The first module of European Project for Interreligious Learning – Study Course IV was organized in Istanbul in Republic of Turkey. This was the first time Turkey participated in EPIL making it a great contribution to expending EPIL network across Europe. The module was organized and hosted by Turkish organization KAGEM (Women, Family, and Youth Training Center) which is a science, culture and art center founded under the umbrella of Turkish Religious Foundation in 1996 and managed by women. With three more participating countries besides Turkey – Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina and The Netherlands – the module lasted seven days, 17-23 October, 2015. The module examined topics of identity, discrimination and islamophobia which are very much discussed in Turkey but also, as we will see, in the rest of the Europe.
On the first day participants and facilitators from all four countries took part in opening modules and workshops which were intended for the group to get to know each other, build trust and express their hopes, fears and expectations, and by doing so, to set goals and limits they hope to reach during this program.
The opening meditation was led by Turkish participants. We heard a 4th century hymn, sung by Lebanese singer Fairouz, after which we read Corinthians 13:1-13: of hope, love and faith, and the greatest of these is love, setting love as the basis for this EPIL module.
The decorative center of the study circle was symbolic as well – stones, shawls and flowers in four different colors, for each participating country. These items will help to concentrate and contribute to the atmosphere of trust building. In such atmosphere we establish ground rules: observe the observer (the observer has to be neutral as far as possible); stop stereotypes (be aware when using stereotypes because the outcome of stereotypes is always negative); radical respect (sometimes it is necessary to step out of the comfort zone to show radical respect, but it forms the basis of relationships); be a learner (everything we are, we are because of what we have learnt); communication (it has two sides – to speak and to listen); be open (take a step towards the other); speak from heart (listen to your heart before you speak); slow down (take a moment to think).
General expectation of the group was finding the common ground, respecting diversity of the group, and from there to build and grow; and the general fear was not succeeding in that – loose ends, obstacles, unsolved problems, misunderstanding, crash. Establishing the ground rules ensured that everyone’s thoughts are articulated and heard, and thematic meditations prepared by each of participating countries teams brought the group together on the basis of common values and humanity.
A common ground for all participants is overcoming some personal struggles, which was the main theme of the first group work – identifying an inspiration and role model in setting own moral values and overcoming issues.
Identity and Discrimination
Discrimination as one of the universal problems existing in every society begins with prejudices within ourselves and grows as it projects on to another person creating a conflict. Examining cases of every day discrimination and conflict participants learn how each of these conflict experiences rest on irrational emotions, which faced with facts and calm approach can be overcome. In an exercise How to deal with dilemma: three dimensions of one conflict participants assume role of pro, contra and an observer, to be able to understand and deconstruct the conflict situation. In this particular case, it was important to understand the position of a ‘victim’ who was visa applicant in a situation where a figure of authority projects its gender and cultural prejudices in considering of approval or disapproval of the application. In the evaluation of this exercise we realize that it is not always clear with what type of discrimination we are dealing with. Knowing that would influence on how we respond to the discrimination. It will always help letting facts prevail over emotions.
Tackling the questions of identity, pluralism and peace building in complex cultural stage aimed to improve understanding of multicultural, plural societies and multiple, plural and fluid identities as well as to learn from every day examples of peace building. The lectures were given by M.Sc. Sabiha Husic, a psychotherapist, Islamic theologian, interreligious peacebuilder, and director of Medica Zenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Dr. Manuela Kalsky, professor at VU University in Amsterdam and director of the Dominican Study Centre for Theology and Society (DSTS). It was emphasized that concepts of nation as we knew them before have changed, and that it is necessary to start chenging approach to solving problems. Kalsky spoke about “How to Live in a World of Religious Pluralism” explaining the changes of religious picture in the Netherlands and the new concepts of believing outside of conventional forms, so called – itsism – believing in it, as well as explaining that plural identities do not recognize either/or form that we knew before, but rather and/and.
In post-conflict societies peace building is an important long lasting process which aims to bring people together. From over two decades of work in this field, Husic presented experiences and every day examples of peace building in complex cultural and political environment, emphasizing the role of religion in these processes. Recognizing religion as an important coping mechanism in work with women survivors of war violence and rape, Husic spoke how institutional support is mandatory factor, recalling the importance of fatwa for woman survivors of war violence and rape, issued by official Islamic Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Theatrical workshop “Guess who is coming for dinner” has probably had the strongest impact in terms of realizing how incomprehensive the excluding and selective attitudes can be. Tasked to examine and assume the role of four different characters, two of which have utmost discriminatory attitudes, the participants found themselves trying to portray the character but failing to do so in its true intensity. When reviewing the situation, it was concluded that prejudice and discrimination in reality have enormous intensity that one who does not hold to such believes, can hardly comprehend.
The evening of third day was reserved for the Culture night, where participants presented their countries and culture to each other by sharing food, presents, souvenirs, music, dance and learning from each other about each other.
International Identity, Discrimination and Islamophobia Conference
The highlight of Module I was an Open Conference on Identity Discrimination and Islamophobia, on the fourth day of the program. It was opened with the greetings of KAGEM president Hicret Toprak and the Mufti of Istanbul Rahmi Varan who both pointed out the importance of understanding the other and of addressing the issue of the image of Islam in the Western World.
Emel Topçu, the moderator of the panel, before introducing the panelists, discussed the terms identity, discrimination and islamophobia. She pointed out that awareness of identity is coming forth upon encounter with different people; discrimination manifests itself sometimes implicitly sometimes explicitly and targets individuals and then their communities.
Mehmet Paçacı made a historical survey of the roots of islamophobia. By the ‘90s with the end of the Cold War the concept of the Soviet other was gradually replaced with the Muslim other. Centuries long orientalist images of Islam were employed after September 11th to further construct the image of the Muslim as other. On the other hand groups supported and trained by the West like the Talibans favoring a scriptural rather than a modern interpretation of Islam provided alibi to islamophobia advocates. Media and the Internet amplified western fears on security to spread islamophobia and extreme right wing parties facilitated this process through their public discourse. For Muslims in the West a way to react and protect themselves from islamophobia attacks lies according to Paçacı to reliance upon democracy and the supremacy of law. In view of the recent refuge crisis the Western countries would have to test their policies towards the Muslims and defend their plurality without necessarily revoking to assimilation practices.
Manuela Kalsky discussed how the Norwegian slaughter of youth on 22 July 2012 to supposedly end islamization in Norway, opened up discussion in the Netherlands among racist and extremist groups. She pointed out that events like this allowed extremists to develop islamophobia. Politicians of the extreme right found an opportunity thus to construct a discourse based on the totalitarian ideology of Islam and its incompatibility to democracy and the free world. On the other hand, surveys showed that the majority of Dutch are becoming more disinterested to church affiliations. According to Kalsky Christianity became a minority form the majority because of secularism and the rise of individuality in society. Multiple religious and cultural identities led to a need to search for new identifications. Thus a new project she is leading seeks through an interactive electronic forum to redefine the new “WE”. Retaining and cherishing their differences people will search instead for shared values. Connect is the motto of this approach aiming at a better understanding of the other.
Ahmed Zildzic discussed the misconception with regard to Bosnian Muslims after the war. Treated as the 5th column of Turkey in a project of neo-ottomanism Bosnian Muslims are misinterpreted. One of the usual accusations against them is that of takiye, a concept borrowed -as Zildzic pointed out- from the Shiite tradition, to denote those pretending to be something they were not. These accusations have deprived Bosnian Muslims from the opportunity to clarify their positions and defend themselves. In particular the accusation of takiye does not allow them to answer back. Another issue Zildzic talked about was the concept of tolerance. He pointed out that the medieval Muslim societies being multicultural and multiethnic have both the doctrinal and the historical examples to contribute towards a model of coexistence. However, since tolerance is a medieval value granted from the position of dominance, i.e. the stronger graces the weaker- in today’s world, it should be replaced by the concept of pluralism, as pluralism exterminates the centrality of any group.
As part of the program, participants visited the Greek Orthodox Church of Hagios Pantaleimon, from the 19th century, one of the oldest churches still in use in Istanbul, and the New Mosque, Yeni camii, from the 17th century. It was an opportunity to learn how a religious majority and religious minority in Istanbul practice their religious life, but also to recall the magnificence of the old historical and cultural heritage.
In the final frame of our work we have determined where are we now – which is at the beginning, creating safe environment and leaving our zone of comfort. We have an idea of where we want to be – at point of applying the inspiring experience we have acquired, defining methodological steps of living together, based on our similarities. In order to get there we need – positive thought, faith, patience, optimism, strength but also to question ourselves constantly and challenge own fears and prejudices. We will arrive there – when we respect the other and learn from them, but we are travelers and in this process and we ought to change something. And we have arrived – when we do not have to categorize ourselves, and we do not see difference anymore, when people who we have inspired start inspiring others. In one way or the other, we expect to arrive in 2017 with our last module, where we will complete this process of knowledge sharing and learning from each other. Then it will be upon us to be worthy mediators.