Friday, May 13, 2011

Reflections from the Emerging Minds Project -Gabrielle Newell

Emerging Minds Project | April 2011
Gabrielle Newell - First Year

The purpose of the Emerging Minds Project (EMP) is to create an intellectually open and dynamic environment for students to learn about and discuss social justice issues of today. Each month, a group of 11 students come together at 5710 to dialogue with an experienced facilitator who works in the field.

*The views and opinions expressed in these blog entries are that of each individual author and do not necessarily reflect a collective opinion of the EMP cohort or that of the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs.


As usual, I left our meeting this week feeling like there was so much more for us to discuss. The question of religious expression, particularly in public life, is a topic that can never be exhausted or satisfactorily answered. So, I would like to share a couple questions that I’ve been thinking about since our meeting with Ms. Teresa Hord Owens, Dean of Students at University of Chicago.

Teresa opened our discussion by outlining the distinction between “freedom of religion” and “freedom from religion.” She provided a hypothetical example of a public space that, instead of barring demonstrations of religious beliefs, would be full of them. All would be welcome to exhibit their religion.

While this notion – a welcoming space to share a belief as intimate as religion outside of the private sphere – is appealing, I do have one concern: what happens when one group speaks louder than another? In my mind, this is inevitable. Given the chance to express one’s beliefs freely, isn’t it inevitable that in a pluralistic society the exhibition would be uneven? To me, the purpose of secularism is to prevent one religious group from gaining too much influence within the legal system. By expanding the religious practices permitted publically within a secular state, is the intention of secularism at risk? Also, if one religious group has a more pronounced presence than another, does this present the possibility that they will dominate the public space?

One of the students in our group raised the commonly held concern that often she is hesitant to disclose her identity as a Muslim for fear of discrimination. As we’ve seen much too often, especially in our post-9/11 society, Islamophobia is a very real agent in the United States. How can we open the public domain to religious voices when some groups are not safe to speak? Even if the law permits public demonstrations of religion, societal pressure would prevent certain groups from freely exhibiting their religious beliefs, leading to an unequal representation in the public sphere.

In addition, if the voice of one group is repressed – due to fear of prejudice or otherwise - there is the risk that another group will speak for them. This is one explanation for the law passed this past year in France (commonly known as the Burqa Ban), which prohibits the wearing of face coverings in public spaces. I believe this is an example of an instance in which the majority, misinterpreting the practices of another, widely misrepresented, religious group, is acting on behalf of another people without giving them the voice to advocate for themselves.

Another interpretation of the recent law passed in France is that they are enforcing a more pervasive form of secularism. Returning to the concept Ms. Owens introduced, France is promoting freedom from religion as opposed to freedom of religion. They are eliminating public displays of religion in order to protect the minority from persecution based on their religious practices. They are advocating “sameness” in order to prevent prejudice. However, this doesn’t address the reason for discrimination, which is expanding Islamophobia. In this case, the French government’s attempt to protect minority religious groups becomes an instrument of prohibition when the government begins to interfere with their ability to exercise their religious practices.

So, the question I’m left with is this: Where’s the balance between allowing public religious demonstration (while preventing one group from dominating the forum) and prohibiting religion in the public sphere (to protect the minority from religious persecution)?

And again, I’m faced with another challenging question. Thank goodness we have two more sessions…

Gabrielle Newell comes from a multicultural background, which is African-American and Ashkenazi Jewish, which makes diversity a topic she has engaged on a personal level. In order to broaden her understanding of diversity on a societal level, she has become involved with various cultural, dialogue, and service groups that have allowed her to explore social issues in greater depth. These include Operation Understanding D.C., a yearlong program for high-school students in the Metropolitan D.C. area who identify as either Black or Jewish, or both, that teaches them the skills to eradicate discrimination in society. Gabrielle is also a proud Washingtonian, avid traveler, and fledgling skydiver.