Friday, May 13, 2011

Reflections from the Emerging Minds Project - Meltem Naz Kaso

Emerging Minds Project | April 2011 Meltem Naz Kaso- First Year

The purpose of the Emerging Minds Project (EMP) is to create an intellectually open and dynamic environment for students to learn about and discuss social justice issues of today. Each month, a group of 11 students come together at 5710 to dialogue with an experienced facilitator who works in the field.

*The views and opinions expressed in these blog entries are that of each individual author and do not necessarily reflect a collective opinion of the EMP cohort or that of the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs.

“Freedom of Religion” or “Freedom from Religion”

Teresa Hord Owens, the Dean of Students at University of Chicago Divinity School, is the first person who challenged me to ask myself the question above. Being from Turkey, a country that strives to adapt secular practices despite its 98% Muslim population, I have realized how relevant it is to understand the difference between “the freedom of religion” and “the freedom from religion.” Does freedom of religion in private life require being free from religion in public sphere? By promising individuals the right to freedom of religion, is it our obligation not to force them towards freedom from religion? These are all very complicated questions that seem easy to ask but nevertheless hard to answer. But I am proud to say that after last week’s session, I have modified my answers. Now I am a strong believer of the idea that individuals may or may not believe in God. Similarly, they may practice religion or be firm atheists. In any case, nobody is “free from religion” in a sense that gaining religious competency is fundamental for anyone living in a pluralistic society.

Religion, I have always thought, is both a poison and a remedy because it is both exclusive and inclusive. In other words, while it puts barriers between “those Muslims” and “us Christians” (even between people from the same religion have different denominations). But it also forms a tight bond between the people of same religion. Therefore, while I am always happy to see the positive consequences of such inter-dependency between people of the same religious group who help each other and who share each others’ experiences, I am also cautious for that I do not think it is fair to group people together under “the headings” of religion. How does religion help us in understanding people if not all Christians are moral and all Muslims are terrorist? How do we deal with the idea that an atheist may be more loving and forgiving than a devoted Jew?

Again, how do we understand people? Now I know that regardless of holding anything sacred and practicing any religion, by virtue of showing our respect for those who do, we need to be religiously competent. We can agree to disagree. Nobody has to convince or convert the other, but we simply need to negotiate our identities in such a way that we can empathize with each other. Simply put, respecting others requires a solid understanding of their beliefs (or their lack of belief, for this challenge of empathizing is not about becoming familiar with a particular religion per se, but about understanding each other).

Clearly, last week’s discussion was about religion. But I cannot help myself but wonder if we –the human race- practice the notion of understanding others’ perspectives on faith; cannot we use this skill to understand others beyond the issues of religion? I am almost convinced that by learning not to impose sameness on others in the sphere of religion, we can be better off in dealing with issues like national security and diplomatic crisis. We can learn to be different but equal. We can love each other for who we are.

Meltem Naz Kaso is a first year in the College studying political science. Along with the Emerging Minds Project, her campus involvement includes CSLTC (Community Service Leadership Training Corps), ISA (International Student Association) and TSA (Turkish Student Association). In her first quarter, she proudly became the recipient of the Balanced Student Excellence Award given by Sigma Phi Epsilon (SigEp) to recognize University of Chicago first-year students who have shown academic excellence and have repeatedly proven their leadership skills both in the classroom and the community. Meltem has studied high school in Italy, Turkey, and the USA. Her goal is simply to enjoy life through learning from each experience.