New leadership at the Boniuk Institute

The start of the school year brings new leadership to Rice’s Boniuk Institute for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance. Paula Sanders, vice provost for academic affairs and professor of history, has become  the institute’s interim director, and Islam scholar and Rice alumna Zahra Jamal ‘00 is the institute’s associate director for community engagement. Their new roles began July 1.

Paula Sanders, left, and Zahra Jamal have taken leadership roles at Rice's Boniuk Institute for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

Sanders and Jamal are longtime collaborators. Sanders was Jamal’s adviser when Jamal was a Rice undergraduate double-majoring in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies and Slavic studies.

Sanders takes the helm from co-directors Elaine Howard Ecklund, the Autrey Professor of Sociology and director of Rice’s Religion and Public Life Program, and Don Morrison, professor of philosophy and classical studies. For two years, Ecklund and Morrison shaped the institute’s research, education and engagement efforts in Houston and beyond on issues of inter- and intrareligious understanding and collaboration and religious diversity and literacy.

“We’ve been able to ramp things up really quickly with Zahra coming onboard because of the tremendous groundwork laid by Elaine and Don,” said Sanders, who is a historian of the medieval Islamic world. “They provided a very strong foundation, and we’re building on that foundation.”

Sanders’ research focuses on the history of the Fatimid dynasty and its legacy, the history of Jewish communities in the lands of Islam in the Middle Ages and the history of Cairo.

Jamal’s role is to foster opportunities to engage the public in religious literacy through the arts, service projects and educational outreach. She said the return to Rice provides a welcome challenge to translate knowledge into action. “I’ve always had one foot in academia and the other foot in the ‘real world,’ so to speak,” Jamal said. “I’ve tried to create a career in which I can live out my values and be able to marry those two things — the acquisition of knowledge and the application of it — in order to leave the world improved.”

Prior to her new job, Jamal founded and directed the Civil Islam Initiative at University of Chicago and the Central Asia and International Development Initiative at Michigan State University. She has taught at Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Chicago, Michigan State University and Palmer Trinity, a college preparatory school. She has consulted for the United Nations, the State Department, the Aga Khan Development Network, the Swiss Development Cooperation and the Aspen Institute. Jamal received a Ph.D. in social anthropology and Middle Eastern studies from Harvard in 2008.

At the institute, Jamal hopes to establish “opportunities for inclusivity” where people of all faiths and no faith can come together on the basis of shared values and common causes, such as poverty, homelessness, violence and human trafficking. “Religion oftentimes comes to a fore in the media as being a divisive factor, when in fact it need not be, especially because it motivates so much peace, harmony, justice and positivity in the world,” Jamal said. “I think this is a prime occasion for the Boniuk Institute to offer opportunities for dialogue and action, to highlight religious tolerance as critical to the future of a peaceful world and to unpack the ways in which religion brings people together in a collaborative, cooperative spirit.”

Sanders echoed Jamal’s approach, underscoring the Boniuk Institute’s role in advancing research beyond secular understandings of religious tolerance. “When we think about religious tolerance in the United States, in particular, we tend to default to secular frameworks,” Sanders said. “There are actually frameworks of tolerance within faith traditions, but sometimes we need to look hard for them. They’re not always immediately obvious, but they are no less robust than the secular framework. Part of what we want to do at the Boniuk Institute is the kind of research and advocacy that reminds people that the secular state or a secular society is not the only framework for true religious diversity and tolerance.”

“I think this is a prime occasion for the Boniuk Institute to offer opportunities for dialogue and action, to highlight religious tolerance as critical to the future of a peaceful world and to unpack the ways in which religion brings people together in a collaborative, cooperative spirit.” — Zahra Jamal

Laura Johnson will continue to serve as the Boniuk Institute’s associate director of operations.

This fall the institute will host and co-sponsor a variety of events at Rice and throughout Texas, including a talk in early November by famous Germany philosopher Rainer Forst. For more information about the institute’s research, events and programming, see http://boniuk.rice.edu.

The Boniuk Institute was founded in 2013 with a gift from Houston philanthropists Dr. Milton and Laurie Boniuk. It is an expansion of the Boniuk Center that was created at Rice in 2004. The Boniuk Center was dedicated to fostering tolerance among people of all and no faiths and to studying the conditions in which tolerance and intolerance flourish. The Boniuk Institute’s expanded mission focuses on research, education and community engagement.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.