Thursday, November 15, 2007

Reflections on International Summer School on Religion and Public Life

Is it Possible to Change?

For about two months ago, at the end of a mind-spinning India trip, I had to join a group of people whom all come from different countries, identities, boundaries, religions and looks for two weeks. Meeting people at conferences, having casual/ intellectual conversations were probably things we all do frequently. Living semi-together (under the same roof, in different rooms), however, was something new and it changed the concept of the meeting more than I had expected.

First, I saw myself trying to categorize people hastily. Earlier I do it, earlier my mind would be rested. Gender, nationality, religion and profession were my tools. I think I worked unconsciously on that for a few days and then I gave up. I had to come up close to 30 different rooms in my brain. Day by day, I realize everybody was unique. I realized how individual differences can be very significant. There were times when I managed to put two people in the same bubble, but I would see it would easily break when a controversial topic comes up. Everybody being different and having the same opportunities (right to speak, food, room, travel) has been my dream society for a long time. I was at the right place. By the end of the second day, I was physically excited to be part of the summer school.

At the first processing session, I caught myself with so many prejudices. When I was told to find the same and opposite of myself, it was very difficult to find someone filling these positions. What was the same? Not similar but the same, this was heavy. It was not my choice, but I had to find someone. This situation reminded me of other similar experiences in life. We feel not ready to make choices, commitments, but we have to do them anyway. It never feels like the right time, right place. So we go with quick judgments. In such limited time, without knowing people well, I did so. My decision on opposite, depended on my assumption of someone’s political view (which later turned out was not true), and the same looked like a mix of different identities (later turned out very different identities). I realized that I make assumptions on people depending on their groups, religions, countries rather than age, gender and profession. Somebody close to my age, a female, and even the same profession means nothing to me to have a connection. If I think we share some values on intellectual level, or politically, I unfold easily.

More than anything, nationalism and secularism have been bothering my mind. Talking and learning about those two subjects were very helpful for me. Although I was learning for my part, I felt that some of the information we were getting could be too complicated for the ones who did not know much about the subject. Kurdish issue, for example, was something we did not have a lecture on specifically. Many people did not even know why Kurds were not recognized as minorities. Under these circumstances, we watched a movie called “Journey to the Sun” which I did not know about beforehand. I strongly reacted to the movie as I saw it as a learning tool for the group. Many people who do not know about Kurdish issue in Turkey, would automatically believe that Turkish police would treat all Kurds badly, Turkish bosses would yell and take advantage of their employees just because they were Kurds, and many other assumptions that could be set to minds very easily. Moreover, the time that incidents take place were not mentioned so that the audience would think that is usual for Turkey. At this time, I was very part of this group and I really cared about people’s first assumptions on the issue. I would be very comfortable discussing the movie on an intellectual level if I were with people familiar with the subject. Yesim Ustaoglu is a director who is known for her sided political movies, that is why we did not see any reasoning in the movie. As long as Turks keep marrying Turks, I think it is a problem of state and politics. Comparing the Kurdish issue to the Palestinian issue would be totally nonsense. I strongly defend this opinion, and I know many people want to see the two almost identical. That is why I brought up the question of talking about Palestine. If we were to discuss state oppression, many more people were informed about Palestinian issue compare to Kurdish issue. I never intended to offend Adam related to his identity. On the other hand, I was not comfortable an Israeli commenting on Kurdish issue in Turkey, in front of Turks and Kurds almost as an expert. This was the time I changed my mind about my thesis subject. Before, I was planning to do research about the wall separating Israel/ Palestine and its effects on both sides. After this incident and a few others during summer school, I thought I would not be objective or it would be funny on an international level to present something in a few months deeply. I decided to solve my problems with secularism and nationalism first and I decided to understand secular nationalism in Turkey.

Another important thing happened during summer school was constant questioning and thinking. We were listening about ideas and countries first, and then we were commenting back on them by sharing with each other. I tried to see how an idea can reflect itself differently on different people. How a religion can be interrupted differently. How nationality can be an important component of identity for one person and how gender is more important for another one. In this group, if I looked a little carefully, I could see many details that shape identities, relationships, and even new groups.

While meeting, connecting and sharing with so many different people, I learned a lot. Some of the information I had, got updated, some changed. At the end of the 10th day or so, I was very confused with everything I learned. That was the time when people started to ask each other: “So, what do you think is going to happen?” My question was less patient: “What’s happening?” Many values I respected were in danger. Whose truth was more true? How come people believe in different things? How come people believing in different things can be married? Why am I not allowed to marry a non-Muslim? If my religion is not the most important part of my daily life, why should it be of my entire life? Or do I even have the right to question this rule? How about other religions? How much of them can we question? How is it possible to manage believing and thinking at the same time? Jews seem to be doing this very well, what is their secret? And many other questions were wandering in my mind. The most important question that I still couldn’t find answer was at the top though: Is my faith in danger if it reduces itself to equality with other beliefs? Do I have to believe that it is the true and best one in order to keep my devotion to it?

Going to Alevite community was another lifetime experience for me. This was a belief and community that I was not familiar with. I observed the ceremony very carefully, and took notes from the lecture. As much as I respect it as a culture, I do not/ I cannot see it as a religion. There are no written references about the belief, and it rejects some certain requirements of Islam. Not only that, but also the socio economic level of the society caused me some prejudice. I am sure I would be less judgmental if the women in the room were 30-40 year old college graduates. Is that why I felt myself closer at the ceremony in Adam’s room, Bursa? Is it because all these people were clever and open minded to me so the thing they believed in must have been more meaningful? Or is it because it was closer to my faith and the way it is practiced?

Identifying myself with my race, nationality and religion would not be something I like to do at the first place. I would mostly prefer to be perceived with my individual qualifications. Despite my will, the first thing people ask when I go abroad is “Where are you from?” “You Muslim?” Nobody cares what I study or what I think about world hunger. Religion and nationality are critically important to identify one another. I do not specifically include or exclude myself from those groups. I simply try to focus on different details. Until we went to Selimiye Mosque with the group, I had no strong feelings of belonging to any group. I thought there were no groups that would accept me as I am, and there were no groups I would accept them the way they were.

When I went to Selimiye, I felt a strong connection with the mosque. Maybe it was because all the mosques I go are very touristy and I do not go very often, but there was something different. After a very long time, and perhaps after heavy conversations about religions and borders, I felt like a “Muslim”. I covered myself properly and I felt like it was my territory inside the mosque. At this time, I was not a female, not a summer school fellow, not a graduate student, I was simply a Muslim. I focused on this spirituality and prayed for a few minutes. Little bit later, I saw some of my group members were coming in, and women members were not covered properly. As a person who does not care about this at all outside, I got strongly offended by this behavior in the mosque. I did not think about it before, I was just feeling that it was wrong. I didn’t want to “warn” anybody, still being respectful; I went upstairs to the women section which was empty. I kept praying by myself in peace until the other female members of the group showed up. I avoided eye contact and just moved to the other side without giving them any explanation. It was about prayer time and I wanted to join the “Muslim group” to pray together. Still upstairs but far away from the other women, I looked down and saw that they were all men. It would be awkward to pray with men, I got confused. I looked back and saw the women, no, I wanted to be with Muslims. I looked down, I saw men, I had to be with women. Stuck in the middle, I looked at myself and my situation was exactly the same what I am dealing in life. I feel close to many groups but I don’t belong to any of them. Either I don’t want them or they would not accept me, at the end, I am alone. I am trying to figure out everything by myself. This state of loneliness seemed very depressing for a few minutes. I realized many things in such short time with a simple experience.

When I got out I felt like sharing this experience with someone. Looking for someone “similar”, I walked to Enver. As he is a “Muslim”, and a “thinker”, I thought he would understand me, maybe he had similar experiences. He listened to me carefully and gave me the comfort of “I feel you, I understand you” My estrangement lasted a few more minutes and then I got back to being a member of the group. Suprisingly, I was ashamed that I moved away from some of them in the mosque rudely. I felt like giving an explanation but I couldn’t. The next morning, Rahel asked me if they offended me in the mosque, she also felt bad that I moved away. I was touched that she sensed something and cared to learn about it. When I shared my experience, I knew she understood and felt it very well. Later on, we talked about many things, and it was very comforting to talk to somebody who can understand what I have been through.

What was more important to me while opening up to people? If you ask me the people’s common characteristics that I had a stronger connection, I cannot do any generalization that I did at the beginning anymore. They were Muslim, American, Jewish, Bosnian, man, woman, young, old, professor, student etc. I thought the most important feature I was looking for was sincerity and analytical thinking capacity. Everything else were spices, the taste was hidden at the deep.

Nationality and religion are very important keys to understand the people, but people are a lot more than that. Although they keep people “safe” and “control” them for their own good, they build strong boundaries that can prevent connection with one another sometimes. I guess it is true then, we cannot love through control. In this summer school, I questioned the limits of this control and left them behind to reach people. I think I am getting closer to build new borders now. I discovered them first, questioned for a long time, removed some and added some. At the end, I do not think it is possible to completely get rid of them, but they are subject to change as everything else. And this potential gives me hope for more improvement.


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