A WELL Core event sparked outrage Wednesday after a speaker made offensive and disrespectful comments about Islam.
President Greg Jones issued an apology Thursday for the harm it caused the community.
“Meaningful and respectful disagreements lead to understanding; however, when these conversations mock, belittle or disrespect another’s beliefs or viewpoints, the result is division and fractured relationships,” Jones said. “We strive to be a community of hope where all members feel valued and have a sense of belonging, even across differences.”
The event, “Jesus in the Quran and the Bible,” sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences Faith and Academics Committee, was intended to provoke thought, exploration and conversation on important topics about faith, said Bryce Sullivan, dean of the college, in an apology email to students who attended.
The WELL Core event occurred during the last week of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. It was described as a discussion about the commonalities between Christianity and Islam.
“We will examine why the Quran elevates the Messiah Jesus more than any person,” the description said. “In this presentation, we will discover many points of connection and understanding to help in communicating effectively with Muslims.”
Magan Beynah, a Belmont senior and member of the Muslim Student Association, was excited about the event because there aren’t often Belmont-sponsored events centered around Islam, he said.
But then he received a pamphlet from the speaker that contained several statements he found offensive.
“Islam is a complex religious/political system that ultimately does not offer salvation or peace to its followers. The Muslim world is in a state of spiritual dryness, like a desert,” said the pamphlet. “Our challenge as followers of Christ is to point Muslims to the hope of Jesus.”
The speaker, Fouad Masri, is the founder of the Crescent Project, a nonprofit which provides Christians with the resources to serve “unreached Muslim people locally and globally,” according to the project’s website.
“He already had this preconceived notion...that something is wrong with Islam – that we’re missing something, when, in fact, our religion is completely fine. We’re complete. There’s nothing missing in our faith,” Beynah said.
Students' disappointment was also because of the misrepresentation of Islam to non-Muslim students, who were hoping to learn more about the intersection of Islam and Christianity.
“It made me feel really uncomfortable, because I saw people who were actually eager to learn – they had their notebooks out, they were taking notes, they were asking questions,” Beynah said. “That’s such a horrible first impression of Islam because you cannot misrepresent something and then present that to them as the first thing that they’re ever learning.”
The event could have been an opportunity to speak about Ramadan and the commonalities between the religions, but instead, they brought someone who only wanted to focus on things that were completely misrepresented, Beynah said.
Sadaf Folad, chief of diversity, equity and inclusion for Student Government Association, plans to work with University Ministries to host local sheikhs and imams to ensure an accurate discussion about how Jesus is presented in the Quran, she said.
“I just want Belmont students to recognize that this is going on,” Folad said.
Sullivan shared an apology with students who attended the event Thursday.
“All our faculty and the entire University is committed to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, and we seek to ensure that every member of our campus feels valued and that their views are respected,” Sullivan said.
“We intend only to invite speakers who serve these important goals and align with that mission, and, in this case, we failed,” he said.
MSA, which was only approved as a student organization in November 2022, shared a message on Instagram in response to the event.
“We ask Belmont University, Well Core Officers, and the Office of Ministries to all issue a statement and promise to work along with Muslim students and the greater Nashville Muslim community, religious leaders, and scholars for future events,” MSA said. “These efforts are to ensure more outstanding education, safety, and honesty for all Muslims and Non-Muslims at Belmont University.”
The Islamic Center of Nashville has made a substantial effort in recent years to develop its relations with the city’s non-Muslim community. Open invitations are extended to Belmont administration, faculty, staff and students to build bridges of understanding between the diverse communities in Nashville and the Islamic community. Several administration members have attended the events.
Belmont’s Office of Hope, Unity and Belonging will be the newest addition to the culture of Belmont University. This new office will uphold the priority to "embrace hope and inclusive excellence to reweave the social fabric," according to Belmont Communications.
“I can see that they’re trying to make things right,” Beynah said. “The only reason that we’re all trying to speak up and get their attention is because we don’t want this to ever happen in the future again.”
While there is already a vetting process for guest speakers, the president asked administration members to establish a “document of guidelines and expectations that any future Belmont guest speaker must agree to prior to being given a campus platform.”
MSA’s demand for the university’s cooperation has been met so far, which is a first step in avoiding future problematic events.
“I think there’s still a lot more room to go, and this incident is clear evidence of that,” Beynah said.
This article was written by Tessa Pendleton