalization of minority students is exemplified in the ways that the UW calendar is structured.
“When I was in Israel, it was so cool that the big holiday was Purim — that was the centerpiece,” Bordow said. “They got off of school for that. Here, we get off of school for Christmas.”
Disparities in spaces for minority religions heightens feelings of isolation
Despite feeling interpersonal conflicts with some Jewish students, Ruther said she feels lucky to have a well-funded space like UW Hillel to practice at.
The number of spaces for the Jewish population, both in terms of student organizations and privately-funded groups, provides an easier way for Jews on campus to find peers compared to their minority counterparts, UW professor of religious studies Ulrich Rosenhagen said. UW Hillel executive director Greg Steinberger estimates that Hillel, a privately funded group, serves around 5,000 people — roughly 12 percent of the campus population.
This number is an estimate, as UW does not keep records on its religious demographics.
“It’s difficult because we don’t have a space for Muslims to come together and I feel like there are a lot more spaces for the Christian population on campus and it makes it difficult to practice my religion.”Saja Abu Hakmeh, UW Sophomore
Other non-Christian students only have access to a few student organizations and virtually no privately-funded groups, the latter usually being responsible for building religion-specific spaces. Because of this, groups with the most money have the most space, UW religious history professor Charles Cohen said.
Saja Abu Hakmeh, a UW sophomore and Muslim student, said the lack of spaces makes it difficult for the Muslim community to come together in times of need.
“It’s difficult because we don’t have a space for Muslims to come together and I feel like there are a lot more spaces for the Christian population on campus and it makes it difficult to practice my religion,” Abu Hakmeh said. “I don’t like that I don’t even have the option to practice.”
Haengjung Ye, a Nichiren Buddhist student, said she experienced trouble even finding a Buddhist community at UW when she first arrived. Ye had to be connected to one through the Madison community.
Though UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank said in a Nov. 27 interview with The Badger Herald that she would be “delighted” to see more groups on campus for underrepresented religious, she said she cannot support specific religious establishments due to UW’s public university status and the First Amendment restrictions that come with it.
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Religious student organizations, though affiliated with the university, receive their funding exclusively through Associated Students of Madison’s segregated fees.
Still, UW sophomore Hajjar Baban, a Muslim student, said the university should promote religious diversity and bring about more spaces. UW’s inability to invest financially, though for legal reasons, also represents an irony for Babban because she believes the school benefits from the diversity her and her peers’ presence adds to campus.
“[Where’s the investment] in students you’re benefiting off of for future students in pamphlets?” Baban said. “[UW should] care about the people [they’re] showing off.”
But, UW graduate student and president of the Muslim Student Association Razan Al Dagher said it shouldn’t be up to the university. She said instead of relying on the university for that space, it should be up to the Muslim community to raise funds and build it on their own.
Rosenhagen said one way the university could help would be by creating neutral spaces for spiritual practice, such as the one in Union South. But he said their neutrality must be ensured because of the possibility of them getting “hijacked” by one religion.
Lack of spaces tied to interpersonal conflicts among minority religions
Not everyone will experience the unity Lyster did with all the members of their faith.
For UW sophomore and Christian student Solomon Roller, he believes there to be fractures within Christianity over political issues due to close-mindedness.
“There are people who like to put what they already believe [in] … and they try to find some way to tie that within the faith,” Roller said. “Christianity gets a bad rep because ‘oh, they were taught this in Christianity.’ No, it wasn’t Christianity taught them those things … [but] then they claim it to Christianity.”
But for members of underrepresented religions, these differences can also be rooted in the lack of available spaces.
“When I go to Chabad, I go and have a great time but I have to pick and choose the Jewish people I interact with and I let in my life very carefully in a way [other] Jewish students on campus might not.” Nesha Ruther, UW sohphomore
Abu Hakmeh struggled to find community in the Muslim Student Association as a self-identified non-traditional Muslim. Similarly, Hammad said MSA catered to a “certain type” of Muslim.
“I would go to MSA things but I would sometimes feel like MSA was targeting a certain group of Muslims, and a lot of other Muslims would feel left out or feel like they couldn’t come into the space and sometimes I would feel like that,” Hammad said. “It was hard to first of all find a group of Muslim people that I was able to form friendships with.”
Though Ruther has had a positive experience in UW’s Jewish community, she believes the varying beliefs of students within the community clash and can create tension.
Ruther, being pro-Palestine, often finds herself having to seek out Jewish spaces carefully whereas other Jews on campus may not.
“When I go to Chabad, I go and have a great time but I have to pick and choose the Jewish people I interact with and I let in my life very carefully in a way [other] Jewish students on campus might not,” Ruther said.
Meghana Brandl, an agnostic-atheist and outreach chair for Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics, said a similar divide is felt within AHA.
There are people who fall under different ends of the AHA spectrum, Brandl said. Because they are all in one group, certain beliefs can drown out others.
But, not all individuals of non-Christian faith experience division within their respective communities, however small they are.
Though her student organization Buddhist Badgers only has seven members, Ye said she’s found unity while practicing with them.
Lack of interfaith dialogue contributes to tense campus climate
While there are disparities between different religions in terms of spaces, there are also divisions between members of different faiths in terms of knowledge and understanding
This lack of knowledge and understanding can make disagreements over divisive issues tenser than they already are.
Last spring, students flooded the hearing room of the Student Activity Center to hear a contentious resolution proposal ASM brought forth. The resolution requested the university divest from companies complicit in human rights abuses, some of which originally included Israeli companies.
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The argument quickly became about whether the resolution attacked the identities of Jewish students or if the university’s investments were harmful to students of color and Muslim students.
The resolution passed after two lengthy debates, but the university issued a statement refusing to recognize it, citing how it was “harmful” to the existence of Jewish identities.
Al Dagher, who helped draft the resolution, said the divestment resolution became an affront to Jewish students, which was not its intention. She hoped the resolution would create dialogue on campus. But, students heard “divestment” which stigmatized it, she said.
UW sophomore Yogev Ben-Yitschak, a Jewish student, said dialogue could have helped during the debates. The conversation quickly turned from divestment to white privilege and marginalized communities, both of which are important conversations, he said, but should not have been held there or at that scale.
“Had [opponents of the resolution] talked to Jewish students and seen that not all Jews fit that [Zionist stereotype], I don’t think they would’ve said what they said,” Ben-Yitschak said. “At the same time, a lot of Jewish students came and said stereotypes about what they believed about different students—Muslims, Hindus, black students — which probably wouldn’t have been said had they talked to people and seen why those issues mattered to them so much.”
By having civil dialogues about differences in ideologies and in faiths, Al Dagher said students can also come together and defuse tensions.
In past years, the Lubar Institute provided a way for students to come together and discuss the interrelationships between the Abrahamic religions. But in 2016, it lost a majority of its funds and closed.
As a result, the Center of Religion and Global Citizenry opened up, spearheaded by Rosenhagen.
Rosenhagen said there’s less focus on Abrahamic religions and more on dialogue between all faiths to create better campus climate and diversity.
He argued there would be less hate and bias incidents if students were to have inter-religious conversations.
“More inter-religious conversation on campus and more learning in that area would help us become a more diverse and more inclusive public institution of higher learning,” Rosenhagen said. “Religion would bring us together despite our differences.”
Interfaith dialogue helps promote understanding, reconciliation
Brandl, along with other fellows of the Center, stood in front of roughly twenty people at a Nov. 28 potluck, making sure everyone had name tags and kept conversation geared towards what interfaith meant to each individual.
Students of different faiths chattered together about the importance of dialogue while eating a variety of foods from different cultures.
“I think it’s important to understand and come together as people of different faiths, whatever that faith is, and begin to humanize one another and understand the different intersectionality and differences on this campus so we can better understand how those differences extend to the real world.” Omar Jandal, UW senior
For UW senior Omar Jandal, interfaith dialogue needs to be promoted on campus because it gives individuals a greater understanding of each other that can be extended into future conversations.
UW senior Ben Adams, an atheist student, said he attended the event to break the stereotype that atheists are angry at those who practice religion.
“Interfaith dialogue is how we can resolve our conflicts in a very laid back and neutral manner without forcing ourselves to do so,” Adams said. “It’s a way of coming to a better consensus of what types of things we agree on and how we can work past our differences to achieve goals we agree on.”
But, similar to establishing groups, there are discrepancies about whether the university should facilitate this dialogue. While the university isn’t allowed to take official action, Blank said student groups are the ones who can and should start conversations on issues persisting on campus.
Rosenhagen would like to see at least some university action toward facilitating these dialogues.
He suggested having recommended religious diversity training at orientation. Much like racial diversity training, freshman should be shown that there are opportunities to engage in religious dialogue, he said.
But Badger Catholic service coordinator Jenny Baylon said it is hard to have dialogue unless people are willing.
“It’s hard to say if UW is responsible for facilitating [interfaith dialogue],” Baylon said. “Religion is really personal, so it would be hard to make people talk about it.”
Like Rosenhagen, Baylon said that if the university were to go about fostering dialogue, they should make it non-mandatory, emphasizing that the space should be welcoming and non-judgemental.
Ye agreed. Her faith is about interrelated relationships, which she said can be fostered through dialogue. Still, she questions whether the kind of dialogue necessary would be possible if it was carried out by the university.
“In order to gain more trust with a community here, it’s always important to have a genuine dialogue [with people] who have different backgrounds, different beliefs,” Ye said. “If the university stands in with that process, I don’t know if that could create a really genuine dialogue.”
Regardless of university involvement, though, students of faith from different backgrounds as well as religious experts at UW, when asked, agree these dialogues should be happening on campus.
Jandal said it is crucial for students to have these conversations, so they can carry it with them into the real world.
For Cohen, it’s a first step — but an important one.
“I don’t think greater understanding is the ‘be all and end all,’ but I certainly think it’s one of the important way-stations,” Cohen said. “When people talk to each other, when they inquire about each other, they are at least more likely … to learn empathy, to have their horizons widened and to be able negotiate differences.”