Asma Uddin outside mosque with books

photo by Fred Siegel

By Chelsea Langston Bombino

Recently the Fetzer Institute partnered with the Aspen Institute’s Religion and Society Program and religious freedom legal scholar Asma Uddin to explore how to heal Muslim-Christian relationships. Uddin is a visiting professor at Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law and a fellow at Aspen’s Religion and Society Program. She is also the author of When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom and The Politics of Vulnerability: How to Heal Muslim-Christian Relations in a Post-Christian America.

I had the privilege of sitting down with Asma recently to explore how relationships across spiritual difference and a sense of shared vulnerability are at the heart of her work.

Chelsea Langston (CLB): How do you describe the essence of the politics of vulnerability? What argument is it making and why does it matter?

Asma Uddin (AU): I want to first summarize the primary audiences with whom I work. When I am working with Christian conservatives, I start by lowering perceptions of threat. And then, when speaking to American Muslims, I start with legal literacy. But there are so many different audiences and sub-audiences beyond these two. And the truth is, my audience is a larger group of people who actually normally disagree with each other. And that is what sets the politics of vulnerability approach apart. It challenges lines of who your audience is and offers an invitation for both sides of an issue to approach that issue through the lens of their shared vulnerability and connect to the complexity and nuance of the other side.

In the last several years, American Muslims have taken a very prominent role within social justice circles. Muslims have become a top symbolic category for the political left. But the reality is, if you want to adequately protect this group—or any number of other minority groups—from what you believe are oppressive Christian conservatives, the way to do that is not to attack the conservatives. The way to do that is to cultivate the conditions where Christian conservatives don’t feel as threatened.

All the social science studies on inter-group dynamics shows that if the in-group feels threatened, they're going to react in a hostile manner to the groups that they feel threatened by or the ones that are associated very closely with the threatening group. This is the point I make in The Politics of Vulnerability about the mega-identities. Essentially, now Christian conservatives associate certain minority groups, in this case Muslims, with the group [a mega-identity] that they feel threatened by, which is progressives on the left. And the minority group, American Muslims, they're going to be constantly under assault because the in-group feels so threatened. So, if you are genuinely concerned with the well-being of these minorities, then you need to change your tactics.

That's the essential point here. In the public imagination, based on sound-bite culture and media portrayals, American Muslims have been associated with the political left. And that is where the mega-identity frame comes in.

CLB: So how do you make the in-group, in your example, Christian conservatives, feel less threatened? And beyond that, how do you come to that place of shared vulnerability?

AU: Well, I think a lot of it has to do with language. So, in terms of lowering perceptions of threat, the end goal for many Christian conservatives would be if their rights were actually protected. And in all honesty, many of the legal wins are already there. The Supreme Court has handed Christian conservatives many protections in terms of their religious freedom, and yet, many in this community still feel under siege. But beyond the legal angle, a lot of it has to do with how language shapes the public’s imagination. In particular, there is a lot of language on the left about Christian conservatives being hateful.

There has been a shift in public discourse where we don't simply disagree and say that the other person's position is wrong. Rather, we actually moralize public discourse so that the other side is evil. Or the other side is dumb. This language goes beyond demarcating lines of disagreement, it goes to demonizing and making the other side less human.

But how might the conversation change when we shift the language to vulnerability? When I first published When Islam Is Not a Religion, I engaged in an email conversation with a conservative reader who took the time to read my book and he used the word “vulnerability” several times in his emails to me. He discussed in our correspondence that it was the mocking of conservative Christians—from the media, on late-night-TV—that was difficult for him. The response to this from the left is to generally dismiss Christian conservatives further and criticize them for “victimizing” themselves. So, the politics of vulnerability approach helps each group see each other’s vulnerability and pain points and finds ways to connect.

This approach is about recognizing the other person's humanity and understanding their plight as something that could be analogous to what the other side values. This approach aims to help both sides avoid minimizing what the other is feeling, because everybody's experiences and contexts are different.

CLB: The Fetzer Institute is interested in how spiritually grounded love contributes to shared flourishing. In your work with people who have very explicit, and very different, animating spiritual beliefs, how do you see the role of Spirit, or the role of faith, playing a connective role in building bridges across polarized groups?

AU: That is ultimately what moved me in this space. And that is what got me thinking about vulnerability. Because of my experiences and my religious liberty work, I have met people as people. I continue to be struck by the fundamental goodness of people. They may have total ignorance of my religious community because of what they have been told, but that doesn’t negate their fundamental goodness. And I see that. It is palpable if you are willing to be open to that. And then I see how that fundamental goodness is rooted in their faith. And I have seen this across the faith spectrum, including conservative Christians.

I think that the same joy and spirituality is present in diverse faith communities. Fundamental joy is rooted in a source of deep faith and wholeness. I think people connecting on the basis of their shared faith provides a deep well of holistic, transcendent connection that is often misunderstood. And then, being in multi-faith spaces, you see people converging because of their shared joy in something greater than themselves, even though it might be rooted in very different faith traditions.

I've gone through very concrete experiences in my life, where I have total certainty that God sort of puts us in places for a purpose, down to the seemingly minute. So, I think that I was put in this place with all these intersecting identities for a reason—to have the types of insights that could only come about when I was dealing with all these different things, the good, the bad, and the mixture of both in the same space.

You can learn more about The Politics of Vulnerability here.

Chelsea Langston Bombino is a program officer at the Fetzer Institute. She is a regular contributor to Religion Unplugged and contributing author to Breaking Ground: Chartering Our Future in a Pandemic Year and The Routledge Handbook for Religious Literacy, Pluralism and Global Engagement.





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