Three Little Rock community leaders and UA Little Rock alumni shared their efforts to promote religious tolerance in Arkansas during a Sept. 1 community event.
The panel, “Together Little Rock,” was hosted by the Middle Eastern Studies Program at UA Little Rock and organized by students who participated in a study abroad trip to Spain this summer. The students wanted to connect what they learned in Spain with what community leaders in Little Rock are doing to promote religious tolerance.
Panel members included Mayor Frank Scott Jr., Dr. Sara Tariq, co-founder of the Madina Institute and board member for the Interfaith Center, the Hon. Annabelle Imber Tuck, board member for the Interfaith Center and Congregation B’Nai Israel, and UA Little Rock students and study abroad participants Torri Richardson and Nick Junker.
The course, Islam and Migration in Modern and Historical Spain, included topics like identity, religious head coverings, demographic change, and immigration. Students met with non-government organizations who work with Muslim refugees, visited historical sites of inter-religious cooperation and conflict, and learned about government programs that “help heal past wounds and build bridges today.”
“The students wanted to connect what they learned studying in Spain to the challenges our own city faces with religious tolerance, and they wanted to learn about what was happening in Little Rock to address those challenges,” said Dr. Rebecca Glazier, a professor in the School of Public Affairs who led the study abroad trip. “It was inspiring to see them share what they learned and to also hear community leaders talk about great programs in our community, like those hosted by the Arkansas Interfaith Center.”
These events include interfaith dialogue events, a summer friendship camp for elementary school students, and monthly dinners for people of different faiths. Dr. Tariq also remarked on how even small events like these can be meaningful in making religious minorities feel like they are no longer in the margins.
“I’m a co-founder of the Madina Institute, a mosque that opened five years ago,” she said. “One of the major foundational pillars is interfaith understanding. The only path to peace that I have ever found effective is through interfaith understanding. It occurs conversation by conversation. I’ve been in Little Rock since third grade, and post 9/11, I think you all know what we felt. We’ve always lived in the margins in the south, and 9/11 made us want to hide and made us very defensive. It also created urgency for me. It’s important for us as leaders to help people of all faiths and bring everyone together for these collective conversations.”
At 72, Tuck said it’s taken her a long time to learn that promoting religious tolerance happens person to person and through small projects that positively impact other people’s lives.
“Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week, and that is really very sad to me,” Tuck said. “One of the biggest problems I see is lack of education. We live in a part of the United States that has been basically populated by Christians, but we are becoming more diverse religion wise. It’s about educating people on different religions. I don’t pretend to know the answer to the mystery of life, but I know every one of us has a soul. Our congregation is sponsoring an Afghani family with Trinity Episcopal. It feels good to help another family integrate into a different culture.”
For the city to truly embody religious tolerance, Mayor Scott said he follows three rules:
Respect and love one another
Responsibility to demonstrate peace
“It is my honor and mission to truly ensure the City of Little Rock is an inclusive city, and we are unapologetic about our intention to include,” Mayor Scott said. “We are a melting pot of many different people, religions, sectors, and genders. I have participated in the worship practice of every major religion in the city. A true leader should understand that while there is a separation of religion and state, there is no separation of citizens. We focus on unity and facing real issues. As an alum of this institution, what you see today is Little Rock at its finest. Little Rock is a welcoming and inclusive city. We still have more work to do. We need more events like this to encourage people.”