Born in Pakistan, Rafat and Zoreen Ansari are a Muslim married couple, both doctors, who have spent the last four decades earning a reputation as civic leaders in South Bend, Indiana. On Friday, the Ansaris announced a $15 million gift to the University of Notre Dame, one of the top Catholic universities in the country, to create the Rafat and Zoreen Ansari Institute for Global Engagement With Religion. The goal of the new institute will be to deepen the knowledge of religion as well as study the influence of various religions on world events.
“Whenever you get a gift of this size, it’s tremendous, but particularly to have this named for the Ansari family, who is Muslim, is tremendously meaningful to us,” says the Rev. John I. Jenkins, the president of Notre Dame. “We believe religion is very important in our world. It can have a negative impact, but it should be possible to study the ways religion can be a force for human development and peace.”
The Ansari’s say their personal belief is that all religions should be treated with equal respect and their goal is to foster better understanding of all religions including Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Father Jenkins notes that the institute would look at religion not through a sociological or political lens but rather through the religions themselves.
The gift was 18 months in the making and while not initially conceived as a political statement, there is an acknowledgement that it came at a politically sensitive time in America. “In the last couple of years, the majority of problems have been created by the misunderstandings among the religions,” says Mr. Ansari, an oncologist and hematologist. “Is this the right time for the announcement? Yes, because there is so much going on.”
“We came [to America] as immigrants, and this country has given us so much,” says Mrs. Ansari who practices family medicine. “We want to give something back to America, but also to humanity. We want to promote the idea of equality.”