Don't do as Yalies do. That's the complaint Sarah Ruden, a Quaker and visiting scholar at Yale Divinity School, has for last summer's conference hosted by the university. It was intended to build upon a statement of Muslim-Christian reconciliation. Last year, 138 Muslim scholars and clerics issued "A Common Word Between Us and You," which said Christians and Muslims should find common ground based upon their shared love of God and neighbor.
"If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace," the open letter said.
But in a provocative essay published by the Wall Street Journal, Ruden argues that the response by Yale and others sacrifices candor for hope, and therefore cannot succeed.
Drawing on years she spent in South Africa watching that nation's Truth and Reconciliation Commission fail, Ruden argues that true rapprochement requires a sincerity that was lacking at what she called Yale's "phony love-fest:"
"That doesn't mean accepting nothing about others, demanding that they become like us before we even talk to them, but it does mean refusing the same kind of demand from them. If in any instance this principle results in not being able to talk right now or in not being able to talk about a given topic, it isn't a defeat but a mere acknowledgement of facts, the first step in any mediation that has a chance."
Ruden points out that the sessions between Muslim and Christian leaders in the conference called "Loving God and Neighbor in Word and Deed: Implications for Muslims and Christians," were closed to the public and the broader university community. But that didn't stop university officials from issuing suggestions for dress and behavior on campus during the conference "to defer to our guests' [author's emphasis] sense of propriety whenever possible."
The attempt not to offend was offensive to Ruden:
"When last I checked, the world-wide norm of hospitality was that the guest accepts the way things are done where he is visiting (not that he himself should have to do anything forbidden to him at home) or stays away. But here we were being asked to ‘defer' in all ‘definitions'—not just in our actions, that is, but in our thoughts. (This, I guess, would make Yemeni "honor killings" of young women, on the suspicion of sexual impropriety or merely to cover up their rape by their brothers, honorable in our minds.)"
The deference reached some fairly extreme depths. Crucifixes were among the victims of the temporary dress code, she reports:
"Often worn over a woman's breasts or on a man's chest, it is an image not only of God, but also of God dying nearly naked and in agony. To Muslims, it is blasphemy broadcast through lewd idolatry. No explanation is likely to change their minds, but we should at least try to get across our commitment. We should state plainly that not only are we inspired by this image, but that we shaped our societies around it. It led us to express love not through power but through its sacrifice, so that, over time, we came to see defending the weak as the only legitimate use of force, limited our governments accordingly, and emerged looking—to Muslims—thoroughly godless. We're not: we've merely got the societies our God demanded, and most of us are happy to serve our God within them."
Ruden clearly believes in dialogue. But hers is rooted in argument and exchanging ideas, even those that might be difficult, rather than in niceties for the sake of making people feel good. Isn't that the principle for which universities are supposed to stand?