Religion: it is good that we have different beliefs
How the DAAD is helping young academics appreciate the richness of religious diversity.
“I’ve gained a new perspective on religion,” says Paul Schulenburg. “The trip to Iraq was a great opportunity to get to know a completely different society and see that all religions are based on similar core values.” Paul is in the third semester of a degree course in sport and LER (lifestyle, ethics and religious studies) in Berlin and plans to become a teacher. He is taking part in the “Religious Diversity in Northern Iraq” project run by the Department of Jewish Studies and Religious Studies at the University of Potsdam. In the project, the DAAD is funding exchange activities with three universities in Erbil in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Last spring, Paul and eleven other students travelled to the Kurdish region around the city of Erbil in northern Iraq, where they experienced a culture that has been shaped by Islam for more than a thousand years. It is a culture that is rapidly changing, as globalisation and digitisation are breaking down traditions and established ways of thinking here, too: beliefs are being challenged, authorities questioned. This year, Kurdish students will visit their fellow students in Potsdam.
The aim is for participants to learn to see the strengths of religious diversity. This has a history of its own in Potsdam. In the 17th century, Friedrich Wilhelm of Brandenburg, the Great Elector, allowed 20,000 reformed Protestants, the Huguenots, to resettle in Potsdam after escaping persecution in their homeland of France – a revolutionary step. Potsdam had been Lutheran up to then. The Huguenots became integrated into society and brought about an economic revival in the region.
The project director and Potsdam-based religious scholar Professor Johann Ev. Hafner explains that the University of Potsdam established the partnership between the universities in Germany and Iraq in order to support the peaceful and positive coexistence of different beliefs and faiths. It also wanted to create an understanding among Muslims for people to whom faith does not mean anything.
Germany and Iraq: collaboration between four universities
The project “Mapping religious Erbil” is one of the tasks on the agenda for the university partnership. It aims to map out the diversity of the religious landscape. Comparative analysis – i.e. comparison of religions – in accordance with the self-perception of others and the fair representation of other beliefs is also practised. Hafner says, “Throughout the collaboration with the three universities in Erbil, we are learning from each other in mapping projects how religious diversity can be located, described and analysed in one’s own city. What mosques or churches are where? What do they offer? Who meets there? Are there political and social profiles?”
The two scenarios could not be more different: Potsdam is home to around 80 religious communities who exist like individual islands in the ocean of the secular environment. By contrast, Erbil is criss-crossed by a network of some 500 mosques and ten churches. During the work, fundamental differences in approach have become apparent: “Colleagues from Erbil emphasise the similarity and unity of the mosque communities, whereas Potsdam’s religious scholars are interested in the differences,” explains Hafner. Discussions between the participants have not only been about specialist religious topics, he adds. “We have also looked in detail at the ‘hardware’, i.e. how the universities are organised, how we evaluate courses, how we plan degree programmes and how we shape the transition to the job market. Therefore, members of administrative staff were also involved.”
New perspective on Islam
Paul Schulenburg recounts controversial debates and experiences, both in discussions with representatives of the universities and also within the German group – for example, when a Muslim participant wanted to pray early in the morning and others felt disturbed at first. He also found that dialogue partners in Iraq demonstrated more friendliness the more religious they were. The project has given him another perspective on Islam, although he feels its attachment to tradition is both a strength and a weakness. He was impressed, he says, by the “sense of family cohesion and the social support in society, where the state is weak”. Together the students learnt about the prevailing tolerance between Muslims, Yazidis and Christians in the Kurdish region and about the universities’ fight against radical tendencies which occasionally revealed themselves among students, according to the teachers working at the institutions.
The DAAD also provides funding for other projects that involve interaction and exchange between religions. These include a trilateral cooperation between the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Palestinian Al-Quds University and the Freie Universität Berlin in a one-year master’s degree course entitled “Intellectual Encounters of the Islamicate World”.
Jerusalem: “We are talking about exactly the same questions”
In Jerusalem, Vanessa Walker, Jessica Spalek, Valentin Frisch and Marius Retka are participating in the Muslim-Christian “work weeks” as part of the Theological Study Year in Jerusalem programme at the Dormition Abbey, just south of Jerusalem’s historic old town. In the programme, they also meet people from different religions during their day-to-day lives and take away experiences for life in their own faith. Here too, the DAAD provides funding and scholarships to enable trips and research projects.
“I was able to get to know Islam,” says Jessica, who is studying Roman Catholic theology and German studies in Bochum. For the first time, she personally encountered Muslims and their beliefs, went with them to lectures and visited a mosque and Temple Mount. The teachers of the work weeks include Berlin-based Arabic expert Angelika Neuwirth, Göttingen-based Islam scholar Riem Spielhaus, theologian Ömer Özsoy from Frankfurt am Main and theologian Serdar Kurnaz, who teaches in Hamburg. As well as lectures, the timetable also includes visits to religious sites.
Personal interaction among believers
Vanessa studies Islamic theology and sociology in Osnabrück. She had thoroughly “experienced the contrasts within Christianity” in Jerusalem. Learning about other theologies is more difficult at home, she says. Valentin appreciates the exchange of ideas among religious individuals, which manages to be at both an academic and a personal level: “Theologians sitting together here has been an enriching experience for me. And as believers from different religions, we come to realise that we’re talking about the same issues. This means that both the academic level and also the existential experience of our theology are visible.” Valentin, who is studying Roman Catholic theology and history in Freiburg, says he has learnt how to assess social debates in a more knowledgeable way. Vanessa, recognisable as a Muslim by her headscarf, says Muslims had warned her about going into the Jewish neighbourhood of Jerusalem’s old town, where some people might judge her presence critically or refuse to talk to her. “The contrasts are really extreme,” she says. If the group is out and about together, the reaction towards her is more likely to be one of interest because that is something unusual in Jerusalem. “It’s good to get together with people behind the religion,” says Marius, who is studying Roman Catholic theology in Frankfurt am Main and Uppsala, Sweden. “The public image tends towards stereotypes, be it Islam or Christianity. It does people an injustice.”
The work weeks have taken place since 2012, says dean Professor Ulrich Winkler. In connection with a concept of comparative theology, an attempt is made to perceive another religion from within if possible, taking into account one’s own perception of oneself, and conduct a theological conversation. The Study Year – within the framework of which this one-month shared non-religious learning takes place – has been created as an ecumenical programme. The project and the discourse that it initiates provide impetus for integration and cooperation beyond religious borders. It also receives a great deal of attention. In March, a delegation of 20 representatives from German universities went out to the region. The work weeks were part of their visit programme.