Mention Muslim and Jew in the same breath and many Americans immediately think of the Middle East and irreconcilable differences. But at a small liberal arts school in Atlanta, Georgia, students and faculty are using religion to bring people together. In fact, Oglethorpe University's Muslim Student Alliance asked Larry Schall, the school's Jewish president, to become its faculty advisor.
The idea came up during a lunch conversation between Mustafa Abdullah and some of his friends. "We were talking about ideas," he recalls, "throwing things out there, and one of them said, 'Hey there's President Schall. Why don't you go talk to him about being our advisor?'" Abdullah thinks the student who made the suggestion did so as a joke, but Schall took the idea seriously and accepted.
After two years at Oglethorpe, Schall says he felt that getting the university community more involved in religion was important. "When I came to Oglethorpe, there was very little sign of religious life. While our students, I would say, are fairly religious, they were religious alone."
That's now changing. Last year, the Campus Crusade, a Christian group active at many schools, began a chapter at Oglethorpe. Schall encouraged Nathaniel Goldman, a freshman from Atlanta, to form the Jewish Student Union. Goldman, in turn, got his friend, Mustafa Abdullah, to organize the Muslim group, which he now heads.
There are only about a dozen Muslims on campus, but almost 80 students are members of the Muslim Student Alliance. Abdullah says that's fine. "Our premise is understanding Islam," he explains. "So regardless of you being Muslim, or Christian, or Jewish, or Hindu, if you are actively wanting to be a part of recruiting people to come speak, or setting up things or what not, then you are basically a part of the group."
Like Abdullah's group, Goldman says, the Jewish Student Union is not just about religion. "We don't want to proselytize but just want to let people know what Judaism is about."
To help each other understand more about their religions, the Muslim Student Alliance, the Jewish Student Union, the Campus Crusade, and the Catholic students group hold monthly interfaith meetings, which seem sometimes more like parties.
At a recent interfaith meeting, the Muslim students showed a documentary movie about the life of the Prophet Mohamed. For refreshments, the Jewish students prepared food that is typically served during a Passover seder, and the leader of the Campus Crusade baked an Easter cake using an old family recipe.
The student groups at Oglethorpe hold religious as well as social gatherings, but they have shied away from political discussions about the Middle East, Israel and Palestine. Mustafa Abdullah says he feels such discussions would detract from the group's mission to help others understand Islam. "Politics is a totally, totally different thing," he insists. "We are primarily driven to understanding Islam through the interfaith concept. And a lot of these conflicts do not have to do with faith at the core."
But Muslim Student Alliance advisor and Oglethorpe president, Larry Schall, believes political discussions about Arab and Jew and the Middle East are inevitable. "I'd be surprised if the students didn't push this further. They're talking about bringing speakers to campus and talking about issues. And they think about politics and they talk about politics so I'd be surprised if we didn't go there." And perhaps, he adds, when they do deal with those hard issues, the students will have the tolerance and understanding to find common ground.