Author Archives: David

CEDAR receives 2017 Praxis Award honorable mention

On December 1, CEDAR received an honorable mention for the 2017 Praxis Award given by the Washington Association of Professional Anthropologists (WAPA) at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association. As one Praxis Award juror noted:

Longitudinal survey data indicate that participants carried the CEDAR experience forward in their careers. And CEDAR team members have published extensively on their theory, method, and experience. That is potentially a huge impact multiplier, insofar as they are producing resources to help other conflict-reduction interventions to understand and implement the CEDAR approach. Helping individuals, groups, and communities recognize and accept difference as an inescapable, inevitable, and, most importantly, acceptable part of our social experience has to be one of the most important projects anyone can pursue these days. I really admire this team’s dedication to what must sometimes feel like an overwhelming problem.

The biennial Praxis Award is a competition for excellence and achievement in translating anthropological knowledge into action and is one of the most competitive awards in anthropology.

Read WAPA press release

“How to Live with Difference in a Divided Nation” – interview with David Montgomery

“How to Live with Difference in a Divided Nation: In an Age of Disagreement, Advice for Getting Along,” by Andrew Thurston. Boston University College of Arts & Sciences Magazine. Spring 2017.

Whether you’re overjoyed or petrified at seeing Donald J. Trump in the White House, there’s probably one thing everyone can agree on: the other half of the country has gone mad. Yet despite our sharp ideological divisions, we all have to live together. David W. Montgomery (GRS’03,’07) is an expert on helping people with fundamental differences get along with each other. He says the secret is not to look for common ground, but to acknowledge our diversity—and disagreements. Montgomery is the coauthor of Living with Difference: How to Build Community in a Divided World (University of California Press, 2015) and director of program development for CEDAR, Communities Engaging with Difference & Religion. The book, written with Professor of Religion Adam B. Seligman and Rahel R. Wasserfall, is based on CEDAR’s experiences bringing people of different backgrounds and faiths (or none at all) together. The educational nonprofit runs fortnightly programs designed to encourage people to build a more tolerant world…

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“Broken Politics and the Hope of Discomfort”, by David W. Montgomery

“Broken Politics and the Hope of Discomfort”, by David W. Montgomery. 2017. Maydan. January 19.

These are days desperate for answers. In both practical and existential terms, people are asking what Trump’s Electoral College win – and presidency – means. Does his combative style represent a new populism? Does his presidency give legitimacy to racist and fascist sentiments? Is this a harbinger of America’s moral decay or an opportunity to instantiate a particular moral vision that will aright past indiscretions? Many in our country are uncertain, anxious, and afraid, while others feel vindicated and optimistic. The tension speaks to a divide, not a way to bridge a divide.

Bridging the divide is not about overcoming it, nor is it about acting as if there is no divide. The 2016 presidential election made the division within our country feel insurmountable….

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Difference and Its Demons, by Adam B. Seligman

Of all the many uncomfortable truths this election has forced us all to face, surely one of the most important is our discomfort with difference. This attitude was made clear in the months leading up to the elections, in much of the campaign rhetoric and the slogans repeated at many rallies. It was made clear as well in certain policy recommendations: building a wall sealing off Mexico, deporting over three million illegal immigrants, establishing a register for Muslims, and so on. Whether these campaign promises will become policy we have yet to see. But the deep feelings of fear, foreboding, and discomfort that they have exposed are undeniable, while the extent to which we are unable even to face people with political, social, religious, and class affiliations that differ from ours is profoundly disturbing. Further, overt racism, misogyny, Islamaphobia, and downright hatred have become part of our national life. The FBI and NGOs such as the Southern Poverty Law Center all report a substantial uptick in hate crimes and racist and anti-Muslim incidents in the months leading up to the election, an increase that continues today.

Half a century ago our schools, restaurants and swimming pools were desegregated, mostly by court order, and sometimes with the involvement of federal troops as well. As difficult a social process as that proved to be, it seems that the desegregation of our minds has hardly progressed at all. Perhaps, in fact, such segregation has increased. We live more and more in different realities, trust (and distrust) different institutions, grant moral credit to different communities, believe different news feeds and are less and less inclined—and almost never required—to go beyond our comfort zone of like-minded folk.

Isolated, inward-turning, and afraid, many of us—Democrats and Republicans alike—are demonizing our respective “others” rather than encountering them and wrestling with their difference.  These “others” may be Muslims, immigrants, transgendered individuals, or supporters of the opposite political party. But the divisions are not just about the posters at Trump campaign rallies that castigated “Hitlary”, or Secretary Clinton’s remarks on “deplorables.” They relate to a whole culture, one that crosses political, social, and religious differences. We live in a country that prizes comfort over knowledge, safety over experience, and self-righteousness over truth-seeking. These proclivities are just as visible on liberal college campuses as in southern Evangelical churches and can be encountered in Democratic Party caucuses as well as on the Breitbart news site.

As a nation, we have become fearful. And fear is dangerous, both to others and to ourselves. It causes us to lash out, stop thinking, lose our perspicacity, and bury our analytic capabilities. Our responses to events and to people are no longer measured or rational, but potentially counterproductive, if not downright dangerous. And why have we become fearful? Because fear is easier to deal with than discomfort. Discomfort is too demanding. To remain open to the other and voluntarily feel uncomfortable encountering his or her alien positions, lifestyle, beliefs, or politics is a difficult burden. It implies existing in a certain cognitive dissonance. Believing in what we believe, while all the while also being open, listening to, and responding to the other. Much easier to demonize him or her as a “radical Islamic” terrorist, a “degenerate Jew,” a homosexual who “chooses” to subvert Christian family values, or a “know-nothing” racist, white supremacist, homophobe, or misogynist. Some of these categories may sometimes fit some individuals. It is, however, that very burden of uncertainty that we shy away from. It is far less trouble to tar everyone with the same brush than to carefully parse, argue with, and perhaps even refute a particular argument, policy recommendation, or political position.

Fear correlates with danger, and our responses to danger tend to be clear-cut and often violent. When we are in danger, we know (or think we know) what to do. Not so with discomfort, with understanding a situation (or person, position, or policy) as risky. The very ambiguity of risk, as opposed to danger, is unsettling and hard to tolerate. No tolerance is called for in situations of danger—only action.

If we are to prevent the outbreak of violence that could well accompany perceptions of danger on all sides, it is imperative for us all to begin to encounter, wrestle with, and even come to terms with difference—not solely the generally acknowledged” deep divisions in our society,” but the real people behind these differences. We must learn to be uncomfortable in the face of the other. We must learn to tolerate living with less than perfect knowledge of the world around us and to accept, suffer, and abide by the ambiguity that inheres to the stranger, the outsider—whether that otherness is one of race, religion, ethnicity, nationhood, political affiliation, class membership, or sexual identity.

The establishment of forums for encountering, rather than eliding, difference should be foremost on our political agenda.  We have taken some steps in this direction with CEDAR – Communities Engaging with Difference and Religion that creates a space for such encounters.  There we have come to recognize that we do not need a false pluralism that looks for what is common to us all, but rather an honest admission of the deep, constitutive differences that exist among us. And we must face such differences without fear or any false hopes of “overcoming” them. Instead, we must commit to building the skills necessary for a life of discomfort. That, at least, we can all share.

Adam B. Seligman is the Director of CEDAR and a Professor of Religion at Boston University.

“The Burkini as a Mirror”, by Adam Seligman

“The Burkini as a Mirror”, by Adam Seligman. 2016. openDemocracy. August 25.

Last week, the mayor of Oye-Plage in France was so disturbed by seeing a woman in a burkini on the beach that he is planning to ban such a garb from the beaches of his own town. This reminded me of some of my own experiences in the past that may just be relevant to the current debates over the burkini in Cannes, Marseille and other beaches in France.

About fourteen years ago I was in Jordan with my not-yet-adolescent daughter. We were in a goldsmith’s shop in Amman looking at jewelry. The shop was very small, almost a cubicle. At one point six to eight women entered. They were totally covered by burkas; only their eyes were partially visible through a bit of lacework. This was the first time I had found myself in such a situation, in a very small space, surrounded by a group of women of whom I could see nothing….

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What We See Is Not Necessarily Reality, by Adam B. Seligman

A few weeks ago, Christmas Day actually, which in 2015 was also a Friday and the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad to boot, found me at the Jingjue Mosque in central Nanjing, a city of 8 million inhabitants with a Muslim population of about 100,000. There were about 900 people in attendance filling the mosque and the surrounding courtyards, which stretched out both to the sides of the mosque and in front of it.

What struck me right away was the great range of the congregants’ backgrounds: Han Chinese (converts to Islam), Uighurs from Xianjiang Province, Indonesians, Pakistanis, Central Asians, Indonesians, Arabs, North Africans, Africans from both East and West Africa, as well as Caucasians. There were students and old folk, men dressed in jeans and flowing robes, some with hip-hop hats and Uzbek (and Kyrgyz) headgear, some bearded and others clean-shaven (and everything in between, as befits some stylish young trends), some with socks and many without, despite the thermometer being in the low 40s. New migrants from the northwest of the country added to the existing Muslim presence, now sadly depleted—only four mosques are left in a city where there were once dozens.

What I noticed next was the diversity within unity, the distinct and palpable individuality and uniqueness of each and every man bent in prayer. A religion that emphasizes practice, rather than belief alone, allows for, even requires, a fractile field of differences; people do not hold their hands in exactly the same position, maintain the self-same posture, or prostrate themselves in an identical manner, even if they are all striving for exactly the same prescribed positions.

I was suddenly reminded of a colleague, an expert on religion in Europe, who once remarked that in his view Islam is a religion inherently hostile to individualism, because Muslims pray “all bunched up together, not like people in a church or synagogue.” His comment seems to me to represent, in the kindest of readings, a strictly secular, perhaps sociological perspective, which sees, perhaps even structures reality for one pair of lenses only: the observer looking in from outside. Yet from the perspective of the believers, the men and women actually praying in that space, of course they are individuals—how else should they approach God?

The view from outside looking in, especially the view trained in one reality and one way of looking at the world, by its nature imposes a certain unity, if not homogeneity, on what it finds strange and unsettling. Those gathered for Friday prayer do not in fact lack individuality; rather, the Western, Christian, and post-Christian eyes are just not trained to see it. To make sense out of what we find both foreign and, especially in these times, threatening, we lose “granularity,” we lose the specifics. We abstract, generalize, lump together, and homogenize—and in the process we see not individuals, but only an undifferentiated mass. But what we see is not necessarily the reality.

During my stay I spent a good deal of time in different mosques, and meeting with different Muslim communities and individuals in and around Nanjing. I was visiting China to explore setting up a summer school on how to live with religious and ethnic difference, based on the blueprint developed by CEDAR. For a while now, China has been experiencing massive population transfers, generally from the north and west to the southeast. These economic migrants face prejudice and social ostracism, as their very presence challenges established boundaries of community, religious practice, and ethnic identity. Engaging with difference is therefore an important mandate, in today’s China as in many other parts of the world.

China today is also struggling with its policies and often outdated laws affecting Muslims and adherents of other religions among its citizens. Should group prayer on university campuses be permitted? Who can be a prayer leader? Where may donations to religious organizations originate? The government seems to be searching for a manageable, middle-of-the-road policy that would allow religious expression, without also opening the floodgates of religious and ethnic separatism —all the while, to be sure, taking care not to do anything that will lead to a greater sense of disenfranchisement and grievance. As in so many other places in the world, policymakers—indeed, all of us—are having to learn to see the world a bit differently and shift our focus as we view the other and the unfamiliar.

As for myself, at the end of Juma I joined the congregants at lunch, forgoing the meat soup and eating only hard-boiled eggs and bread. And outside the mosque I bought some wonderful sweet rolls for my own Shabbat, which began at sundown that evening.

Adam B. Seligman is the Director of CEDAR and a Professor of Religion at Boston University.