When President Donald Trump first signed the executive order that put into effect the country’s travel ban, he incited widespread outrage against what many believe was a blatant act of religious discrimination.
But recently we have been noticeably silent on the case against religious discrimination. Despite the religious undertones of the travel ban, the problem is often treated as an issue of mistaken identity rather than the systemic targeting of whole populations for their personal beliefs and affiliations.
Yet more fundamental to the debate is the nature of our human identity and dignity.
My U.S. boycott
At the start of the ban, I was doing research for my thesis exploring the cross-cultural nature of religious thought with the aim to understand the nature, role and importance of beliefs in everyday work situations. I was in an opportune position to reflect on the meaning of religious diversity in the public sphere.
My reflections led me to resist religious discrimination along with thousands of academics who had also taken a stand on the issue. I withdrew a paper on my thesis research from a management conference and decided to boycott all future conference travel to the U.S.
The true issue at stake is an essential aspect of human experience, referred to as religiousness. Prominent scholars such as Peter Hill, Kenneth Pargament, and Linda Mercadante tell us that it doesn’t matter whether you consider yourself religious or spiritual, we all base our lives on ideas we consider to be significant or sacred.
It is more important to appreciate this transcendent aspect of who we are than to label the religion to which we belong.
By accepting the travel ban discourse, we presume that the political and ideological ideas of terrorism are somehow directly tied to an intimate aspect of our daily experience: our faith or the spiritual side of our lives.
We are more same than different
Through interviews of people from the world’s major faith traditions, my goal was to understand the nature of religious thought in work life. I found that everyday religious beliefs are based on common human experience rather than ideological difference.
Crucial situations — what I refer to as “work-related existential uncertainties” — sometimes force us to question who we are in front of others and why we’re living a certain way. Our self-image may be threatened, or important relationships may be strained. We may need to rethink our career path, or resolve issues in the practice of our work.
Religious difference is rooted in the beliefs and values that are configured differently based on the culture we grew up in. Yet they are applied to the same dilemmas that we all face.
At the core, we are more the same than we are different. Since people share the same basic needs and problems in life, our religious ideas are all connected in some way at a deeper level.
I have the privilege to participate in cross-border collaboration and the perks of conference travel. But I was compelled to reconsider whether I should accept a benefit not afforded to large segments of the population because of a basic aspect of their humanity.
We share a deeper connection
In my research I also discovered the types of religio-spritual beliefs associated with people’s common experiences. Quite a few religions see observances as having an important role in bringing transcendence to work experience. Theistic faiths include a supreme being who has a conscious role in dispensing moral principles and judgements. Eastern traditions base the quest for human enlightenment within an impersonal universe of cause and effect.
Several cultures uphold distinct views of humankind as having a specially appointed dignity and autonomy. People see others as being part of the same created family, or having a shared connection with the divine. These beliefs about humanity justify the practice of respect, justice, charity, reconciliation, and other higher virtues.
As I spoke with others about the travel ban, classmates and colleagues confided that they had given up on attending U.S. conferences and applying to U.S. positions long ago — even before the travel ban.
The persistent threat of being profiled, hassled, and jailed creates a greater ethical challenge than the presidential order presents on the surface. Although advocacy by the academic community dwells mainly on the benefits of cross-border collaboration, more fundamental is the notion of fairness and objectivity in the academic enterprise.
Academia is one of the few truly global communities, one that upholds universal values based on equality. It maintains its legitimacy through bestowing merit to a person’s work regardless of nationality, politics or religion.
In today’s increasingly competitive environment for academic employment, conference acceptance and participation are important signals to others of the quality of a scholar’s research program. Those who already face impediments due to geographic, language or financial barriers are now further ostracized.
Typical of many who are oppressed in one way or another, they are also silenced. Raising one’s voice about privileges afforded unevenly to others can seem undignified, embarrassing and risky.
We must actualize genuine faith
While writing my thesis I was also reading about perhaps the most notorious convergence of business and religion in history. In Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves, Adam Hochschild describes how the abolition of slavery was incited through the valiant efforts of a small group of Quaker and evangelical Christians.
But the reality of slavery was that millions of upstanding religious people stood idly by and were complicit in its business. Ministers held ownership shares in slavery operations, including John Newton, who admitted the evil of his ways thirty-four years after becoming an Anglican clergyman, and well after composing the beloved hymn Amazing Grace.
Religiousness is not just about believing. In my interviews, I discovered that Brenda Dervin’s concept of sense-making is important to actualize religious and spiritual practice. To be truly religious, we need awareness of how our beliefs connect us to something higher and offer something better than the “common sense” of the majority.
Religio-spiritual beliefs are only effective when we have constructed the mental associations that allow us to internalize and contextualize them. Genuine faith is not blind: as we make deeper sense of it, faith should be enriching, encompassing, and enlivening.
Here at home, governments are doing the same thing as the Trump regime by imposing restrictions on groups whose religious beliefs are unpopular. Communities are being excluded from accessing public services in Québec or practicing their profession as law graduates.
We must fight for the silent minority
While there are many academics working proactively to reduce barriers, our global community needs to seriously consider the silent minority — those who have no voice or access due to systematic exclusion. For academic associations, this could mean reduced membership fees, virtual presentation formats, and alternative options for dissemination of research.
Religious discrimination is propelled by a view that paints all religious associations as inherently dangerous, or at least negative, intrusive, and unnecessary. Especially when certain beliefs appear foreign or offensive, religiousness is considered something to be tolerated, accommodated, or eliminated.
Unlike gender and cultural diversity, the religious aspects of diversity are rarely discussed as valuable to societal well-being or organizational performance.
In a world where we are increasingly pressured to compromise our integrity or dehumanize our relationships, religious diversity is a rich resource for personal resilience and shared inspiration. It is common ground we have good reasons to fight for.