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Religion and Society

Teaching Theology in Qatar

Leo D. Lefebure

In 2004 Georgetown University established a new four-year campus of the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service in Doha, Qatar (SFS-Q), offering an undergraduate education to students from the Gulf region and beyond. During the 2007-08 academic year, I taught theology courses at SFS-Q. I expected Georgetown students in Qatar to be, like those on the Main Campus, very bright and interested in learning about other religious traditions and interreligious understanding, which is a university-wide priority. While I had read about problems of religious intolerance in the Middle East and elsewhere, I had not imagined these would affect Georgetown students to a significant degree.


In the required freshman course, The Problem of God, most students were Sunni Muslims, often from a very conservative background; and there were some students from the Shia, Hindu, Christian, and Baha'i traditions. In the freshman course I offered an introduction to Jewish, Christian, and Muslim perspectives on God and discussed the interrelationships among them. The Jewish and Christian authors puzzled the Muslim students at times; but when we began discussing Islamic perspectives, intense arguments broke out in the classroom, both between Sunni and Shia students and also between more conservative and more progressive Muslim students. Intellectual discussions of differences moved quickly to emotional disputes, with heated charges: "You're not a Muslim!"


Seeking to provide alternate models for handling religious differences, I explained developments in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, including the progress made in Protestant-Catholic relations and in Jewish-Christian and Muslim-Christian relations in the United States during recent decades. Students were very concerned about the negative image of Islam in the West and were interested in relationships between Muslims and Christians in the United States. By the end of the course, the tone of discussions was notably more amicable.


In my course on Religion and Violence, where all students were Muslims, we discussed the ambiguous and often problematic role of religions in areas of conflict around the world. At one point there was an animated attack upon Jews as untrustworthy from biblical times through the time of Muhammad to the present. I explained to the young man that many in the West would make similar, over-generalized accusations that all Muslims are untrustworthy because of the terrorist attacks. We discussed the theory of the scapegoat of René Girard. As the semester progressed, students began applying the theory, acknowledging that Muslims use Jews as scapegoats and charging that Westerners use Muslims as scapegoats; the same young man later criticized Muslims who launch blanket attacks upon Jews.


In the spring semester I taught courses on World Religions Today and on Interreligious Encounter and Dialogue. Speakers from the Jewish, Buddhist, and Hindu traditions explained their religious practice, and a visiting Protestant theologian of Nigerian origin spoke about traditional African religions. Students were most interested, especially in the experiences of women in different traditions. A woman who is studying to be a rabbi particularly impressed them, as she shared her difficulties with Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem who did not approve of her studies. Muslim women found it reassuring to learn of the challenges that women have experienced in all the major religious traditions, especially since they have often felt that Islam was singled out for mistreatment of women.


At the end of the year, a Muslim woman from Qatar noted that all her earlier teachers had been negative toward all other religions; after two semesters at Georgetown, including two courses with me, she was now more positive toward other traditions. However, now when she said anything positive about Jews, others would accuse her of being an infidel.