“In terms of ICJS I really pray and hope that its vision is embraced by societies—Muslim and Christian and other religious societies and communities—and that it becomes the norm…that we can expand our work into all the areas where interreligious encounters are naturally happening, like in hospitals, at schools and university campuses where we have a very eager young population who wants to learn about different faith traditions, and they’re really yearning for spirituality and wanting to learn from one another.” — Zeyneb Sayilgan, Ph.D.
On Tuesday, Sept. 15, ICJS Executive Director Heather Miller Rubens welcomed community members to get to know Zeyneb Sayilgan, ICJS’ new Muslim Scholar. Rubens provided a brief background, then focused the discussion around ways that Sayilgan hopes to advance interreligious dialogue and how her unique experiences have prepared her for this endeavor.
The daughter of Kurdish immigrants from Turkey growing up as a Muslim in Germany, Sayilgan often faced bigoted and Islamophobic stereotypes and misperceptions. Interreligious engagement, therefore, has been an intrinsic part of her life from an early age. This personal experience with religious diversity and Muslim immigration informs her academic work. At the intersection of religion and immigration, she examines how faith resources can inform Muslims with regards to questions of identity, belonging, integration and borders.
“I was always confronted with very uncomfortable questions and negative stereotypes related to Islam and there were a lot of statements where I didn’t see myself. That was, I think, the most painful part—that I couldn’t recognize in any of these statements or depictions the beauty of Islam that I had encountered in my own life,” Sayilgan reflected. “Gradually I came to embrace the interreligious enterprise. I was forced to face these questions and they made me more self-aware and self-conscious.”
In embracing this interreligious enterprise, Sayilgan discussed how she turned to journalism as a way to promote advocacy and education to a wider audience. Through journalism Sayilgan found the opportunity to use her own experiences to highlight the ongoing struggles of the oppressed. “There’s a theological and moral imperative for Muslims to share their stories because the Quran itself is deeply dialogical and engages with many different communities,” Sayilgan added. Questions around belonging, identity, home, territorial borders, integration, and assimilation—with all the attendant stress and trauma and pain involved therein—are personal for Sayilgan, yet common amongst so many of today’s marginalized communities.
“I found my strongest refuge was really faith, which empowered me and comforted me and liberated me, and also helped me to embrace all aspects of my identity. I realized I don’t belong in one box or one category,” Sayilgan stated. “So much of what I do is really, in a way, embodied pedagogy.”
Several times during the discussion, Sayilgan highlighted the importance of unlearning as a part of the learning process. Putting aside biases, false narratives, and prior misunderstandings, and listening to the experiences of those of different races, faiths, and cultures is never easy nor painless. This unlearning, however, can be a transformative experience, opening new avenues to understanding, empathy, and dialogue.
“I think as believers—as practitioners of interreligious dialogue—we need to be mindful of who is not at the table, who is being silenced, especially in this very painful moment in our country and I think around the world,” Sayilgan said. “There are a lot of people who feel like they are excluded. I come from a minority perspective. I’m very sensitive to all minority issues because I have experienced discrimination and stereotypes that were very painful to me, so I’m always very keen and trying to see that those who are marginalized come into the center and have a voice, and I think it encourages dialogue.”
Part of the discussion focused on the writings and life of Said Nursi, a 20th century Muslim theologian, who has served as a major influence for Sayilgan’s own pedagogical and theological journey. Sayilgan finds synergy between the teachings of Nursi and the mission of ICJS: to build learning communities where religious difference becomes a powerful force for good. Sayilgan finds inspiration and hope in Nursi’s writings where he counseled “that Christians and Muslims need to work together to address common challenges, to work together for the betterment of humankind.”
“My hope is first and foremost to really be of service in helping Muslims and others to build strong friendships and strong alliances, and to really embrace one another’s differences,” Sayilgan asserted. “I want my two little girls to grow up with people of other faiths and people of no faith while being rooted in their own tradition. And to help everyone see that this diversity can be an enrichment to our lives.”