Imam Ahmad Sheqeirat

A late follow-on to a terrific event:

On April 11, a group of lawyers put on the second in their series called a “Civil Discourse Event.” The notion behind the series hosted by the St. Thomas More Society is to select topics that may get some people hot under the collar but then to provide commentary and facts—actual facts!—that may help reduce the temperature.

The April event was titled “Islamic American Relations: Getting Along in the 21st Century.”

Moderated by former Court of Appeals Judge Patrick Irvine, the evening at ASU Law School nudged attendees toward a greater understanding of the issue. (And to be clear, there is no hyphen between the terms, which would suggest that Muslims are on one side and Americans are on the other. The title referred to those who are Islamic and American.)

The speakers were Imam Ahmad Sheqeirat (as described by event organizer Christopher Pattock) “one of the so-called ‘Flying Imams’ who made the national news by being kicked off a U.S. Airways in Minnesota about a year ago simply for praying.” The other speaker was best-selling author Chris Lowney, an expert on Islam.

Lawyer Alan Tavassoli opened the evening with a history presentation delineating our ebb and flow in regard to the separation of church and state. As he and the record made clear, “America is a nation of disagreements.”

The rest of the evening was committed to the conclusion that we need not be disagreeable. In that endeavor, the speakers were successful.

The Tempe imam provided a useful discussion of important tenets of Islam. Among the significant insights he shared was an analysis of what “secularism” often means to American Muslims who emigrated here from another country.

“Many Muslims were raised in Jordan or Turkey, where secularism is militant, and where people may be arrested or beaten for any religious showing.” Given that experience, Imam Ahmad Sheqeirat said, it’s no wonder that some Muslims may dislike the term. That does not mean, however, that they misunderstand or disagree with an American approach that separates church and state.

Chris Lowney

Misunderstanding of all kinds, Sheqeirat said, is best met head-on through face-to-face meetings. He concluded, “We are all in this together in the face of injustice and racism.”

Chris Lowney followed. The author of “A Vanished World: Medieval Spain’s Golden Age of Enlightenment” explored the chasm that lies between people in regard to their understanding of other faiths. He discussed elements of world history that illustrate his view that “We have many shared theological values and shared culture to draw on.”

“When we admit we are all here together,” Lowney continued, “something powerful can happen.”

Lowney did not reside in truisms, though. He ended with “5 things we can do in Arizona right now” to improve the dialogue among people.

  1. Read a book together.

He suggested “What Everyone Needs To Know About Islam,” but anything—even “To Kill a Mockingbird”—would help in mutual understanding.

  1. Discuss a movie together.

How about “Allah Made Me Funny,” Lowney asked. Or perhaps “Cities of Light,” regarding the rise and fall of Islamic Spain. (Both are available from the Unity Productions Foundation.)

  1. Visit each others’ worship spaces.
  1. Work together—across faiths—to improve your local community.

Habitat for Humanity, anyone?

  1. Invite our community’s youth to work together.

    Maria Salapska, 1952-2012

Congratulations for a great evening to the lawyers and others who comprise the St. Thomas More Society.

A final somber note: Very soon after this event, the legal community was saddened to learn of the sudden death of Maria Salapska. An accomplished lawyer, Maria was a past President of the St. Thomas More Society. Rest in peace.

More photos from the event are on the Arizona Attorney Magazine Facebook page.

I received news about an event to be held this coming Saturday. Here is the information, from the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law:

The Arizona Law Review will present a free, one-day symposium exploring the nature of political dialogue in contentious times. The symposium is sponsored by the law firm of Polsinelli Shughart.

Guest scholars from across the country will explore the role of incivility in political discourse and whether there is a causal relationship between incivility and various kinds of harm, from physical violence to psychological harm, including subtle forms of discrimination.

Political Discourse, Civility and Harm

Saturday, January 14, 2012

9:00 am – 3:00 pm

Room 156

James E. Rogers College of Law, University of Arizona

1201 E. Speedway

Tucson, AZ

Bernard Harcourt

The program is free and open to the public, though reservations are required. Those wishing to attend may register by calling Alexis at 480-225-1879, or by e-mail at

Parking is available immediately north of the College, on Helen St. just off of Mountain, or in the UA parking garage at Park and Speedway. There is no charge for Saturday parking.

A panel of legal scholars known for their work in various dimensions of the field will engage in a panel discussion about their scholarship:

Margaret Jane Radin

Founded in 1959, the Arizona Law Review is a general-interest academic legal journal. The Review is edited and published quarterly by students of the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. The Arizona Law Review covers wide-ranging topics of law and policy. Editor-In-Chief Alexis Danneman notes that, “We are thrilled to finally see to the civility conference happening. The conference has been the major endeavor of the Arizona Law Review over the past year. Many people and several organizations have contributed to this project, most notably Polsinelli Shughart. In recent years, Arizona has been in the center of the increasingly polarized national political discourse. We chose to organize this conference to foster legal thinking about the significance of this discourse on society.”

Kenji Yoshino

The symposium is funded in part by the law firm of Polsinelli Shughart and the National Institute for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona.

How do you talk about important issues without being rude and boorish?

That was the challenge a lawyers group sought to overcome, and its initial effort was on display last night, Thursday, April 28. And for this visitor, it was a qualified success.

The St. Thomas More Society launched its Civil Discourse Series with a heady and controversial topic titled “The Death Penalty: Is It Moral? Is It Antiquated?”

The first notice I received in late March about the event looked to be in a debate format. It appeared to be two lawyers on one side of the topic “vs.” two others on the other side.

Last night’s program, though, merely referred to them as “panelists.”

That may have been more accurate, as the event was characterized more by mini-speeches than by sharp, concise, back-and-forth. That is not a critique, merely a recognition that the Society is feeling its way toward the ideal format for this original idea.

Those mini-speeches ranged from well stated and clear to meandering and obscure, which is par for the course for any educational panel. But more than once, audience members may have wondered about the Series’ underlying premise: Do members of the public really want to hear from lawyers—on any topic—for two hours? Wisely, organizers did not put that question to a vote.

Given the preparation and effort involved, organizers had to be disappointed in the modest turnout. The venue was the Phoenix auditorium of Xavier College Preparatory. That is a beautiful and stunning room.  But it’s also a very large room, which was only dotted with attendees. Certainly, marketing and communication will be a stronger focus for Volume 2 of the Series (which will be on immigration, co-chair Denise Blommel revealed).

Moderator Ernie Calderón, April 28, 2011

These are just quibbles. In a state that is only 110 days beyond a horrific assassination attempt in Tucson, praise must be given to the St. Thomas More Society, which is addressing head-on a coarsening of the national debate that dismays most everyone (though not everyone). Unlike the rest of us, though, the Society is doing something about it.

The evening’s moderator was Ernest Calderón. His resume is long, but the short form is that he is a Regent on the Arizona Board of Regents, a former President of the State Bar of Arizona, and a practicing lawyer.

Ernie was a good choice for the role. He is capable of a great amount of gravitas when it’s called for. But he graciously set that aside last night, as he sought to cajole, persuade, kid and prod panelists into uttering real and compelling statements on a difficult topic. Clearly, he came prepared to herd the speakers away from the raft of arguments on both sides that the public has heard for years, and toward some out-of-the-box analyses.

He was moderately successful. The panelists were cautiously open to addressing Ernie’s deliberately provocative hypotheticals. That was when the evening soared.

But there were more times when panelists got lawyerly, challenged the assumptions underlying a question, and negotiated terms to lower a question’s stakes. Unfortunately, that led to less illumination than would have been ideal.

Nonetheless, it is still invigorating to see smart people bat contrary ideas back and forth. Attendees were probably unsurprised by the arguments: retired Judge Rudy Gerber on one side reminding us that our use of the death penalty puts the United States in the company of China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen; and Tom Horne on the other side reading at (overly sufficient) length from the trial record of horrific details that occurred in notorious torture–homicides. Although the two positions may not be new, they were gripping nonetheless.

A moment of pointed debate occurred when panelist Alan Tavassoli challenged Tom Horne’s repeated statement that Horne was on the side of justice for victims, which equaled capital punishment as a solution. The AG had reiterated the “Justice = Death Penalty” trope throughout the evening, and Tavassoli finally observed that all the panelists were on the side of justice, which he believed life without the possibility of parole may provide. His question to Tom Horne could have led to an interesting exchange. Unfortunately, that was just moments before the event ended.

Here’s a photo of the distinguished panel (click it for a larger version):

L to R: Alan Tavassoli, Hon. Rudy Gerber (ret.), Ernie Calderón, Bill Montgomery, Attorney General Tom Horne

Congratulations to Ernie Calderón for keeping things moving and even light. (One of those light moments occurred when the moderator asked the prosecutor–panelists whether a prosecutor’s office would use its time better to focus on the costs of justice rather than, say, indicting judges. Without missing a beat, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery smiled and replied, “I can tell you that in my first five months in office I have indicted zero judges!” The other panelists—and the audience—roared with laughter.)

Congratulations also to the panelists:

More photos of the event are at the Arizona Attorney Magazine Facebook page.

I’ll provide more detail on the fall version of the Series as it comes available.