October 10, 2007: Letters

Lessons from Spain

The Old(er) Guard

The role of the RCAs

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Lessons from Spain

After reading “Lessons from Spain: a Shared Journey” (Perspective, July 18), I was surprised that so many people seem to accept religious intolerance as the default position. Convivencia Spain seems extraordinary. Why should it be?

A degree of intolerance might be understandable if one’s religious beliefs were acquired through one’s life experiences or through thoughtful reading. But that is not the case. We belong to the religion we do simply because religious beliefs were imposed upon us during early childhood. Simply, at one time or another one of our ancestors converted from something to something else. Rarely was the conversion heartfelt, but once the changeover was made, the children were brought up in the new religion, and their children after them, passing on the “faith” from one generation to the next. Since we are not responsible for our religious affiliations, why do we defend “our” religion and denigrate those of others?

Even though each of the three Abrahamic religions is exclusivist and insists that the other two are “wrong” (or worse), that is not the real reason for present-day religious prejudice. In fact, religious doctrine has nothing to do with it. Rather, what we are witnessing is simple tribalism, with religion functioning as a tribal entity pitting “us” against “them.” We are dealing with Capulets and Montagues, Hatfields and McCoys, rather than with theological differences.

I would like to make a further observation. One speaks about different “faiths” but as far as I am concerned, faith has to be earned. One has faith in an individual if that individual has proved reliable. Such faith is a proper response to experience. This is entirely different from blind faith, the sort that is instilled by religious authority.

Once we realize that our religious faith is not truly a personal matter but originates from the hapless submission to authority; that our religious affiliations are fortuitous; that the real engine of intolerance is tribalism, not theological differences; and that we are all made of exactly the same raw material, then toleration rather than intolerance will become the default position. There will continue to be genuine economic and political conflicts, but religion will play no part in them.

Santa Fe, N.M.


I enjoyed the July 18 Perspective comparing the recollections of a Muslim and a Jewish student on a recent tour to Spain. There was a lot of good in the essays. It was refreshing to see the desire for moderate Islam expressed by Shagufta Ahmed *07, and I hope she is successful in advancing a positive message about a moderate Islam that does not treat women as second-class citizens and abhors “honor killings.” I enjoyed Marina Olevsky ’09’s article, too — I thought that the unwillingness of Muslim students to answer questions posed to them shows that there is still a considerable gulf between a society that celebrates free enquiry and one for whom a vast swath of questions are not to be discussed.

There is indeed a serious disconnection from reality even among Muslims who are American citizens. A recent Pew survey showed that only 40 percent of Muslims in the United States say that groups of Arabs carried out the Sept. 11 attacks. And 15 percent of American Muslims aged 15–29 say that suicide bombing can sometimes or often be justified. Why on earth shouldn’t Princeton students be able to discuss this between them?

My biggest problem with the article, however, was its premise: that there was a golden age in Spain in which Muslims and Jews coexisted. As Ms. Olevsky correctly points out, the Jews in Al-Andalus were not equal citizens. They were dhimmis, second-class citizens with considerable financial and other burdens for not being Muslim. Dhimmitude, then and now, is not Islamic adjustment to coexistence and pluralism — it is a system in which all non-Muslims are to be treated worse than blacks were in apartheid South Africa. Is this really the model we are to follow for peaceful coexistence? No, thank you.

Can moderate Muslims like Ms. Ahmed openly advocate a change in Shariah to allow for true coexistence and religious toleration? If so, then there may yet be hope for peace.

Baltimore, Md.

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The Old(er) Guard

Responding to Jeff Adler ’87’s posting (Letterbox, July 22, PAW Online) on what one may expect as the Old Guard in future Reunions, it is true that the age of the Old Guard should be increasing. I have been to 45 of 48 Class of ’59’s reunions. I have noted how the 50th reunion’s attendance has grown over the years in the P-rade, obviously due to better living and medical care. I look back to my first reunion after graduation in 1962, when the Class of 1912 was having its 50th. (One sign that caught my attention: “If you think we look funny, we look just like the Class of 1862 looked at our graduation!”) The Class of ’12 had a special aura, and it was no coincidence that one of its members led the P-rade for five years before he died. Some classes have an aura, others don’t, so it is not strictly a mathematical exercise! Just be healthy and carry the ambition to carry that silver cane one day!

Reno, Nev.
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The role of the RCAs

While reading the article on the new four-year residential colleges (feature, July 18), I noticed there was no mention of residential college advisers and the roles, if any, they would play in the lives of future undergraduates. As a former Butler College RCA, I cherished the relationships I formed with my advisees (’zees, as we called them) and appreciated the chance to help them through their early years at Princeton.

Despite having a lot of fun with my ’zees, I had to be the “responsible upperclassman” at times and remind them about common courtesies or mediate their roommate disputes. I am curious about who will fulfill these roles in the new four-year system. As far as I am aware, the 10 graduate students assigned to each college will not have the responsibilities of an RCA or an assistant master (currently one of the two graduate students who manage the RCAs in a given college). RCAs and the assistant masters are so important because they are a front-line support system for underclassmen; due to their expertise of being experienced Prince-ton students, they can help underclassmen understand the perspective of faculty and vice versa. Often times, the RCA is the first person an underclassman will come to with a problem.

In welcoming changes to the current system, I hope we do not forget to keep in place elements like the RCA and assistant master positions that have worked so well.

Westchester, Ill.

Editor’s note: Kathleen Deignan, dean of undergraduate students, says that residential college advisers continue to play an important role, “serving as mentors and providing advice and guidance as new students make the transition to Princeton.” They are supported by the dean and the director of student life of each college.
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