Monday, 30 June 2014

The Spaces In Between - Carmen Ibrahim

Growing up in one of the Christian areas in Lebanon, I was very much sheltered, not really coming into contact with people from different backgrounds. And if I did, they were mere acquaintances.

Until my cousin eloped with the man she loved, a Muslim. She faced silence from her family for a long time before they came around.

That was the first time my safe Catholic bubble had been burst.

The second time was when I started classes at the American University of Beirut, and I started befriending people from all sorts of different backgrounds, with different beliefs and convictions even within the same background.

People no longer fell into clean black and white categories for me, and for that brief year, the lines I drew in the sand, whether consciously or not, between me and everyone else, were being erased.

I grew, and I learned a lot.

And then I came to faith in Jesus during a difficult time in my life, when I was dealing with the shame and the weight of the decisions I made over the summer. I was nineteen, lonely, confused, and I clung to the first thing that offered hope and salvation.

And I made the same mistake. I started drawing lines in the sand again. I started thinking of people in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’.

A lot has happened these last four years, and I find myself uncertain where I used to be very much certain and unwavering.

But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I don’t think we’re meant to have all the answers. To think that we do is arrogance. People are vastly different, and who they are right now, at this very moment, is shaped by their experiences and what they have tasted of the world.

To dismiss that because it does not fit our paradigms is terrible. We must learn to stretch our arms outside of the walls of our paradigms and meet each other in the spaces in the between.

There’s so much freedom there.

Carmen is a graduate student at the American University of Beirut, pursuing a Masters degree in TESOL. She loves the beach and frozen yogurt. And her dog. You can find Carmen on twitter and facebook. 

Previous Post: Why the Faithful Need Secularism

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Why The Faithful Need Secularism - Jeremy Rodell

What is Secularism?

Let’s start with what Secularism means to secularists.
The British Humanist Association (BHA) says it’s “the principle that, in a plural, open society where people follow many different religious and non-religious ways of life, the communal institutions that we share (and together pay for) should provide a neutral public space where we can all meet on equal terms. State Secularism, where… the state is neutral on matters of religion or belief, guarantees the maximum freedom for all, including religious believers.”
The UK’s National Secular Society (NSS) adds that it’s “not about curtailing religious freedoms; it is about ensuring that the freedoms of thought and conscience apply equally to all believers and non-believers alike.”

So a secular state does not mean denying the role of Christianity and other religions – for both good and ill - in history and culture. It does not mean that religious people must forego their principles if they enter public life. Perhaps most important of all, it does not mean a society lacking in values. There’s a fairly clear set of liberal, human values shared by the majority in the UK and most other western countries, including freedom of speech, thought and belief; respect for democracy and the rule of law; equality of gender, age and sexual orientation and the view that fairness and compassion are virtues. Many of these values are enshrined in law.
The NSS and the BHA really ought to know what they’re talking about here. Unfortunately, many people, usually people who are not themselves secularists, use “Secularism” interchangeably with “Atheism” or “Humanism”. The previous Pope even talked of “militant Secularism”, meaning “militant Atheism” (despite the fact that the weapons used by “militants” like Richard Dawkins are writing books and giving lectures, not planting bombs). But you can be religious and secularist. In fact the unequivocally Muslim, anti-Islamist campaigner, Maajid Nawaz, has just become an Honorary Associate of the NSS.
The reason for this confusion is that western countries have only become secular - to varying degrees - after many centuries in which the Church was a major power in society and there were constraints on freedom of thought and expression. Much of that power has been eroded since the Enlightenment, but battles are still going on. For example, 26 unelected bishops remain sitting as of right in the British Parliament, and many state-funded schools can discriminate in their admissions simply on the basis of parental belief. It’s no surprise that the protagonists in these battles are usually churches on one side, and humanists and other atheists on the other. If you’re on the side of the churches, it probably feels that Secularism and Atheism are the same thing – The Enemy.
That’s a mistake. Not only does it ignore the common ground between Christians and humanists, but it focusses on loss of religious privilege and influence, ignoring the fact that Secularism also guarantees freedom of religion and belief, and the freedom of thought and expression that goes with it. That’s important, given the realities of faith and belief in much of the modern world.

Growth of Pluralism

According to the 2013 British Social Attitudes Survey, 51% of the British population are now “Nones” - people who do not consider themselves as belonging to any religion. It was 31% in 1983. Only 16% are now Anglicans, the Established Church (40% in 1983), 12% non-denominational Christians, such as African Pentecostal (3% in 1983), 9% Catholics (10% in 1983) and 5% Muslims (0.6% in 1983), with Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Buddhists and other types of Christians making up most of the balance (all under 2%). Within each of these groups there is a lot of diversity: at least 10 different sects comprise the 5% Muslims, and the 0.5% British Jews range from ultra-Orthodox to Liberal. So we’re seeing both a big decline in religiosity and an increase in Pluralism. It’s hard to imagine a more plural global city than London.
In many non-western countries, the inter-connectedness of the modern world, and wider awareness of differing beliefs – including Atheism – is also tending to increase Pluralism, or at least the desire for Pluralism. At the same time, it is increasingly under threat, often because of war and the active spread of an intolerant Wahhabi strain of Islam.

Secularism versus Oppression

Secularism is as necessary to protect believers from other believers as it is to protect atheists.
You can currently be put to death simply for the “crime” of Atheism in 13 countries, according to the International Humanist & Ethical Union’s 2013 “Freedom of Thought” report. Saudi Arabia has now passed a law declaring atheists to be terrorists. In Mosul, in northern Iraq, there has been a Christian community for around 1600 years. In 2003 there were 70,000 Christians living there. Now ISIS have taken over and they have all fled. In Burma the government seems to be doing little or nothing to stop extremist nationalist Buddhist groups from massacring Rohinga Muslims. In Pakistan there’s growing evidence of ethnic cleansing of Shia Muslims by Sunni terrorist groups – the word “genocide” is appearing - and it is illegal for Ahmadiyya Muslims to claim to be Muslim. Often they are simply killed. In Malaysia, Christians have been legally forbidden to use the word “Allah” to refer to God, even though they have been doing so for hundreds of years. In Iran there is institutionalised persecution of Baha’is.
Sadly, there are many other examples where the response to Pluralism is oppression. Often it’s entwined with political power, driven by fear of losing power - or simply of change - and lack of confidence that the favoured belief will succeed in a plural environment.
Secularism is the alternative response to Pluralism. Ideally it’s complemented by the type of mature democracy that avoids “winner takes all” outcomes such as we saw in Egypt under President Morsi.
The faithful need Secularism because it guarantees their freedom, and in some cases their survival. It is the only alternative to oppression in a fast-changing, inter-connected plural world.  

Jeremy Rodell is the chair of South West London Humanists, which he co-founded in 2007 and is a Partner of the British Humanist Association. He’s a speaker on Humanism, the humanist representative on two local interfaith forums, a schools speaker for the interfaith charity 3FF (formerly the Three Faiths Forum) and has recently become a member of the International Association for Religious Freedom. He is also the humanist convenor of a local Catholic-Humanist dialogue group.

Aside from these activities, and a business background, he works with the charity Age UK and is chair of Trustees of Eastside Educational Trust, which provides arts education to young people across London.

Previous Post: Monasticism Meets Islam 
Next: The Spaces In Between - Carmen Ibrahim

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Monasticism Meets Islam | Sister Lucy (Turvey Abbey)

Although interfaith dialogue is a very important part of my life now, it was unheard of when I was young. Born into a time and a part of the country where my own faith-tradition was a minority one, it never occurred to me to think of dialogue with people with a different faith altogether. I had never met such people. Within my Christian (Roman Catholic) background ‘dialogue’ would have meant with other Christians. In those far-off days before Vatican II Catholics regarded themselves as the ONLY real members of the Church. 

However, in some parts of England we were known, as “left-footers” that is, people out of step with the rest of society, fringe people. We had our own ethos, prayer life and form of worship— not unlike what I see in Islam now, in fact. We were ‘sufficient unto ourselves’. Dialogue would have meant helping other people to join the “true Faith" (Roman Catholicism). 

Fortunately that has changed over the years. For me, the first great insight and opening up to other faiths came with Vatican II and the document Nostra Aetate which paved the way for the very different attitude of the Catholic Churches today. Then, in the late 1970s I began what would turn out to be a life-changing experience. I volunteered, and was sent to Kenya, where we Sisters of Mercy had been asked to establish a school for Maasai girls in Narok district and township. This was where I first came into contact with real people of a completely different faith. 

Within the school were teachers of different Christian denominations, and one Hindu teacher. Among the students were girls of several different tribes, not only Maasai, and a number of Muslim day girls whose parents had emigrated from their native countries to Kenya. These girls wore the school uniform (with long socks: the Kenyan girls went barefoot) and did not wear hijab. They attended all lessons. In those days there was no Islamic Religious Education on the school curriculum as there is now; so everyone attended Christian Religious Education (CRE). The Muslim students were among the best in CRE. 

After I became Headmistress, I got to know the families of the girls quite well; some of them by shopping for the school, some parents being traders, and others, particularly the mothers, by visiting to discuss personal issues that had come up. For example, how could the students cope with the fast of Ramadan during their examinations? Or to discuss examination results. I was deeply impressed by the fervour of the students who would rather have kept the full fast, even though they were allowed by their religious leader not to do so.

One incident stands out in my mind as a personal blessing for me. On one such occasion while visiting a family, I was left alone for a short time in a room, where the old grandmother was sitting with the Holy Qur’an open on her knee, obviously rapt in prayer. I don’t think she even noticed my presence. I became aware that what was happening here was similar to what happened for us Christians in the presence of the Holy Bible and listening to the Word of God. It was an important stage in my own journey into interreligious dialogue, and remains with me today.

After leaving Kenya, I came into dialogue with Buddhist monks and nuns and something similar took place. 

My next contact with Muslims in the way of dialogue was when as a Benedictine I was part of the British/Irish Monastic Interreligious Dialogue Commission, and was invited to the first of what became a series of conferences between Christian monks/nuns and Shi’a Muslims. I have written elsewhere about these conferences which again were life-changing for me. I thank God for allowing me to participate in them. (see Interreligious Dialogue).

One aspect of dialogue which has been of special significance for me is the warm and very real contacts made with other women. From the very first conference (2003) to the present day a real dialogue journey has been going on with women I met at the conferences, particularly the 2012 conference which took place in Qum, Iran. (For a full account see Turvey Abbey web site)

I found it very interesting, fascinating in fact, that Muslim women should ‘take’ so warmly to a celibate Christian nun! I remain on terms of friendship with some of them and keep in touch with their families. There is a sense that we are somehow of one family, sisters and brothers in our worship of the One Almighty and Compassionate God, Creator and Lord of all. 

Although our faith practices differ, there is something about whole-heartedness in religious worship and practice which means that we can actually ‘meet’ and be united in our differences, and rejoice. Perhaps it is love.

Two things are particularly noteworthy for me. One was the 2012 visit to Iran. I have to admit that I went with some misgivings, particularly once I began to make my travel arrangements and found that top of the BFCO list of places NOT to visit was Iran. The difficulties and frustrations of managing to get a visa (from Ireland) was also another very off-putting experience. But these things faded into insignificance once we arrived in Tehran and journeyed to Qum where the conference took place. 

Shrine of the Lady Fatimah in Qum

We arrived in the early dawn to the warmest welcome I had ever experienced up to that point! Nothing was too difficult for our hosts who had arranged everything for us. The actual conference in the Institute for Islamic Studies, Qum, was both fascinating and memorable in the forms of dialogue we were able to experience. But for me the best part was the contacts beyond and around the actual conference. And most of these seemed to concern women meeting women (though there were plenty of men around too, of course.) 

It was a tremendous joy to renew friendship and visual contact with Dr Mohammad Ali Shomali and his wife Mahnaz Heydarpour. We had met in 2003, and then again in London when we in UK hosted the international Monastic Interreligious Dialogue commissions. Representative monks/nuns from several countries were present. Now to meet on THEIR home ground was a delight. We only had a week but it was filled with fascinating visits and tours outside the conference times.

One visit was to the impressive women’s University of Jami’at Al Zahra, where both Dr Shomali and his wife teach. Meeting the women students and staff was a most joyful experience. Another day I had the personal privilege of speaking to a class of about 35 young women learning English at Al Mustafa University. Their questions to me were open and honest, as were mine to them, and a very real dialogue took place, though in rather a formal setting. We asked and answered REAL questions about each other’s life and faith. It was obvious and very moving that we understood each other.

I was asked for instance, to talk about my “vocation” to the monastic life. The teacher Dr Isa Jahangir said it was not a familiar concept in Islam. But when we got into the idea of “listening” to God, it was clear that we understood each other. Listening like this with the heart not the ears...

Al Mustafa University, with Dr Isa Jahangir, a Turkish Muslim teacher living in Qum.

Several times during that all-too-brief week, I was completely taken aback and won over by the genuineness, openness and humility of questions put to me: “Please give me a word ...” At first I did not understand what was being asked of me. So Mahnaz explained: “A word to help her/them to love God more”. This happened in the meetings at the university classes, and even on a ‘tourist’ visit to Esfahan from complete strangers, women passing in the street. (I could not help reflecting that in a comparable situation in UK I might have been asked: “Why do you wear those funny clothes?”). This sense of an immediate ‘connection’ happened even with women working in the airport at Tehran.

Most of my experiences of dialogue with Muslims have begun in an “official” way (at conferences for example) but have led to personal, ongoing and sometimes rather special kinds of dialogue. 

Since 2003 I have been in friendly communication with Dr Mohammad Shomali and Mahnaz Heydarpour, and though everyone is very busy we manage to keep abreast of what is going on for each other, and I think, learn from each other. On rare occasions when they are in England we even manage to meet and have a little time together. These are very precious times.

At the 2010 European Conference of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue Commissions, the main speakers were Dr Reza Shah Kazemi and Dr Shomali. A significant part of the day was a talk and then discussion around Qur’an Surah 5:48, and the idea of interfaith dialogue as “provoking each other to holiness”. Attending the meeting were some other Muslim men and women. Among them a western woman convert, who expressed a wish to continue with dialogue in some way and indeed we have become friends (D:G - "Thanks be to God"). 

Together we attended a day conference in Heythrop College, University of London, on the contribution of women to Christian/Muslim dialogue. As the only Muslim there, she came in for a lot of friendly and searching questions. This was a plenary session and she spoke very well. It must have been an ordeal! Some months later she visited Turvey Abbey and we had a very special day of one-to-one dialogue. Incidentally, as she was eating with our other guests, they too became very interested in an friendly dialogue between Christians  and a Muslim! They had never met a Muslim under this kind of informal circumstances of sharing a meal. 

Later, my friend performed her midday prayers and I united with her silently during this time. Afterwards we had a time of “listening prayer” together. We used a method of “Lectio Divina”, the Benedictine way of listening to the Word of God. My friend chose a passage by simply opening the Holy Qur’an and placing her finger on a passage. We read it aloud very slowly, several times, taking turns, reflecting silently on it and “listening”. 

Then we shared verbally with each other what had seemed to be God’s word for us in this passage. We each found that the Word of God had ‘spoken’ to us in a way completely compatible with our tradition and spiritual path. We hope to continue with this kind of personal dialogue when time permits. Distance, and business on both sides, are all that prevents a growing understanding.

Interfaith dialogue is for me a moving and joyful experience of unity in diversity and a deep acknowledgement that we are sisters (and brothers), children of One Father, however different our external lives may be.

  ★ ★ ★

Sister Lucy is a Benedictine nun at the Priory of Our Lady of Peace, a Roman Catholic community living according to the Rule of Saint Benedict. Sister Lucy represents her monastic community in interreligious dialogue, mainly with Buddhists and Muslims. The nuns and monks at Turvey Abbey maintain the monastic tradition of offering hospitality to guests from other faith traditions as well as those who share their Roman Catholic faith and host a variety of special ecumenical and interfaith gatherings every year.

So, over to you!
What were your first experiences of Interfaith Dialogue? 
Have you experienced Interfaith in another country? 

Friday, 13 June 2014

Concerns of a Mom as Ramadan Nears | Samra Hussain

Samra Hussain

Ramadan is coming! The thought brings both joy and nervous anxiety for me. I’m happy that I will spend a month of special blessings, when all my good intentions and good actions will be magnified in the spiritual realm. I’m looking forward to the challenge of abstaining from food, and controlling my thoughts and words. There is something special about Ramadan, because for a practicing Muslim, good thoughts and good deeds definitely come more naturally during this month. The same goes for going hungry and thirsty for sixteen hours a day. Although it is challenging, I feel there are some special heavenly powers around for those fasting with the intention of pleasing God.

But besides the excitement and joy, I also have my fears about the upcoming fasts. I am a mother of four young children. I have a set of five year old triplets and a three year old singleton, so my life even without fasting is strained. I did not fast for the first three years after my kids were born, and all those times I felt like I was missing out. Everyone around me was fasting and had that glow on their face from fasting during Ramadan, while I ran after my kids all day and ate and drank like normal.

The fourth year I had a talk with God and told Him that I really wanted in on Ramadan, because the worship and devotional prayers I did at night did not have the same intensity for me when I wasn't fasting. I needed to fast, break the fast with everyone else, and THEN sit in prayer at night to feel that full satisfaction of experiencing Ramadan. So I started to fast as many days as I could, although I left a few fasts here and there when I felt too drained. I was grateful that I could keep the fasts although the first few days I felt light headed at times.

Credit: Samra Hussein

Let me give you some perspective on my current situation. It takes a tremendous amount of energy, both physical and emotional for me to get through every day caring for my children. I’m up every morning usually around seven, getting the triplets ready for school, preparing their lunches, driving them to school, then coming home to cook meals and/or go to the grocery store with my three year old who is still home with me, doing chores, then picking them up from school, listening to them arguing with each other and shoving school letters and field trip forms in my face from the backseat while I drive.

Then, when they get home, it is a time filled with multiple personalities making multiple demands for attention and fulfillment of various random wishes. They also have intense physical fights over the most mundane and trivial matters, for which I must play referee, lawyer, and/or judge. I try and steer them to the basement, where they run, jump, and play.

Those days when I am not feeling great or simply fed up with their behaviour, I put them in front of the television with their favorite shows on. When they get home from school, I have to have a couple of snacks ready followed by dinner within two hours of the snack. Sometimes if it’s nice out I take them to the park or if it’s cold then an indoor playground. But it is chaos getting them all weather appropriate ready and in the car. Then getting them back in the car to go home is another major challenge, since they usually refuse to go home.

Bed time is a war every single night no matter what. It’s a war to get them to brush their teeth and use the toilet. Then it’s a war to get them to lay down in bed. Sometimes they run off and hide in closets and hold the door handle while I push against the door so I cannot come in to get them.

So considering I have to go through so much madness every day, and it will be summer vacations during all of Ramadan for the kids, I decided to put all four of my children in a summer day camp from 9am till 4pm and level the playing field for myself. The thought of all four of them being home all day while I fast and my husband gone to work was too horrifying.

Credit: Samra Hussein

But still, I wonder. What if summer camp is not enough? The fast does not break until after 9pm for the beginning fasts, and I will have a few hours to kill while the kids are home. Will it be okay if I take them to the park after camp, or will that make me too thirsty in the hot summer weather?  Will I feel energized enough to keep them entertained and happy while fasting? How will I handle things when I am hungry, thirsty and tired, and they are cranky or have fights with each other? How will I feel when they decide to plug in the treadmill in the basement and play dangerous games on it? Will I be able to control my temper when I see the face towel and hand towel soaking wet and placed at the edge of the bathroom counter, dripping water on the tiles?

I think the issue of my temper is one of my biggest concerns. Now, if you ask anyone who knows me, you will find out that I am actually a very laid back person and difficult to get angry....but this rule only applies to adults and children who are accustomed to being civilized human beings. The fact that I have toddlers who are all pretty much the same age and there are four of them and I care for them by myself, makes consistent control of my temper difficult to say the least. In some ways, controlling my words when the children become naughty or misbehave will be more difficult than controlling my feelings of thirst and hunger.

What if my kids get sick during Ramadan? Will I still fast or will I find it too difficult to fast and care for them at the same time? What about the weekend and public holiday fasts when they will be home all day? Will God even accept any of my fasts? So many questions. Only time will tell how Ramadan actually turns out for me.

Regardless of my fears, as I wait for Ramadan, I look towards God with hope. I say to myself, “Every fast you ever kept and completed was by His decree. So turn to Him and know in your heart that He will test you through strength and He will test you through weakness. In the end, it is not really about counting the number of fasts or hours of fasts, but rather if you became a little more humble, and a little less selfish."

Samra Hussain is a stay at home mom. Her passions include reading and writing. In her free time she likes to write for her interfaith blog while also working on her teen fiction novel for girls. She can be found at her blog For the Love of God and you can follow her on TwitterMake sure you keep an eye out for Samra's debrief once Ramadan is over to see how she got on
Update: Samra contributed Eating Consciously in Ramadan for the Interfaith Ramadan 2016 series. 

And now over to you! 
What do you worry about before Ramadan comes? 
How do you deal with those concerns? 

Monday, 2 June 2014

Interfaith Ramadan 2014: Coming Soon

As the world gets smaller, open communication and meaningful dialogue between diverse communities and individuals becomes even more important. Social media, for all its perceived flaws, can be an incredible tool for cooperative, constructive and positive interactions between people of different faiths and no faith.

With that in mind, the upcoming 30-day Interfaith Ramadan blog project will feature a different guest writer each day from various faith and non-faith backgrounds. Topics will range from specific aspects of faith to inclusion on a broader scale by exploring issues such as mental health, race and gender issues, and LGBT inclusion within faith communities. Towards the end of the month there will also be articles by those sharing their personal experiences of Ramadan events such as communal iftars (the meal which breaks the daily fast) and interfaith actitivites within their local communities.

The project will bring together writers and readers from all over the world and with different beliefs, and as such, there won't always be agreement with all of the views expressed. Indeed, our diverse attitudes and approaches can sometimes be controversial, raise important questions and help us to reflect on our own beliefs and traditions. 

My hope is that these articles serve as the springboard for positive and productive conversations and allow readers and writers to connect with each other, either directly through the comments section or through social media by following the hashtag #InterfaithRamadan. Readers will also be able to share their own links to other interfaith projects, articles, news stories and blog responses using this hashtag throughout the month. You can also contact me via @InterfaithRam or @SaritaAgerman if you would like to share related articles or contribute to the project. 

This may be the first time that readers how come across an inclusive Interfaith approach to discussions about faith, and so I highly recommend reading the Christian Muslim Forum's Ethical Guidelines for Witness which is a brilliant guide for approaching interfaith conversations with honesty, integrity and respect. 

If you'd like to learn more, you can get a feel for the project by looking at last year's articles: Interfaith Ramadan 2013. You can also subscribe by email (in the top right column) to receive articles straight into your inbox so that you don't miss any articles once the project gets underway on the 28th of June. 

UPDATE: The first Interfaith Ramadan piece can be viewed here: Islam Meets Monasticism

★ ★ ★

Interfaith Ramadan curator Sarah Ager is an English teacher and expat writer living in Italy. She describes herself as an 'Anglo-Muslim hybrid', having converted to Islam in 2011. She writes about interfaith dialogue, religion, and culture.

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