Saudi Arabian scholars take part in interfaith human rights, ethics symposium


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Dr. Erik Larson (top row, fourth from left) stands with Saudi Arabian scholars who came to FIU to participate in a symposium on human rights and other issues.

The Department of Religious Studies welcomed 15 Saudi Arabian scholars to FIU last week to participate in “The First Symposium: Religions, Human Rights and Global Ethics” from Aug. 18-20.

During the symposium, held in conjunction with the Western Studies Institute, scholars from Saudi Arabia discussed a number of topics with FIU scholars and members of the South Florida religious community, including the role of education in human rights awareness, protecting the environment and common ethics shared between different religions.

The visiting scholars, professors from major universities in Saudi Arabia, also had the opportunity to get a first-hand look at how religious communities function in the United States.

“In Islam, religion and state are very closely related. There’s a state religion and they feel everything should be guided by religion. Here in the United States, we believe in freedom of religion, that everyone should have an equal standing,” said Erik Larson, chair and associate professor in Department of Religious Studies. “These were some of the issues we found really interesting to discuss and talk about – a pluralistic society versus a religious society.”

There were some contentious moments during the early stages of the symposium; however, as the participants and guests touched upon sensitive issues and challenges that exist in both countries – such as women’s rights in Saudi Arabia and abuses of freedom in the United States. But doing so opened up the dialogue to a level that allowed the participants to openly and honestly share their perspectives.

“Instead of shrinking away from the issues, we handled it as forthrightly and directly as we could and from that point on. Ee were all able to learn and really tackle the issues. We didn’t hold back on each other,” Larson said. “In order to speak freely, you have to trust that the other person is really going to listen. That, in the end, was a bigger success than just sharing the academic information.”

To conclude the symposium, a panel featuring representatives from Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities in South Florida spoke about the importance of interfaith cooperation and dialogue – particularly among members of the three Abrahamic faiths.

After the symposium came to a close, the scholars presented Dr. Larson with a document and statement with a list of resolved conclusions, including the importance of dialogue among all Abrahamic religions in achieving peace, the existence of common ethics among the Abrahamic religions and the condemnation of terrorism in all its forms. Each of the Saudi Arabian scholars signed the document, as did Larson.

“We came to an end, but we’re also at a beginning,” Larson said. “We hope we can do more of these conferences, learn more about each other and continue to learn how we study religion and how religion influences our lives. Hopefully, there will be more fruitful exchanges like this in the future.”

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