Harvard University Professor Diana Eck gives annual Wold Lecture

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By Shayna Han

Last Tuesday, April 17, Harvard University Comparative Religion and Indian Studies Professor Diana Eck spoke about “Islam and Islamophobia in America” for the annual Wold Lecture.

Eck is Director of The Pluralism Project at Harvard. This Project’s mission is to promote research, education, and outreach on and for religious diversity in the U.S. She is also Chair of the National Council of Churches’ Interfaith Relations Commission, and has written extensively about religion and India.

Two things that affect what we know and see about Islam today, Eck said, are immigration and the communication revolution. Immigration spreads religions around the world, increasing spiritual diversity in countries. The American 1965 Immigration and Nationalities Act, passed as a way to begin the social integration not only in American domestic law but in American immigration policy, has led to increased religious diversity. The communication revolution has sparked new developments in what people say and do. Reverend Viki Brooks acknowledged the power of the communication revolution, commenting, “People always have rhetoric. But when the rhetoric is happening in Tallahasse, Florida, [and] it’s heard over in Iraq, we’ve got a different problem.” The specific examples of rhetoric crossing borders and creating global conflict included the Danish cartoons that made fun of Muhammad, the Floridian priest who organized a Koran burning, and the incendiary protests over the “Ground Zero mosque”. All of these were relatively localized sources of tensions, but because of the widespread magnitude of global communication, each became fully-fledged international conflicts.

Eck’s talk was described by President Stephen Ainlay as “spot-on,” and by Reverend Viki Brooks as “very articulate [and…] easily understood.”

Ainlay in particular mentioned that John Wold, from whom the lecture series gets its name, would be “delighted” by Eck’s lecture. “When he [Wold] established the funds for the lecture, what he really hoped was that […] people would have better understanding of things that divide us […] his hope was that there could be a […] reach across difference. He would have found this a very, very good talk,” Ainlay explained.

Brooks noted Eck’s lecture juxtaposed examples of religious intolerance with an energetic optimism for the future: “I also find it really reassuring that she’s hopeful. There are days when I look, when I see what’s going on, and I don’t see the hope. Furthermore, she’s looking to the movement that we have going on on-campus right now,” referring to Union’s own interfaith activism and awareness on campus.

Ainlay related Eck’s lecture not simply to the current state of Union, but also to Union’s own history. “It’s who we are,” Ainlay said when responding to a question about the importance of such lectures to Union as a whole. “Union was founded, in its day, as being a place where people of difference could come together for common purposes.” He also remarked upon the symbolism of the Nott Memorial, where the lecture was held, “with its multiple sides supporting a common dome.”

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