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Walking in Each Other’s Religious Shoes

by Eric Mazur, Guest Columnist

This past May (2012), the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles revoked a local man’s personalized (“vanity”) license plates because they could be considered offensive. The license plates said “ICUHAJI”; the first time I saw them, I was behind the car at a red light, and while waiting I tried to decipher the message. My first thought—a natural one since my father passed away in a local hospital—was that I was behind a proud Muslim who worked in an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and who had made the pilgrimage (Hajj) to Mecca. Indeed, many vanity plates in the area proudly proclaim their owners’ theology. But then I saw the accompanying bumper sticker: “God bless our troops, especially our snipers.”

There is no doubt that among our most precious freedoms is the freedom of speech. But as the saying goes, “Your right to throw a punch ends at the tip of my nose.” As any college student who has taken a constitutional law class knows, our freedoms (even religion) are limited; you cannot perform human sacrifice, even in the name of religion, even on the willing. And in this case, the proverbial end of my nose is the threatening context in which the vanity plates were placed.

Let’s set aside how the owner of these plates—who claimed to be supporting his fellow soldiers—was condemning 3 to 4 million pious Muslims (including roughly 12,000 American Muslims) who annually make the religiously obligated pilgrimage. And let’s set aside his claim that many American (presumably non-Muslim) soldiers use the term “Haji” derisively to refer to all Arabs, whether or not they have made the pilgrimage, and whether or not they are even Muslim, or Christian, Sikh, Hindu, or Baha‘i. And let’s set aside the fact that the man had first requested (and, thankfully, been denied) plates that read “HAJIKLR.”

Even if we accept the owner’s suggestion that he isn’t Islamaphobic, he still seems to have missed a basic lesson from childhood, one that can work wonders in an increasingly diverse culture where different world views (including but not limited to religion) are regularly a part of intergroup conflict: How would you feel if it were you?

Put the shoe on the other foot. Walk a mile in another’s shoes. What if the plates had said “ICUXN,” and were accompanied by a bumper sticker in Arabic? Surely the DMV would not have let the owner retain the plates for four years (as was the case here); surely someone would have complained sooner.

Figuratively “putting the shoe on the other foot” can work wonders in disputes over religion. Imagine, for a moment, if every morning your child were required to read from the Mahabharata, or the Qur‘an. Or to pray in Hebrew, or Japanese. All of a sudden, school prayer and reading scriptures may not seem like such great ideas. And what if the graduation prayer, or the pre-football game prayer, were to Odin, or Gaia, or Zarathustra?

The man with the offensive plates just needed a lesson in being in another’s shoes; in this case, a Muslim’s, but throughout American history, it could have been those of an adherent of almost any religion.

The ability to imagine yourself in another’s shoes is hard, but one that can be learned. The Center for the Study of Religious Freedom, which it was my pleasure to direct during Paul Rasor’s sabbatical this past spring semester, has a long history—particularly in the NEXUS program—of bringing people together to learn from and about each other. During my brief time there, I similarly sought to bring together college students (particularly those in leadership positions of religious clubs and organizations), along with clergy and lay professionals and “student life” administrators, to discuss issues related to being religious on campus. We spent four sessions trying to put ourselves in each other’s shoes, and had four fascinating conversations.

The Center, located as it is at an undergraduate liberal arts college, is uniquely situated to teach students (and adults) how to put oneself in the “religious shoes” of another person, by letting us see, teach, and learn from each other about some of the most important—and therefore most contentious—issues in our shrinking society.

Pity the owner of those vanity plates wasn’t a student here.

Note: Dr. Eric Mazur, Gloria and David Furman Professor of Judaic Studies at Virginia Wesleyan, served as Acting Director of the Center during the spring semester 2012 while Paul Rasor was on sabbatical.

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