Cindy Bither
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 A plenary panel discusses the Andalusian model. -- VMI Photo by Kevin Remington.  
A plenary panel discusses the Andalusian model. -- VMI Photo by Kevin Remington. 

LEXINGTON, Va., March 24, 2011 -- A panel discussion in the afternoon of the “East Meets West” conference’s first day explored the historical intersection of history, culture, religion, and arts among Christians, Jews, and Muslims.

Moderated by Col. Kathleen Bulger-Barnett, a VMI professor of modern languages, the discussion used Andalusi society in medieval Spain as a model to address the role that interfaith communities have played in medieval and current history, culture, and society.

“As we reflect on the engagements of the past, our goal is a better understanding of the religious interaction throughout history with an eye on hope for the future,” Bulger-Barnett said.

Bulger-Barnett was joined by Dr. Lourdes Maria Alvarez, director of the Center for Catalan Studies and professor of Spanish at Catholic University of America; Dr. Reza Aslan, professor at the University of California and author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam (2006); and Dr. Jonathan Ray, Samuel Eig Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies in the theology department of Georgetown University.

Alvarez spoke of the rise of medieval Spain as a cultural and intellectual center for religious groups and noted how some scholars continue to honor Andalusian achievements as a prototype of cooperation among people of different religious faiths.

“In Andalusia three horizons converged and transcended language,” Alvarez said.

Alvarez’s scholarship typically focuses on cultural and literary relations between Muslims, Christians, and Jews and the influence of Islamic Spain in Arab politics and culture. Alvarez is the author of the recent book, Abu al-Hasan al-Shushtari: Songs of Love and Devotion, a selection of works by Andalusian Sufi mystic and poet Ab al-Hasan al-Shushtar (1212-1269).

Ray, who specializes in medieval and early modern Jewish history, discussed medieval Iberian culture from the point of view of Andalusi Jews. His comments focused on some of the contradictions and problems surrounding the popular vision of Andalusi society as one of interfaith harmony.

“To be a Jew means to have a foot in both worlds,” Ray said. “Jews in Andalusia were able to be fully integrated, yet remain culturally distinct.” Ray said the same challenges of forging and preserving a Jewish identity resonate today with discussions of the subject of intermarriage among Jews and non-Jews.

Ray’s recent book, The Shepardic Frontier: The Reconquista and the Jewish Community in Medieval Iberia, examines the transition of Jewish communities from Muslim to Christian Spain during the High Middle Ages.

Aslan said the notion that Andalusia was a paragon of harmony is incomplete since the will of the religious majority often meant persecution of minorities at various times in Spanish history.

In fact, Aslan said, it’s impossible to have a discussion of interfaith community relations in medieval Spain or in the contemporary United States without considering the role of “power dynamics,” or the relationship of the majority to the minority. Aslan, an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, is the author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam.

Panel members also responded to questions from audience members, who pondered the future of interfaith relations among Jews, Muslims, and Christians, and wondered whether religious harmony is possible in the U.S. or elsewhere.

Alvarez said that for the most part, people around the world desire many of the same things in life: a quality education, meaningful family time, decent public transportation. But she added that the average middle class Moroccan citizen knows more about Western culture than the average American knows about Morocco.

Aslan said he believes that the arts are a much better arbiter of cultural impact. “So when we talk about Andalusia, we should look to it in the realm of arts and culture, not religion or politics. Art has the power to break down the boundaries and identities that separate us.”