Parallel Journeys

By Claudia

On my personal blog, I am known as “The Faithful Dissident.” For the past three years, I’ve been hiding behind that alias. Afraid of what, I’m not exactly sure, but some of my experiences during the past yearhave made me realize that I’m not much of a dissident –let alone a “faithful” one where orthodox Mormonism is concerned.

As readers of The Faithful Dissident know, the blog has been an outlet for my musings as I’ve struggled to reconcile the good, bad, and ugly of Mormonism and religion in general. This past year, crossing paths with one special individual in particular –someone who taught me a thing or two about being a real life dissident – became a turning point in my previously angst-ridden spiritual journey.

In my town here in Norway, there is a refugee centre that houses about 125 people from around 20 different nations who are seeking asylum in Norway. Under the current system, the process can easily take years and these refugees are not entitled to much more than a place to sleep, basic health care, and barely enough money to buy food and essentials. For most of them, the days are long and lonely, and the waiting and uncertainty of their future can be as harrowing as the journey many of them had to make to get here. The language barrier, cultural and religious differences, the current political climate where immigration is concerned, general apathy and skepticism tend to make it very difficult to bridge the distance between refugees and the local Norwegian population. The result is that both groups generally keep to themselves.

A little over a year ago, after reading in the local newspaper that what many of these refugees need most from the local community is not donations of clothes or furniture, but someone to actually spend time with them, I decided to get in touch with the centre. To say that this experience has changed my life is an understatement. Intellectually, it has been a fascinating, highly educational intercultural experience and introduction to people and places of the world that I used to know little about. Emotionally, it has been heart-wrenching, as we have had to comfort those who are told they have to leave, forced to say good-bye to some of them; exhilarating when we have celebrated with the lucky few who will be allowed to stay. Spiritually, in an almost inexplicable way, it has been a healing balm to my grieving, disillusioned soul.

On my first day of visiting the centre, I met several wonderful people who overwhelmed me with their warmth and friendliness. But one of these people really stood out and made a strong impression on me and my husband. Habib is an incredibly bright, intelligent, well-read and informed young man from Afghanistan who has seen and experienced more in his 25 years than most of us ever will in an entire lifetime. A member of the oppressed Hazara ethnic minority (those who have read The Kite Runner will recall Hassan, the young Hazara servant boy), Habib knows a thing or two about marginalization and discrimination. Passionate about human rights, gender equality, the need for secular government and freedom of as well as from religion, he is a man of courage and integrity that one rarely has the privilege of meeting. But Habib had to pay a high price for his outspokenness and activism as he became a target for the authorities who wanted to silence him. Before he knew it, he found himself “a prisoner of the road,” (see the video that inspired that term here) forced upon the long and dangerous journey to Europe where he faced an uncertain future. Still, though, the alternative was worse. As I heard his story, I could relate to the overpowering need some of us feel to speak (or write) our minds when we witness injustice. I also realized that true dissidents aren’t hiding behind anonymity like I was – especially when the stakes were relatively minor in comparison.

I discovered that Habib’s journey through Islam paralleled my own through Mormonism in many ways, as we found ourselves on the outside of our respective religions, rejecting common themes of perceived doctrinal superiority, fundamentalism, injustice, sexism, racism, idolization of prophets, polygamy and the backlash against open questioning or criticism. All this ugliness was something that I contrasted with the warmth and beauty that is present in much of Islamic and Mormon practice and culture, which has touched my heart on many occasions. As I started writing articles and discussing immigration with Norwegians, I would sometimes find myself in the awkwardly ironic position of defending Muslims while criticizing Islam – something that I have sometimes found myself having to do with Mormons and Mormonism.

As I interacted with and observed some of the Muslim women at the centre, read the Qu’ran and became more acquainted with Islamic culture and teachings – particularly where women are concerned – I discovered some unexpected parallels with Mormonism that left me feeling increasingly uncomfortable in my own faith and religious culture. It was around that time that I came across a provocative speech by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter in which he stated:

“This view that women are somehow inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or
belief. It is widespread. Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many
faiths. Nor, tragically, does its influence stop at the walls of the church, mosque,
synagogue or temple. This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority,
has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women’s equal rights across the
world for centuries. The male interpretations of religious texts and the way they interact
with, and reinforce, traditional practices justify some of the most pervasive, persistent,
flagrant and damaging examples of human rights abuses.”

Although most Mormon women I know would balk at language such as “human rights abuses” or suggestions that they are inferior in their faith, attending a few Norwegian Lutheran and Community of Christ services and seeing women officiating as priests, contrasted with my discovery of some striking similarities between Islamic and Mormon teachings on gender roles, caused me to ask- really ask- myself questions like I never had before. Was I prevented from playing a full and equal role in my faith? Do I, as a woman, really have any more influence within Mormonism than the average Muslim woman has in her faith community? After looking beyond extreme examples of violence and blatant gender inequality in the Muslim world, I realized that the limits they face in their religion were reflected in my own.

As a woman in Norway, I have many more  opportunities and freedoms in my European society than my sisters in Saudi Arabia have in theirs. But within our respective religions, we are both excluded from authority purely on grounds of our gender. Any God-given talent for organizational development that we may possess becomes, ultimately, irrelevant where religion is concerned. Both Mormonism and Islam hold to the notion that women are equal, yet different — their justification for excluding them from full participation and authority. And both, in my opinion, fail to realize that this exclusion has consequences, even though, sadly, they remain largely unseen and unexplored.

I admire those who attempt to carve out a place for heterodoxy or progressive development within Mormonism, just as I admire those Muslims who are engaged in open discussion about the modernization of Islam. Within both faiths, the price is high for those who criticize or initiate debate. For Mormons, it can mean the breakup of a marriage, strained family relationships, loss of friendships, being ostracized by local society, or at the very least some pretty heavy guilt trips. For Muslims the consequences are much the same, though in some areas of the world much more severe.

Though reconciliation with the faith in which I was raised seems as elusive as ever, this past year I learned to look into the eyes of someone and truly feel at one with them by viewing them through a lens that is untainted by a perceived moral or religious superiority. And maybe for the first time in my life, I feel like a real member of humanity as I have become more conscious of the fact that although we all have our individual cultures, values, faith and beliefs, we are all, ultimately, in the same boat of life.

Our unlikely meeting has enriched our lives for the better and though I know that Habib thinks that he has profited the most from it, I’m not so sure that is true. For him, it meant finding a sister who can help him with the practical needs of every day life, the challenge of becoming integrated in a new society, as well as the emotional support of a caring and listening ear. For me, it was gaining a new brother who, without even realizing it, opened up a new world of spiritual thought and opportunity to serve others during some of their most vulnerable times of life, which has allowed me to experience love and compassion for others at a higher level. For both of us, it was a family connection that neither of us could have ever expected or imagined – one that I hope will last for eternity.