Religious scholars, practitioners and interfaith experts gathered at UCF recently for an Interfaith Forum hosted by the Global Perspectives office. The event and luncheon drew 150 registrants to the Pegasus Ballroom in the Student Union.

Doug Evans, a humanities lecturer for UCF’s Philosophy Department, spoke about the importance of interfaith dialogue in America, particularly between the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He urged students interested in learning about these issues to explore UCF’s major in religion and cultural studies, or its minor in philosophy, religion and popular culture.

The “Three Wise Guys” from a local radio program discussed the role for religion in fighting human trafficking. Rabbi Steven W. Engel, the Rev. Bryan G. Fulwider and Imam Muhammad Musri discuss interfaith issues every Tuesday evening on their show “Friends Talking Faith” on 90.7 WMFE-FM.

The men stressed the importance of using “good religion” as a tool to combat human trafficking. They also discussed instances of male dominance and slavery in their respective religious texts and urged the audience to challenge these views. These opinions, they argued, contribute to the culture of human trafficking, and should be countered.

The luncheon keynote speaker, Zainab Al-Suwaij, discussed “Interfaith Dialogue Post-9/11.” As the co-founder and executive director of the American Islamic Congress, Al-Suwaij promotes interfaith discussions about politics and culture in America and abroad. After chronicling the religious oppression she and many others encountered in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, she described the tolerance, diversity and freedom she experienced after moving to the United States.

“Life was good… until 9/11 happened,” she said.

Al-Suwaij said the oppression she experienced in the United States after 9/11 was like living in Iraq again. However, she said the power of human-to-human interaction is stronger than hate. She mentioned that she was stunned by the support of her colleagues who all came to work one day wearing head scarves to support her.   

It was this type of interaction that led Al-Suwaij to help found the American Islamic Congress, she explained. She said she saw people of different faiths struggling to open up to each other, so she has since been determined to enable people to share their experiences and feelings in sincere conversation.

Although much progress has been made in the attempt to increase interfaith dialogue, Al-Suwaij described many troubles that still exist. Among these were the media’s emphasis on extremist groups, the prevalence of stereotypes, and beliefs that one religion trumps another. Al-Suwaij lamented that these ailments were common in America, and proposed respect as the principal cure. For any of her efforts to have permanence, she said, no matter how long it takes, “everyone has to feel as though we are appreciated on a personal level.”

In addition to the Global Perspectives Office, sponsors for the presentation included the UCF Diplomacy Program, UCF Middle Eastern Studies Program, UCF Kurdish Political Studies Initiatives, UCF Global Peace and Security Studies Program, UCF Al Ghazali Islamic Studies Program, UCF Human Trafficking Awareness Program, UCF Prince Mohammad Bin Fahd Program for Strategic Research and Studies, UCF Department of Philosophy, Chastang Charitable Foundation, UCF Political Science Department, UCF College of Sciences, UCF International Services Center, Islamic Society of Central Florida, UCF LIFE and the Global Connections Foundation.