Monday, February 7, 2011

Reflections on a trip in the so-called "Holy Land"

I don't necessarily subscribe to the concept of a "Holy Land." In fact, the more time I spend observing how people fight over the so-called "holy" - places, relics, etc. - the less I like the concept (as used to things and places in the world).

I recently spent seven days with a group of doctoral students (of 8 different nationalities, residing in 10 different countries) meeting with Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders (both Palestinian and Israeli) who are working for peace and justice in Nazareth, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah and elsewhere. It was an intense week, full of emotions ranging from deep sorrow to frustration and anger, and with some glimmers of hope, the latter inspired by many of the amazing people we met.

We saw and experience too much to relate at one time, so I will highlight several of the people and groups that we met with, and some of the perspectives and convictions and actions that both instruct me and give hope.

Our first visit was with (Sufi) Sheikh Ghassan Manasra, who leads the Lights of Peace Society in Nazareth. As with other leaders that we met, I came away inspired and wishing that I could spend more time with him.

Many in our group had not previously met a Muslim face to face, and I think they were a bit taken aback. I would describe Sheikh Ghassan as a man whose countenance is radiant - in his face (and in his words) you see light and joy and peace.

My "peace quote of the day" from the Sheikh is this: "We have created you male and female, and appointed you races and tribes so that you may know one another." His application of this verse from the Qur'an (49:13) is that human beings are all one family (descended from Adam and Eve). We do not need to agree, but we need to respect each other. Renewal, he said, comes through our differences; the other is our mirror - we know ourselves through the other. His mission in life is to change people from being his enemy to being his friend. He also emphasized that the person you meet is you with a different language, religion, nationality, culture...; i.e., we share the same essence as human beings.

What a contrast between Sheikh Ghassan's heart and perspective, and the actions of a few violent extremists (who in his view and that of many other Muslims, are hijacking Islam). His emphasis rings true to that of the majority of Muslims I have known over the years, though he is deeper than most in the mystical tradition and the spiritual life. Sadly, this perspective on Islam is rarely highlighted in the Western press.

One of our group asked him about jihad. He related the teaching of his Sheikh (the leader of their order) that the greatest jihad is against your ego, your evil inclinations. The most dangerous enemy, in his view, is the enemy inside you, and the process of learning to fight against and conquer the evil inside of you is at the heart of their religious life. He related an incident in which he was treated badly by Israeli soldiers, and became angry. Then he remembered the teaching of the Sheikh about inner jihad, and he fought to return to a state of peace and joy (and seeing the soldiers not as enemies but as fellow human beings).

I know that many religious people do not feel that they have anything to learn from someone who is a member of a different religion. I think that the members of our group, all Christians, came away from our time with Sheikh Ghassan feeling that he has insight into life principles that resonate with the teachings of Jesus, and that we all can benefit from.

It was also clear to me that if more Muslims, Christians and Jews followed his example, we would be closer to peace.


AmelMag said...

I like that quote a lot.

It's interesting, because a lot of the feminist theorists I'm reading (especially those tending towards the "mystical" -- like Helene Cixous) have very similar ideas. Their definition of feminism is an embrace of anti-patriarchal space -- patriarchy being defined as all that upholds an oppositional economy of "us" vs. "them," where the "us" can only survive to the degree that it supresses the "them." They emphasize recognizing the Other within the self, and loving the Other as Other (rather than trying to turn it/him/her into the Same).

Not sure if the correlation is clear to anyone other than me, but in my head they're very connected...

Mideast Mag said...

I see it. It corresponds to some extent with Bennett's "Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity," where growth toward a positive experience of the other involves a stage of Acceptance, in which you allow the Other to be different (not try to reduce them to a version of yourself), but equally human, and relate to them on those (and on their) terms.