ROME, JUNE 3, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Lejla Demiri, a Muslim studying Christian theology at the Gregorian University, doesn’t understand some of the West’s criticisms of her religion.
“Let’s be honest,” she says. “I don’t really understand how I, as a Muslim woman, am oppressed.”
There are many women studying in pontifical universities, but very few are Muslim like Demiri, who agreed to speak to ZENIT about how she sees Christianity and Islam and the dialogue between believers of the two religions.
As a religion, Islam is neither violent nor oppressive to women, says Demiri, who obtained her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Muslim theology at the University of Marmara, in Istanbul. She is currently a doctoral candidate there.
She has also studied theology at the University of St. Thomas Aquinas, the Angelicum. After a one-year diploma in interreligious studies at the Gregorian, she is now finishing her licentiate there.
Q: Why did you come to Rome to study Christianity?
Demiri: I started an academic research which was directly connected with Christianity. Therefore for me the best place for studying Christian theology was Rome.
You will probably ask what made me decide to do research on Christianity? Well, I can say that the simple answer to this question is my background. I come from Macedonia, where mainly Orthodox Christians and Muslims live in the same society, and I also spent lots of time in Croatia where the majority is Catholic. So, when I look at my background I can easily find the answer to this question.
As a result, after I had studied Muslim theology in Istanbul, I decided to immerse myself in study of Christian theology, and as I said earlier the best place to do this, is Rome.
Besides academic work and research at the pontifical Gregorian University, I also had an opportunity to live in a Christian community, the Lay Center at Foyer Unitas, and share daily life with Christian friends who helped me gain insights.
Q: As a Muslim woman, what do you think is the most difficult in the dialogue between Christianity and Islam?
Demiri: First of all, I wouldn’t call it a dialogue between Christianity and Islam, but rather dialogue between Christians and Muslims. It is people who are doing the dialoguing, the members of these two religions, and not the religions as such.
As a Muslim woman, I think, there is especially a need for the female contribution to the dialogue. Although I do not want to sound discriminative, I still hold the feminine dimension will add some positive aspects to dialogue endeavor, especially to everyday dialogue, in other words, the dialogue of life.
One of the most important problems that one would most probably encounter in this field is that of prejudices. Therefore I would say that the very first condition for dialogue consists of mutual knowledge.
It can be clearly seen that many enmities and hostilities are products of lack of knowledge and ignorance. I can give an example of one of these prejudices and misinformation that we often see. Unfortunately, very often in the mass media, Muslim women are described as oppressed and the object of violence.
Q: How do you explain that Islam is not violent?
Demiri: Again, sadly enough, very often in the media we see Islam put side by side with terrorism, and Muslims associated with terrorists. This really distorts and obscures reality, and most importantly creates wrong prejudices.
As a Muslim, thinking about peace and religion, I am always reminded of the meaning of “Islam” within this context. “Islam” means “submission to God” and it comes from the Arabic root “s-l-m” which means “peace.”
Moreover, “Salâm,” peace, is one of the 99 names of God in Muslim tradition. Every Muslim ends his five daily prayers with this short prayer: “Oh God, You are peace; and from You comes peace.”
Additionally, in one of his sayings the Prophet Muhammad points that “You will not enter the heaven unless you believe; and you will not become true believers unless you love each other.”
Therefore, Islam, which can be identified as a religion of peace, admonishes its adherents that there can be no real fulfillment in one’s faith and belief without observing and promoting peace.
In connection with this topic I would also like to say that one of the essential elements in mutual understanding and dialogue is to avoid all kinds of simplistic generalizations, because there is no religion today that is monolithic; each contains within itself a variety of ideas and interpretations.
In other words there is always plurality in self-understanding within every tradition and culture. For example, just as there are many differences between the Christians of one part of the world with those living in some other part, similarly there are many divergences between Muslims of diverse geographies.
Furthermore, it is meaningless to pick up a certain problem of a particular country and associate it with Islam or Christianity, rather than looking at the political, socioeconomic, ethnic and other elements.
Consequently, instead of making generalizations about people of a certain religion, and painting a monolithic picture, variety and diversity are some of the facts that should be taken into account.
Q: How do you envisage your future after your studies in Rome?
Demiri: My ideal plan for the future is to teach and contribute to promoting interfaith dialogue between Muslims and Christians as a scholar.
I hope the studies that I have been engaged in both Muslim and Christian theologies, my background, and my living experiences will help me fulfill these plans.