Intellectual Encounters..beyond co-existence
A reflection on the experience
The moment I applied to the program at the Masters Program of Intellectual Encounters of the Islamicate Worlds at the Freie University four years ago, I had two things in mind: Al Ghazali and an interfaith debate of a different setup.
I was “blocked” in writing a thesis for al Quds University on women status in Jerusalem when I realized that my hero al Ghazali was practically of the ongoing deterioration of Muslim women status along the history of Muslim nations.
Of course, this is a broad, unscientific statement, and too much “unfair” …. But driving with a broken heart and curiosity, digging into al Ghazali’s tomb was my aim.
As usual, the reality is different.
I was taking one shock after the other.
The question about the program itself: who are these people? What do they want from us? They are trying to brainwash us.
I remember the first time Camilla told us that Islam did not end slavery. I, of course, knew it before, and I could claim, I was the most knowledgeable on such issues (the old and wise). I found myself meditating, among the group . “ these people are telling us that Islam did not end slavery .” one can imagine a course on polemics, and the have-nots Camilla was trying her best to stay as friendly as possible, telling us all those stories of al ghi-yar and the dark side of the Islam we learnt about in schools and was fed to us in every single breath we took along our lives.
We went to our tutor who was in a different world. We went to the president of the university who shocked me on a personal level when he said: “Tell them that Jews couldn’t enter the universities in the united states until the late sixties!”
Are we there to say them or tell us? I thought. This is not how the debate should be. And Islam did not end slavery. Why wouldn’t we deal with the facts as they are?
The whole experience on this level was entirely new to our group. We did not come from the same background that is related to philosophy or even close to it. The selection was based on having enough demand on English and interest.
We spent a lot of time among ourselves analyzing and debating the ideas that were expressed in the courses. Of course, we had to also put our impressions on the instructors, and handling the material was something we didn’t want to touch a lot because we were suspicious and everything was new. But also, we were processed differently. The tutor did not know anything about the program itself, and this made it worse. And of course, he was not available, so we were practically knocking our heads in walls. By the time we had another tutor we were at the end of the second semester, and man … if the first teacher was unavailable this one lived in la la land!!!
Then there were those two Israelis sitting there, trying to be friendly. “where do they come from ? “ look at his boots, soldiers boots ? “.“ he says he served in the army” ? “ he knows Arabic.”
Along with all this, we were reflecting on the instructors: jew no Jew? jew no jew?
By the first writing assignment, things took a different dimension. These people were dangerous, Mark Cohen? They want us to be sympathetic to the Jews!
On and off, the debate among us continued, and it was serious, between suspicion, no one to talk to, and an exposed gap between the other students and us was becoming apparent. We were looking at our Israeli colleagues who had a tutor who met them on a regular basis and was working with them on the material. I was jealous to know that Sara sits with them every one month to read with them texts in Arabic.
And we were there, stuck, roaming in circles trying to figure out what is needed.
We were in a situation where each set of this program had his separate expectations from the others. The instructors are thinking that we are getting support from a tutor. An instructor that is not existing, and when appearing he tried to explain things in an opposite fashion of what the program required. A management team that thinks that everything is by the plan …. And us … Rowing on a boat in a middle of a vast ocean of philosophy.
Time passes slowly, with assignments that continued to prove that we have a problem. We were not stupid. We were just using our capacity to demonstrate that we were committed. The academic background was, by all means, an issue. To most of us, this was different on existing world before that year.
Our research skills were minimal. To most of us writing a research paper with the expectations of the instructor was entirely new. We came from local universities that scientific research aside from being taught does not meet the criteria that are needed. It was two separate worlds of everything.
The result was that the gap continued to enlarge, between us and everyone else in the program.
Towards the end of the second semester, Gaza war started, and the political situation took an entirely different direction. War was very close to our doors. In Jerusalem, the burning of Mohammad Abu Khdeir shook our safety. Violations were everywhere. It was many months of not stop threats. The scenes of destruction coming from Gaza were heart breaking. We were all affected, and everything seemed meaningless.
It was struggling by all means. But yet, everyone involved wanted it to work.
We managed, we paid high prices, we finished.
As time passed, we continued to reflect, and more lessons continued to be learned.
The experience, by all means, changed us all. On a level so separate from that of the academic.
We all became people who started seeing things beyond what they appear to be.
We learned that our identities are given at birth, there is not much to change about it. But our attitudes to the other is what shapes our identities. Faith is something that is engraved deeply in us all.
Us and them.
We are not supposed to change one another. We need to work on the modification inside us.
Humanizing each other seems harder than it appears.
And again, we needed to start a journey within us for that change.. not on them.
It is a whole set of an entirely different approach.
Start with yourself.
Be your master of change.
Search in the depths of all those who came before and tried so hard to make a difference in this world.
As we were the weaker group regarding our capacity, we came from the stronger side of the history we were studying. All these people are gathered in the Islamicate world trying to figure out what the Islamic civilization left in that time.
A sense of pride that made our curiosity eventually more meaningful. We settled down, and we started exploring.
We learned that history is not granted, history is achieved.
As the debate continued, we learned a valuable lesson in coexistence.
Well… I, of course, don’t like this term. I don’t like to use it, and it is a taboo as much as normalization is.
But becoming a philosophy student only opened such analysis and debate. They want us to coexist. Mission accomplished :
We give equal opportunities to two groups; we give more privilege to the marginalized and poor (us), we put them together. But the way each team takes the opportunities is up to them. And we were, of course, the weaker.
But it does not work this way.
It is not about coexistence it is the symbol of the Freie University, “ Veritas, Justitia, Libertas.” And this is not for granted. This is something we need to fight to reach.
As time passed by, we reached a level that became beyond coexistence, and it only happened when each one of us was able to look deep inside him and accept his flows, and embrace his weaknesses and dare to get his strength out. It was only then that we were able to look at the other and think: he is a fellow human being, he is also struggling with his flows, with his weaknesses and strengths. Just like us.
In the last few days, I was looking around, and I was feeling proud.
I was sitting yesterday in the graduation ceremony, and I said to myself: We have gone a long way.
It is not a matter of one experience. It is not a matter of one’s failure or one’s success. It is a process of change that we all deserve.
And it is only through an intellectual encounter as such, that we can dig in our histories without fearing one another.
That history is already dead ….
We are here to make the change in getting the better human beings out of us.