Monday, January 13, 2014

Day 246 - Let's Talk About It: Muslim Journeys


I have never attend a “Let’s Talk About it” discussion group. This reading and discussion model seeks to inform people about a topic to a greater extent through reading, scholar-led presentations, and open discussions about a topic of central focus. While the basic premise of such meetings offers some general appeal, when I learned the nearby Waunakee Public Library was hosting a “Let’s Talk About it” series focused on the cultural impacts of Islam through the eyes of Muslim authors around the world I decided it was time I gain my first experience with a “Let’s Talk About it” meeting. As a result, I began looking through the listing of monthly meetings in the program, titled “Let’s Talk About it: Muslim Journeys” until I found a meeting that appealed directly to my interests and experience. That effort eventually led me to decide to attend tonight’s meeting on Broken Verses, a novel that tells the story of a Pakistani woman affected by the conflict and political instability in Karachi from the 1970s to the present. With knowledge the gathering would offer history on the region and open discussion about the effects of religion on our lives, I knew the experience would offer plenty of insight and perspective; particularly following my recent experience at a Mosque. As a result, I made my way to the Waunakee Public Library this evening with an open mind and a desire to learn.

The library
Upon arriving at the library, I promptly found my way to the meeting room and took a seat among a group of roughly 20 people as the night’s presentation began. Over the first hour of the meeting the facilitator, a PhD student in Religions of Asia in the Department of Languages and Cultures of Asia at UW-Madison, Jaclyn Michael, walked the group through the history leading to the creation of Pakistan in 1947 and the subsequent violence that ensued. She spoke of the political decisions that led to the creation of a “Muslim homeland” called Pakistan, the somewhat arbitrary lines used to define the border of Pakistan and India, and the divisionary tactics used to stir support for the idea of separate nations divided by faith.

The presentation
 Although the information was largely new to me, I couldn’t help but reflect on the conversation Othman and I had during my visit to a Mosque several days ago. Every point Jaclyn made in her presentation about the mass exodus of people, the violence, and the instability that followed the separation of Pakistan and India was a direct result of political decisions made by people pursuing their own interests. Whether it was the foreign influence of the British or a deep rooted desire to snatch power among some of the higher class citizens in the region, the bloodshed between Hindus and Muslims that followed the creation of Pakistan came about because people of influence used differences in faith to evoke hatred and conflict. As Jaclyn put it, “groups of people that had lived together as neighbors in relative peace for centuries were suddenly bitter enemies because of the decisions of a ruling force.”

Staggering numbers...
Only a few minutes into the discussion that perspective brought together the experiences I have had with Hinduism and Islam over the past eight months, and it made the concept Othman and I spoke about just days ago real. The people responsible for the displacing 10 million people and the death 500,000 people following the partition of Pakistan and India were not people driven by faith, they were people driven by their own desires. In pursuit of retaining or gaining power people of influence decided to strategically use faith to draw battle lines between people and force them into their newly designated “homes” regardless of the cost. That reality was striking given the presentation’s proximity to recent events in my “I have never...” year, and it provided a solid foundation for discussion among the group in attendance.

A poetry book
Over the second half of the meeting I listened on as the group around me discussed the information in Jaclyn’s presentation and its relation to the story at the center of Broken Verses. Through their remarks, the group made ties between the story of a Muslim woman growing up and working in Karachi and their own lives. In what I can only assume was similar to observing the revelations I experienced several days earlier during my trip to the Islamic Society of Milwaukee, I witnessed shifts in perspective and moments of enlightenment as the group came together around the commonalities and universally human aspects of the author’s story. It was strange being in a room where a topic shifted from a concept to a real human connection, but it made me happy I took time to gain the experience. If anything, it was exactly the kind of reinforcement I needed on a lot of the takeaways I had from my experience a few days ago, and it shed light on some of the true sources of the conflict we are often quick to ascribe to the easiest difference we can associate to a person or group.

By the time the meeting drew to a close this evening, I recounted the new information I received from the “Let’s Talk About it” session and the influence it might have on my worldview. Although the overall perspectives offered in the discussion were generally nothing new, the history on the partitioning of India and Pakistan shed new light on one of the most significant events in modern human history. Additionally, the conversation strengthened some important notions that had taken root during previous “I have never...” experiences. As a result, it’s easy to conclude my decision to attend a “Let’s Talk About it” event during my year of new experiences was a good one. I live for opportunities to learn, and they’re all the better when they come from a collective effort in understanding.

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