Feraca (center) challenged the panelists and the audience to think of access to clean water and good food as a human rights issue.
In the spring of 2002, Wisconsin Public Radio host Jean Feraca stood alone atop a hilltop in Cappadocia at midday, enveloped by countless voices calling the faithful to prayer.
Five years later, 5,500 miles away, Feraca was part of a group at UW-Madison who considered a call for grant proposals from the Social Science Research Council, a not-for-profit organization that supports research on "important" public issues. The offer was simple -- the Council was looking to fund projects aimed at connecting university communities with the general public on issues related to "Islam and Muslims in world contexts."
Ten months later, in 2008, Inside Islam: Dialogues and Debate was born. Designed to confront stereotypes about Islam and Muslims, the project combines traditional and new media -- a blog and Feraca's radio show, Here on Earth: Radio Without Borders -- to challenge perceptions about Islam and highlight the religion's diversity. The blog is updated daily, and new radio shows air twice a month. To date, the project has produced over 400 blog posts and 100 radio shows.
Covering such topics as Islamic heavy metal and punk bands, democratic traditions within Islam and the practice of polygamy and Shamanism, the show and blog have attempted to portray the diversity of Islam without whitewashing it. Seven months ago, I was hired as a radio producer for the show.
On March 6, "Inside Islam" culminated in a panel discussion about the link between faith and environmentalism. Billed as an "interfaith conversation on eco-consciousness and activism," the panel featured representatives from Islam, Christianity, Judaism and the Baha'i faith.
Feraca says that the interfaith aspect of the panel reflects the project's attempt in the last year to highlight Islam in conversation with other faiths.
"The conference [brings] the virtual community around 'Inside Islam' into real time and space," Feraca says. "And I think the choice of green faith is a very good one, because it is central to the concerns of secular society. But faith can actually strengthen the environmental movement and also connect humans with nature. I think that's been an ideological problem in the West, this divorce of people from nature."
"Inside Islam" writer and conference organizer, Colin Christopher, says the topic lends itself naturally to interfaith dialogue.
"The environment affects everyone whether you're part of a faith community or not," Christopher says. "And there's a motivation in faith communities that other communities might not have -- a motivation that goes beyond being judged by human beings."
Over 100 people attended the event at the UW's Pyle Center, which featured Huda Alkaff, president of Wisconsin Interfaith Power and Light; Tim Mackie, pastor at Blackhawk Church; Don Quintenz, director of education and land management at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center; and Laurie Zimmerman, rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim.
Anna Gade, and associate professor at UW-Madison whose research focuses on Islamic environmental movements in Indonesia, also gave a talk.
The panelists discussed the concept of environmental stewardship from the perspective of their respective faiths.
"God has ordered us to be viceroys on earth, and has given us a mission and obligation to be trustees of the earth," Alkaff said, referring to the Islamic tradition. "We are held responsible and will be held accountable for our actions."
Zimmerman added that the Jewish faith bestows on its followers a "sacred obligation" to protect the earth; Quintenz characterized the obligation as a "spiritual duty."
Mackie, who adopted Christianity when he was 20, said faith changed his relationship with the environment.
"I had this core conviction that this was not just inanimate matter, or random molecules," he said. "It's a work of art from a being who's obviously very creative, who enjoys color and form."
The conversation also focused on the link between social justice and environmental justice, as Feraca challenged the panelists and the audience to think of access to clean water and good food as a human rights issue. She also encouraged the group not to think of humans as separate from the rest of nature.
"We think of nature as cordoned off, it's special, it's out there, it's the place you go to get away from people, to get away from social issues," Feraca said. "There's a need for people to be understood as essentially part of nature, not just the spoilers of nature."
Although the panel was billed as a culminating event in the "Inside Islam" project, the future of the project is still uncertain. Feraca will be retiring from Wisconsin Public Radio at the end of March, and the project's funding runs out soon. Funding has already been extended three times.
Nevertheless, Feraca plans to do one more "Inside Islam" radio show, and blogging will continue at least through May. The blog's 20,000 monthly readers in 70 different countries will make sure of that.
Feraca says the project has lived up to its mission.
"One of our goals is to replace fear of the other with fascination for the other," she says. "But I've seen the error of thinking in those terms because fascination implies a kind of exoticism. In this case, I'd say we've replaced fear of the other with familiarity."