Reflections on Summer 2013 Study of the U.S. Institute on Religious Pluralism
I come from a diverse family in Iraq, where my mother is a Sunni Kurd and my father is a Shiite Arab, and for a long time I found this diverse family a curse in my life. Everything around me was black and white, and there were certainly no other colors in between because they meant one thing only: you are different.
I was just turning a teenager when I started struggling to find my identity with theological and religious questions, which many people experience at some point in their lives. But for me, those questions were a bit more challenging. At that age I felt that I had to decide which side of my parents I was supposed to follow to survive the afterlife, as it appeared definite that one of them was going to be tortured in hell forever. Yes, that was the explanation and understanding I had by reading books from both sides of the conflict.
I was born and raised in Baghdad, which is a relatively diverse city, in a neighborhood inhibited mainly by Sunni Muslims, and thus I found myself closer to the Sunni school of Islam. However, that did not last long as I had to leave after the invasion in 2003 to my grandparent’s home in Al-Najaf, which is considered the center of Shiite Islam. I had to continue my high school studies there because Baghdad became too dangerous. Living in Al-Najaf, of course, brought me closer to the Shiite school, but being exposed to both schools caused thousands of contradictions in my mind. In many situations I had to compromise my position, thoughts and believes in the Shiite-Sunni conflict, in a way that satisfied others’ ideologies in order for me to reach a middle ground.
Tensions arose after 2003 brought people from both sides to a blind spot. I cannot count the times I heard either side of the conflict cursing the other side and praying to make the world a better place by vanishing them. Many times I thought to myself that I had to choose a side. It is exhausting and frustrating to be the intermediary in all of this; I felt like a wrecked ship in a rough sea with no shore in sight.
At the age of sixteen I had the privilege of traveling to other countries with greater diversity. I discovered people from different faiths and established friendships with people who were being discriminated against, and better discovered myself. Nonetheless, I still had that confusion inside. For the most part I thought of myself as a social-hypocrite, trying to get along with other people even though I disagreed with them. I detested being a bystander in many discriminatory and hateful conversations that took place in my presence, and not being able to confront those people. It is hard to convince people that those bigoted thoughts are wrong when there are thousands who support such prejudgments and misconceptions. It is hard when your mind and heart are in conflict, when what is right is not beneficial, and when you lose the people around you for speaking up for those who are oppressed.
In 2010 I was accepted into the business school of the American University of Iraq-Sulimani, and I showed a very strong interest in religious studies, especially those traditions that exist in Iraq. I had a great desire to write papers on sensitive issues; misconceptions and fallacies that the majority in Iraq have built over the years against minor religious groups and communities. Anything that was supposed to be a “taboo” for me to discover was actually on the top of my list to visit and write about. After a while that challenge became more like a burden because I felt it was my responsibility to stand up for those minority groups and tell my community that those misconceptions are wrong, but the problem was I did not know how to do it.
Those personal issues were dramatically altered in summer 2013 as I joined the Dialogue Institute's Study of the U.S. Institute (SUSI) on Religious Pluralism exchange program.
SUSI was an exceptional program, a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I continue to enjoy everyday with its memories and moral teachings. I absolutely did not know what to expect when I first applied to the SUSI program, but the one thing I knew was that I was eager to travel and discover new religions. The program did an excellent job in that regard. It gave me the opportunity to visit religious sites that I would never have dreamed of visiting back in Iraq, and I was able to write papers on my experience visiting those sites and how challenging that could be.
But the one thing I am forever grateful for that I learned from this program was the idea of interfaith dialogue. It is no surprise that before coming to U.S. with this program I had people advising me that such programs have certain agendas to convert or brainwash young people to achieve some hidden goals and get them to compromise their faith and beliefs. To be quite honest, I did have my own suspicious thoughts. When I first arrived I had no idea what interfaith dialogue meant; as a matter of fact, another participant and I were thinking to suggest a “debate competition” to the staff! After a couple of days, the staff introduced us to the idea of interfaith dialogue, which had actually appealed to me from the very beginning. In fact, after only two weeks I went with a Christian friend to the Dialogue Institute (DI) office to have our own Christian-Muslim dialogue. That whole concept of keeping my faith while understanding, respecting and actually listening to the other side through a dialogue has ever since shaped the person I am today. Interfaith dialogue was the key to how I could approach others around certain misconceptions and generalizations.
Concurrently, it helped me to address my own critical questions and better understand myself while being more committed to my beliefs. It was interfaith dialogue that helped me to rephrase what I have described earlier as “social hypocrisy” to tolerance and acceptance of others’ religious beliefs. I do believe that there are thin lines between contradictions, and there is definitely one between prejudice and tolerance, drawn by dialogue. Furthermore, that whole experience has played an essential role at the workplace. I graduated in 2015 with a bachelor's degree in accounting, and someone might ask how interfaith dialogue could possibly play a role in accounting? It actually does, not only in accounting but in any other field, I would say. We were born with some sort of religious identity, an identity that develops overtime to represent us, even for those who are identified as atheist who still hold a religious/theological position that represents them. Being equipped with the right skills to communicate and understand your colleagues’ faiths is as important as learning and improving your professional skills. Personally, interfaith dialogue and learning about other religions have progressed my leadership and decision-making skills in many ways, learning to accept and work more effectively with the people around me with their differences. From my perspective, I think everyone can manage to coexist with peoples’ differences, but what is needed in today's society is to actually appreciate and understand that those differences have evolved creativity at the workplace and advanced humanity.
I went back to Iraq right after the SUSI program with an action plan that involved working with some minority groups in Iraqi Kurdistan. But after a few months, I had the opportunity to come back to the U.S and finish my bachelor's degree at New Jersey City University. I contacted the DI right away, offering my availability to work as a volunteer or staff person with the program. I was ready to work for free not just because I have a profound appreciation for the program, but I wanted to be on the other side and see how things are done and planned for. The staff were generous enough to offer me a “Program Associate” position, and aside from my graduation commencement, that was the most exciting thing I have had happen in my life. Working as a staff person with the SUSI program has opened my eyes to a whole different world, a world of highly motivated and committed colleagues working toward a noble and honorable goal. With every group there are new experiences, where you find moments of harmony, tension, trustworthiness, devotion and love. You meet the most brilliant students with spectacular ideas, who soon enough become part of your life.
Working on the other side has allowed me to realize how much effort all the staff put to make the SUSI program a remarkable experience for all the students. From the staff’s perspective, each student is a story to learn, a school to learn from and an experience to live. The DI allowed me to know my value through the power of dialogue, where I overcome my fears and prejudgments with an open heart looking for peace in this world. It was all those experiences combined that made me realize the divine wisdom of diversity and the importance of it.
I had a hard time writing this reflection because I have countless memories and lessons I want to share, and maybe I will do so one day, but I would love to summarize all of the above with my favorite quote, from the 13th-century Sufi mystic Rumi:
“God is busy with the completion of your work, both outwardly and inwardly. He is fully occupied with you. Every human being is a work of progress that is slowly but inexorably moving toward perfection. We are each an unfinished work of art both waiting and striving to be completed. God deals with each of us separately because humanity is fine art of skilled penmanship where every single dot is equally important for the entire picture.”