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Religion Is Not the Problem: An Interview with Sahar Taman

7 December 2011 One Comment

Sahar Taman

“Dialogue alone is not sufficient. Building partnerships and addressing common interests is what is needed.”

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Connection Point Manager Yasmina Mrabet interviewed Sahar Taman, Co-Founder of Journeys to Understanding and the 2011 Connection Point Award winner, about her work in interfaith dialogue in Egypt. Her responses are below.


Tell me more about your work in interfaith dialogue. Why is it important?

Religion is important. For too long we have understood that separation of church and state and freedom of religion means keeping religion personal and private. It isn’t. It is public and in-your-face. Religious adherents from all faiths are proud of their beliefs, raise their children as co-believers, and seek to build religious communities. It’s a big part of all of our identities. Ignoring religion as part of the societal and political dynamic has been a “hide your head in the sand” avoidance tactic. We need to share about our faiths and to share about ourselves. That is interfaith dialogue. It humanizes us within the context of our faith, which cannot be divorced from our humanness.

For too long religion has been seen only as a source of divisiveness and conflict. I am not sure how much truth there is to that, when there are most always other factors such as wealth and power involved. We don’t say often enough that religion is what keeps civility going in our world. Societal laws only enforce what our religions teach us: decency, graciousness, and generosity. In the United States we do not give credit to the immense good our pluralistic religious landscape provides, including social services, humanitarian aid, and education. The poor would be poorer without the generosity of money and time from congregants of churches, mosques, and synagogues. While these efforts are too often perceived as underhanded opportunities to proselytize, there is generally little truth in that, as the motivation is to give. In the end people who need help get it.

This same good will is true in the Middle East where I work, or in the rest of the Muslim world. Without religious people providing for the (much) less privileged, these societies would have even larger economic, educational, and political and social problems.

I work in interfaith dialogue in the international setting. It is part of citizen diplomacy: outreach from common citizens across borders to know each other, understand each other, clear the misperceptions, and perhaps stop the irrational fear of the “Other.”  Most often when you break bread with the “Other”– Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist or any faith practitioners–you realize that they are human just like you.  Really, most times it’s that simple.

What is your view on the current work needed in Egypt, given the dynamics of ongoing revolution?

I believe that the most important of interfaith dialogues at this time is partnership building between Egypt’s Muslims and Coptic Christians. Throughout Egypt’s revolution of January 25th, which is still ongoing, there have been incidents of violence and church burnings. Many Egyptians believe this rift is manufactured by powers seeking to create chaos in the country. Generations of Egyptians attest that throughout their lifetime Egyptian Muslims and Christians were Egyptians first, and tension and sectarianism did not exist. What is happening now is dangerous, especially in light of other tensions and violence as Egypt goes through intense growing pains of democracy.

Moaz Eddin Street in Cairo

Part of the growing pains is building self-rule and self-sufficiency both at the national and local levels. I am developing a project in Egypt that addresses the interfaith dialogue but also develops partnerships between Egyptian Christians and Muslims. Dialogue alone is not sufficient. Building partnerships and addressing common interests is what is needed.

What is the biggest challenge in doing this type of work?

The biggest challenge is getting people to the table. Trust-building is the most important step, and it’s a great responsibility. People want to know your intentions, why you want to bring them together with individuals from other faiths, and you need to be up front and transparent. Other challenges are ensuring safety for participants. The Arab Spring is still blooming, so in most countries it is still quite dangerous for local people to participate in a dialogue on religion. It is often seen as an inroad to political discussion and flagged under the radar of treason against state security. The danger to the locals is what we have seen before us on the TV for the last several months: intimidation tactics, questioning, even kidnapping and killing. The danger is not to the outsider, to the Americans and internationals, because we leave. Yet we often do not know what happens to those who we engaged with after we leave.

Other serious obstacles include the fear of the unknown, but once people are at the table, that is usually overcome and we get to know the “Other.”

In what ways does interfaith dialogue contribute to social change for women, particularly in the case of Egypt?

I recently came back from a forum in Egypt, sponsored by the Global Peace Initiative of Women (GPIW), a U.S.-based NGO where I was a participant and convener. The topic was Universal Values as the Foundation for Societal Transformation. GPIW’s model is to bring international spiritual leaders and practitioners of all the world’s faiths to convene as contemplatives with local people in places with recent societal upheaval, such as Egypt’s 2011 revolution, which is still ongoing. Most of the Egyptian participants were women. They represented all segments of Egypt’s society, which is not homogenous as has been previously portrayed. These women were university professors, spiritual leaders, rural and urban women, privileged and not so, modern and traditional, educated at different levels, of diverse opinions. The international participants were from as varied places as India, Germany, the U.K,  the U.S.,  Pakistan, and Uganda, and represented Hindus, Buddhists, practitioners of yoga and meditation, and Sufi Muslims and Sufi Christians. The Egyptian women led the discussion revealing a clear vision for the transformation of Egypt and making clear that they were part of the leadership.

Interfaith dialogue contributes to social change for women because women are part of it; often they are leading it. When the dialogue is at the grassroots level, it goes beyond the involvement of official clergy, the Muslim Imam or the Rabbi or Pastor. Then women come in as participants and leaders and carry the conversations forward. Women’s involvement in this type of dialogue is not seen as threatening to the societal power factors. After all, economics—money—is usually not a part of interfaith discussion. However, in the human-to-human experience that is a dialogue, I have seen women honored and empowered because of, not in spite of, their roles as nurturers and caregivers, as mothers, daughters, and wives. Women grow and change because of their experiences and societies change for the better. Regardless of what we often see, all faiths teach respect for women.

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In an article for the Huffington Post last week, Sahar reflects on her recent visit to Egypt, and from what she witnessed, Egyptians have no intention of allowing their revolution to be hijacked.
To learn more about Sahar’s work, check out http://www.journeystounderstanding.org/

Find out more about our Connection Point initiative on http://www.peacexpeace.org/connection-point.

The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.

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One Comments to “Religion Is Not the Problem: An Interview with Sahar Taman”
  1. Suirauqa says:

    Religion is important. For too long we have understood that separation of church and state and freedom of religion means keeping religion personal and private. It isn’t. It is public and in-your-face.

    Is that why religious folks become crazy upset when they meet atheists/non-believers? Because they can’t readily compartmentalize the non-believers in their worldview?

    Religious adherents from all faiths are proud of their beliefs, raise their children as co-believers, and seek to build religious communities. It’s a big part of all of our identities.

    Do these children ever get a choice to examine their parents’ belief systems critically?

    For too long religion has been seen only as a source of divisiveness and conflict. I am not sure how much truth there is to that, when there are most always other factors such as wealth and power involved.

    Is Ms. Sahar completely blind to the strife that religion has created in many different parts of the world? Is she deliberately ignorant of the fact that the absolute requirement of unquestioning adherence to religious tenets makes religions easy tools to manipulate people and gain power/wealth?

    We don’t say often enough that religion is what keeps civility going in our world. Societal laws only enforce what our religions teach us: decency, graciousness, and generosity.

    Is Ms. Sahar deliberately engaging in the old – and disproven – trope that only religion has a stranglehold on ethics and morality?

    The poor would be poorer without the generosity of money and time from congregants of churches, mosques, and synagogues.

    How about the immense wealth the Catholic Church has obtained and stored? How about the trappings of wealth that religious leaders of various Abrahamic religions put on display?

    I am curious, Ms. Sahar. What exactly is religion to you? What is your opinion about the various Scriptures of Abrahamic religions and the dictates inscribed therein?

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