Tamara Sonn, the Kenan professor of humanities and religious studies at the College of William and Mary, has established her position at the forefront of efforts to promote religious tolerance and understanding in the world. Her modus operandi: Defuse fear.
“Religious intolerance is a major problem,” she said. “Intolerance often comes from fear, and by learning about the religious other, by working with the religious other, the fear dissipates. It’s replaced by knowledge and understanding. Tolerance is the result.”
During a recent videotaped interview, Sonn spoke about her own identity in terms of values embedded in the U.S. Constitution and provided insight into how she has attempted to further the influence of those values. Those values, she said, derive from the concept of the equality of all human beings that leads to recognition of rights for individuals.
“As an American, my identity is those values,” she said. “Like most Americans, I have multiple ethnicities in the deep recesses of background, from even before the Revolution, so I don’t have the leisure of falling back on some ethnicity other than being American.”
As a scholar who has studied multiple religions and multiple world histories, she has learned that similar values are more likely to be present across traditions than within traditions.
“I figure the best way for me to promote my purposes is to find as many people as I can across the cultures and across religions so that we can recognize each other and have strength in numbers and possibly drown out the voices of intolerance and hatred in all traditions,” she said.
Sonn, whose areas of scholarly specialization include Islamic intellectual history and contemporary issues in Islam, has written numerous books, including Interpreting Islam: Bandali Jawzi’s Islamic Intellectual History, Islam and the Question of Minotiries, Comparing Religions through Law: Judaism and Islam and Judaism and Islam in Practice, among other titles. In addition, she is past-president of the American Council for the Study of Islamic Societies, is a member of the academic advisory council for the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University and a member of the editorial boards of Muslim World, American Journal for Islamic Social Science and other publications.