Hallo from Berlin, Germany! It’s been a few days since I last posted, so I figured I’d give an update while I had the chance. I’ve been in Berlin for 3 days now, and I’ve been having a blast. The city is a little rough around the edges, but it has its own rich character and personality. In Europe, I’ve been to London, Paris, Geneva, Istanbul, & Athens, but Berlin is nothing like any place I’ve visited thus far. Of course Berlin is full of history and culture, and as many say, it’s like the Brooklyn of Europe (or at least, certain parts of the city). Perfect for hipsters, musicians, and potheads (I’ll get to that in another post)..
Anyways, so what I have been up to during my time here? I initially made plans to visit Berlin during last semester, and from then on it was decided! I was greeted by my friend Nathan at the airport, with his adorable 2 year old son named Hannes. Nathan, his wife Anna, and Hannes live in a cozy flat in Neukölln, which is basically the hip, cultural neighborhood where a large Turkish and Arab population also lives (there’s delicious halal turkish restaurants everywhere!). That’s an interesting thing about Berlin; there is a large Turkish immigrant population. The city is extremely diverse with an abundance of cultures and nationalities, and it’s very normal to see women walking around in the headscarf.
I first met Nathan when he was in Chicago this past summer, while I was working for the Interfaith Youth Core. Nathan is completing his PhD on the Sociology of Religion in North America, and he is also teaching a course on Religious Pluralism in the North America to undergrad students here at Free University of Berlin. Nathan asked if I might like to speak at his class on Tuesday evening about the interfaith work I do in the US, as well as my own experience being a Muslim American hijabi, to which I agreed of course. I had no idea, however, that I’d be challenging myself more than I’d expect.
One thing to note off the bat, the concept of religion or faith in public discourse is completely taboo and to an extent, unheard of, in Germany, and largely Europe as a whole. Similar to the French perspective, one’s personal religious tradition is exactly that – personal and PRIVATE. People don’t ask you about it, you don’t talk about it, and that’s that. It’s something you are fully allowed to do in your private life, but speaking about it in public is just not a social norm.
So for someone like me, who is a word-vomiting, annoyingly enthusiastic and dedicated Interfaith leader and activist, one could say that this was a mindset I was a little unfamiliar with. Of course I had read about the European stance on religion in the public sphere, but I had no idea that a predominantly irreligious population would struggle to understand how I practice a faith so near and dear to my heart.
I met with some of Nathan’s students for coffee around noon, to discuss Islam since it was the tradition the group would have to present later on, and they asked me general questions and were very open minded and receptive to my responses. That’s the thing, people aren’t racist or narrow-minded. They’re not ignorant or bad people, the mentality is just so different, and the concept of interfaith work is one that doesn’t really exist. In this post-communist city that has generations of atheism, agnosticism, or just nones, the notion of interfaith dialogue is one that would not necessarily receive as positive of a response as it would in the US. There are religious populations as well, but again, it stays personal. Even culturally, there is a notion of other-ing by even using noninclusive language. By saying that there are Muslims in Germany and not German Muslims, even something as simple as this perpetuates the disconnect.
As I gave my presentation about the interfaith work I do at SLU, as well as my experiences as a hijabi, I was met with a very curious response. It was the first time that I realized how easy it is to do interfaith work in the US, a country whose President initiates an interfaith challenge, at a university where I receive so much institutionalized support to bring together people of all traditions to engage in dialogue and service. Never had I truly spoken to a group of people who weren’t the least bit familiar to the idea. It’s not exactly that the students weren’t open to the idea, but the concept of using faith as a mobilizing force to engage communities to improve civic society, well let’s just say it wouldn’t really roll well.
One of the most difficult parts of my presentation was when I was grilled with questions from one particularly interested student regarding Islam’s perspective on the hijab, women’s suppression, marriage, and other hot topics. I’m used to giving presentations on Islam, as I’ve done many many times in the US to small and large audiences, but never had I felt like I had to defend or justify my faith to someone who wasn’t satisfied with my responses. I am of course open to all questions and try my best to answer as openly and thoroughly as possible. But this was a rapid fire I had not expected. I had given the usual disclaimers that I represented myself and not my entire tradition; that I was not a scholar and did not have all the knowledge one possesses, but I felt like she was expecting a theologically based, scriptural-supported argument to why I practice Islam in a scholarly manner. And I was unable to offer her that.
That was when I realized why the perception of interfaith work is so different in the US. As IFYC has trained me to say many times, it’s about dialogue, not debate. The point of these conversations we try to cultivate is not to have a scholarly showdown about why one faith is right or how I can prove to someone why Islam is perfect by shooting out exact verses of the Qur’an to support my views. Of course, that is healthy to a certain extent in a controlled environment, but it’s not the point of interfaith.
I practice Islam because it’s a tradition that gives my life meaning, it gives me a purpose. I am inspired by its teachings to live a greater life and on a larger scale, to serve God. I’m not perfect, nor am I literate on every exact doctrinal detail, but I try my best. At the end of the day, like many others, I put my faith into a belief system that gives me a way to connect with something that can’t be expressed. I do interfaith work not to prove to people why Islam is ideal, but rather to stand in solidarity with people of all religion and nonreligions on the basic notion that we put our faith into something, be it God, humans, the community, whatever, and that we find humanity and purpose through this means.
I am glad I was asked those questions, because it’s important for one to know and understand the tradition they practice while challenging certain beliefs to better understand them. But it’s just as okay for me to say that I’m a Muslim because I’m inspired by Islamic teachings to live a meaningful life, and that explanation is good enough.
The people here may not entirely be able to understand that mindset, and that’s okay. To certain folk, following a tradition simply means boiling it down to a science and rigidly following a doctrine. To me, it’s about finding what inspires you. I’m glad that I was challenged and I hope to continue to meet people who challenge my notions and what I perceive as a social norm. Through these encounters, one expands their mindset and understanding. If anything, I hope I continue to grow as an interfaith leader. I hope my openness encourages people to express whatever it is that they put their faith into because it inspires them, just as much as Islam inspires me.