“The human soul has still greater need of the ideal than of the real. It is by the real that we exist;
it is by the ideal that we live.” ~ Victor Hugo
New York City — “Like everyone else, Muslims want peace and do not like extremists like the ISIS. But the mainstream media is not reporting our voices. It seems like we are quiet about extremism. But we are not,” said a Muslim leader here in an engaging forum with students of the interfaith seminary right in the heart of the city.
Imam Shamsi Ali discussed ways that challenge and bring down religious extremism in the “Guest Speaker Series” of the Unification Theology Seminary on 5th Avenue. Speaking before faculty and students taking up post-graduate courses at the UTS, Ali explained that many Muslims here are actually vocal against violence, although their voices have really not been amplified by mainstream media.
Ali, known as a moderate Muslim scholar, runs his own radio program and serves the Muslim community at the Jamaica Muslim Center in Queens.
Born in Sulawesi, Indonesia, Ali cited that ignorance is the biggest cause to religious conflicts. “The prejudices create disunity. What we need to look at is our commonality, not conflict, in order to achieve peace. However, political leaders are also using religious differences to heighten political conflicts.”
He opined that media institutions have not enlightened the public on socio-economic and religious issues and instead just focus on reporting conflicts, without providing context in history or culture. He added that the different religions must continue to build interfaith partnerships in order to build peace and understanding.
Faith-based forums such as these are part of the rich ecumenical curriculum of the UTS as it lives by its mission of promoting interfaith and cultural understanding since its inception in 1974 by Rev. Sun Myung Moon.
Focus on Interfaith Understanding
Currently headed by Dr. Hugh Spurgin as president, the 40-year-old UTS is one of the very few seminaries in the US that has given focus and vigor to interfaith building as a way to achieve universal peace and understanding. “Our institution offers meaningful education – that is spiritual growth and cultural understanding,” he said recently in a dialogue with students.
Ms. Elena Bahian, a candidate of Master of Arts in Religious Studies said that being a UTS student is very challenging. “But it has deepened and gave more meaning to my spiritual journey in life. The classes are pragmatic but highly reflective and inward looking,” she said.
For Dr. Andrew Wilson, one of the seminary’s academic pillars, teaching at UTS has broadened his mind to understanding the faith and spirituality of people from all over the world. “It’s challenging and also enriching to teach in this ecumenical environment. I am continually surprised by the fresh insights of my students, offering many different points of view. At the same time, we all face a common task, to advocate for faith in a complex and challenging world. It’s deeply satisfying to work with these students. It’s also gratifying to learn about how their careers have developed after they graduate UTS.”
UTS recruitment director Joy Theriot, for her part, said the seminary’s vision of bridging cultural and religious divides has helped her become a well rounded person. “My perspectives have become limitless. I am happy to be able to see persons as persons without being bothered by their race, religion, or nationality.”
Research and Academic Freedom
Prof. Wilson says research and academic freedom make for a vibrant curriculum of the seminary. He is currently working on a manuscript that Rev. Moon wrote in the early 1950s that was never published. He said the research work gave him a lot to share with others and in the wider world.
“The UTS has given me the academic freedom and the support to develop my mind by studying some of the cutting-edge topics in the world of faith, including the quest for peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the value of women made in the image of God who is also a She as well as a He. Sometimes I end up taking controversial positions, and that’s where my position as a professor offers me a sphere of protection. I am very grateful to UTS for this.”
(The featured photo is Imam Shamsi Ali during the UTS Speakers Series in October 2016. Photo by Dr. Idris Kone)
For more information, visit www.uts.edu