Balkans - 2008
The ISM trip to the Balkans revealed a complex place rich in history, culture, and scholarship, with a beautiful landscape and hospitable people. But to me, perhaps the most striking aspect of our trip was our experience of it—that is, the manner of our encounter.
We began our trip in Sarajevo, where many buildings still remain pockmarked from the war. Aside from the minarets punctuating its cityscape, Sarajevo looks like any other eastern European city. One evening, at the Center for Islamic Studies, we were privileged to have an hour with Dr. Mustafa Ceric, the Grand-Mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina and one of the signatories of A Common Word between Us and You, the 2007 open letter to Christian leaders and communities from 138 influential Muslim clerics representing every school and sect of Islam from around the world.. During his talk I was struck by the fact that he recommended tolerance in interfaith dialogue even at the “loss of some identity,” because in an earlier interview conducted by Nadeem Azam, which we were given as preparatory material, Dr. Ceric said of interfaith dialogue: “My advice is that everybody should stick to their faith and practice it and not attempt to deny others the right to do the same. People should also be honest and not allow themselves to be intoxicated by the occasion and give in to pressure to water down either their beliefs or what constitutes their basic interests.” When pressed on the apparent conflict in the statements of the interview and that of our current conversation, Dr. Ceric responded that tolerance works as a general concept and that the loss of identity occurs on the particular level. In other words, surrendering a portion of identity in the particular can actually cause a fulfilling of identity on the general, or international, level of the human race.
During our time in Sarajevo, as we met with Muslim professors and students, and toured a mosque and madresa, I observed a tension between our desire to participate in an “interfaith dialogue” and to assert our (Western) conceptions of liberal culture, especially in areas such as women’s roles and rights. The brief discussion in Sarajevo raised more questions than could be answered, such as: what does interfaith dialogue really mean? What are its purposes? Does it have one beyond itself? And how can it be conducted peacefully and respectfully in a way that honors the religions and, just as importantly, the cultures involved?
Our visit to the city of Medugorje, in Herzegovina, was another pivotal experience. In 1981, Medugorje became a pilgrimage site (though not officially recognized by the Vatican), when the Virgin Mary appeared and spoke to six children on top of a large hill. To this day she still appears to the pilgrims who come from all over the world. Our very evangelistic guide led us up the hill, praying the rosary and telling us countless stories of the troubles other pilgrims have endured in order to ascend Apparition Hill, as though she could will us to be pilgrims, rather than mere tourists. The difference between the pilgrim and the tourist, so far as I can tell, seems to be in attitude—the direction—of intent: the tourist consumes while the pilgrim accepts. Granted, a tourist can sometimes become a pilgrim, through an unexpected encounter or experience. The tension of our trip was exactly in this slippage between tourist and pilgrim. There is no doubt that we were first and foremost tourists, traveling as a group of academics and professionals with the purpose of observing the arts and religions of another culture. It was an incredible and unique opportunity through which we learned and experienced a lot. However, there were moments in which my own tourist and pilgrim parts conflicted, or at the very least were uncomfortable with each other.
Uphill work for tourists/pilgrims
I think this tension is also present in the realm of interfaith dialogue. That is, the only way to be successful in such a dialogue is to approach it as a pilgrim—humble, open, prayerful, and expectant, rather than as a tourist with the intention to consume or homogenize the other culture to ours.
If I get to choose, I’d rather not be a tourist; I want to be a pilgrim—and not only a pilgrim in other countries and cultures, but in every moment of my own life, wherever I may be.
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