A Discussion with Zeyneb Sayilgan, Chaplain-in-Residence at Georgetown University
Background: Zeyneb Sayilgan is a doctoral student in the Theological and Religious Studies program in the Department of Theology at Georgetown University. She is also a Chaplain-in-Residence at Georgetown University, providing spiritual guidance to students while living alongside them in an undergraduate residence hall. Due to her commitment to interfaith engagement, she is passionate about responding to the White House Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. In this discussion, Ms. Sayilgan elaborated on her life experiences in Germany and the United States, her spiritual beliefs about interfaith understanding, and her ideas about combating poverty through interfaith service. This discussion took place at Georgetown University on October 25, 2011, and is part of the Georgetown University response to the Interfaith Service Challenge. Aamir Hussain, a Research Assistant at the Berkley Center and a member of Georgetown College class of 2014, conducted this interview.
Interview Conducted on October 25, 2011
How has your personal journey brought you to your work today, as a Chaplain-in-Residence?
I grew up in a large Muslim family with five siblings. I was the second eldest and from early on was raised with the notion that it is essential to take care for others and those you love without expecting any benefit for yourself. My parents were role models in that and my Muslim environment strengthened and nurtured this understanding through religious education, motivation and its own involvement in community work. So early on, I was informed and motivated by my Muslim faith that it is fundamental to serve others in my micro - and macrocosmos and that this is a deep expression of faith in action.
The more I engaged with Islam on an intellectual level as an academic as well as on the spiritual level, the more I come to the realization that the best way to serve God, The Creator, is to serve his creatures and serve my fellow human beings. That notion of sacrifice and concern for others is so central in my tradition, that I thought one major way to put faith in action is to serve others. And in Islam, this foundational element is best expressed by one of the sayings of the Prophet [Muhammad, pbuh]: If you love God, go and serve his creatures—go and serve your fellow human beings. I can say with certainty that this deep commitment is also shared by my other 25 friends who serve as Chaplains-in-Residence on campus. At Georgetown University we have Chaplains-in-Residence who come from diverse faith backgrounds and they are willing to serve all people with our without any religious belonging while also being enriched by the experiences and faith traditions of others. They live with students and try to assist them in many ways; they are a support, a resource, a counselor, a friend. For me, living in a community, to try and serve as much as you can, means ultimately to come closer to the Divine, because every human being, every creature is a reflection of God’s qualities, of God’s attributes. And in that sense, sacred. And the way to respect that sacredness is basically to serve and to make yourself available for all your fellow beings.
What are the most challenging obstacles we face in terms of poverty, and what are their faith dimensions?
I believe the greatest challenge we as a global human family face in terms of overcoming poverty are the negative dimensions of the human self which was essentially created for a good and wise purpose. God created enough provision for everyone but because of these negative aspects of the ego, the self, human problems like greed, self-centeredness, and egotism can easily arise. So many people have a somewhat negative understanding of individualism and many are not even aware of that. It is not sufficient simply to donate money once in a while and then still hold on to a lifestyle which is not only harming yourself but is devastating the rest of beings on this globe. As humans we need to educate ourselves who we truly are, what elements are innate to our human nature and how to channel them in ways which serve us and others in the best manner. For instance, if a tree or an animal is extinct by a selfish and greedy individual who is only concerned for his or her own wellbeing and profit we all can imagine the deep negative impact not only on the local individual but also on the global level and we see it. In the same way, you cannot simply donate once in a while, be charitable but still continue with a lifestyle which may be harmful to others on this globe. Lessening and limiting your “needs” is the first way to true freedom.
Our lives are strongly interconnected, intertwined and interrelated; we are in need of each other and are united in so many ways. This unity and harmony can only be preserved if everyone is willing to share, sometimes hold back or even give up in return for receiving a higher good. For me the universe is here the best example: within a huge diversity of beings, there is a constant giving, taking, offering, relying and support of each other. To create unity, and I mean by that not uniformity, you also have to be willing to put yourself aside and even get rid of your own interests at that moment for the sake of unity, balance and harmony in that community. Unity cannot be created if you have a major group suffering in great poverty and facing starvation while you have all kinds of luxuries and blessings, but are unwilling to share them. Like any believer, I am trying to overcome these challenges by educating myself and people about our inner human realities and what constitutes us and as simply as it sounds what does it mean to be a human being? So I think for me, it comes back again to explaining to myself and others the reality of that ego and how to balance that, how to balance my own self-interest with the interest of the community. It doesn’t mean neglecting yourself, but to be willing to see that, “I am not an entity just living for myself; I am connected to others and I have to come to an understanding where my interests are balanced with the interests of the community.”
And I think that’s the biggest challenge today: to help people to do that shift from egotism or self-centeredness to community-centeredness which still does not exclude but widens the self. In essence, it’s important to educate people about our own human nature. We are created as good, human beings but there are things within us that challenge us, which can ultimately create problems for the larger world, for the larger society.
Do you face challenges in your work because you identify as Muslim?
I never experienced any difficulties or obstacles in my work as Chaplain-in-Residence. People generally are very respectful and open-minded. Georgetown is committed to interreligious understanding and this you can feel on every level. I am very visibly a Muslim—I wear a headscarf—and people in this country respect that there are believers who have a certain lifestyle, a certain visible appearance, or identify with a different faith tradition. As a Muslim, I have never encountered any prejudice on campus, specifically, or in my work as a Chaplain-in-Residence. On the contrary, Chaplains-in-Residence are given this position on the grounds that they show a deep commitment to their own faith tradition. This is so beautiful. At Georgetown University you are valued and respected for who you are and your religious and spiritual growth is encouraged and supported by the campus community.
Of course, sometimes in the larger society people see me and they have certain presuppositions in mind, they make assumptions about me. I always see it as an encouragement to open myself up and show people that I don’t fit into some popular stereotype of Islam. And often times these stereotypes happily disappear during a conversation. In the US people are generally very respectful of other religious traditions and expressions. As I said, in my work with students, I’ve never seen people being hesitant to approach me.
What was your experience like living in Germany?
As I said, I was born and raised in Germany and I consider it my home. I love the beautiful landscapes, the German love for details, the intellectual sophistication, the magic Christmas markets, the social concern for all, the diversity, the punctuality and healthy discipline, great authors like the Grimm brothers or Theodor Fontane, the German bread and cakes and so much more. In the 70’s, my parents came as immigrants into this beautiful country as part of the huge labor movement, and with that they were introduced to what seemed at first a foreign culture. Being members of a lower socio-economic class, they were not fully able to articulate themselves in the new language and they were anxious in preserving their religious identity just like any other immigrant community. As a young person, I faced the challenge of finding my place in a multi-faceted environment and tried to harmonize my Muslim identity along with my German one. I realized that there are many misunderstandings on either sides and people mistakenly believed that there is big divide which cannot be overcome. This was neither my experience nor that of my peers. I shared so many things with my friends at school, at work and the university. Over time I saw myself as a bridge which can perhaps correct, inform and clarify positions between Muslims and non-Muslims because I believe the similarities count more than our differences. I started to write at local newspapers and aspired to become a journalist but then eventually became more interested in academic work. That is why I came to study religious pluralism at Georgetown and became involved in interreligious dialogue.
I am very hopeful that many things will change positively in the future. With the new generation of Muslims that is finishing university—that is the first generation, basically, that has a university degree—they will hopefully change that. They see their place in the German society and they are eager to make their contribution for the improvement in society with a concern for all. They are positive about their multiple cultural and religious belonging. Many of them have see their rich diverse background as a blessing and privilege. They are embracing German culture and are willing to enrich and further it. This is going to be a very interesting development.
What does interfaith work mean to you?
Interfaith work, in our time and age, is so crucial. It’s absolutely necessary that people from different faith traditions reach out to each other and really start talking about issues relevant to all. Our neighborhood and world are becoming more and more diverse. With that, there come a lot of misunderstandings, prejudices, and stereotypes. So in order to break them down and really create a more harmonious society, [dialogue] is absolutely necessary. In our own DC neighborhood, you have so many churches, mosques and synagogues, but how many people really know about each other?
However, interfaith work is actually happening on a lot of levels. In every faith tradition, you’ll find rich resources to make a claim for interfaith dialogue. In Islam anyone who opens up the Qur’an will read that God deliberately created diversity and different religious communities. He is dialoguing with these different communities Himself. So, naturally as a Muslim I reflect on these passages and come to the conclusion that dialogue is an essential part of the Qur’anic message. As an article of faith, Muslims believe and are called to love the messengers Moses and Jesus (peace be upon them). Again, how can I claim to believe and love these prophets if I neglect talking to the communities they were sent to? This is a call to engage with those communities even if you have differences. In my self-understanding as a Muslim, interfaith dialogue is deeply rooted within my tradition.
What is so beautiful about interreligious dialogue is the threefold dimension of it which results in spiritual growth. After such an encounter, you have a deeper understanding, not only of the other, but also of yourself and your own faith tradition and of God. In that sense, [interfaith dialogue] is absolutely valuable and always enriching.
What does the President’s Interfaith Challenge mean to you?
I think, first of all, it’s a great expression of acknowledging the strength of religious plurality in American society. Georgetown University always prioritized interreligious understanding and fostered it in so many ways. That is why this call perfectly fits into the university landscape. As President Obama affirmed, our patchwork society is a strength and not a weakness. Faith is a beautiful catalyst to encourage people to action and service. The combination of bringing people of different religious belongings together in order to serve all is simply beautiful and lies at the core of all traditions. There is no better way to get to know a person than sharing a common vision or serve together a common goal. I remember working with Jewish and Christian students at a Habitat for Humanity project. While we were working on the house we discovered so many common things and by time the house was finished, something else was constructed, too - an invisible house of friendship which will even last longer than any building.
The fact that the President himself makes [interfaith work] a top priority signifies and affirms the role of interfaith work on college campuses. On campus, you have a rich diverse student body and the best resources to push service forward, take it into the wider society and prepare the grounds for the future. While young people engage with each other during interfaith service they come to an understanding that these spiritual and religious values people hold onto need to be taken seriously if one wants to bring positive change into society. With the President’s Interfaith Challenge, interfaith service is made a top priority. He sees the potential of college students, acknowledges that rich diversity on campuses, and tries to utilize it to create a more harmonious world. I really think it starts with the young generation and one cannot start early enough.
What can we, as the Georgetown community, do to help?
I think we, as the Georgetown community, as Hoyas, should each feel the desire to take [advantage] of that rich diversity on campus. You have Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu students and so many more religious groups on campus and the great opportunity to live with these people together and to share your life with them for so many years. It is absolutely enriching and valuable. In every residence hall, you have our Chaplains-in-Residence who are willing and open to be part in this conversation and who are often facilitating such events.
Coming into such an environment where you are exposed to diversity and that interfaith landscape, you should consider being part of it. There are countless ways to do that. Try to join the interfaith events and various programs and make your contribution to support these things even if you have no religious belonging. It is a great way to learn about your peers and perfect chance to immerse yourself in other worlds but also to explore the commonalities and serve those in need.
You have the Interfaith Council, and you also have so many associations on campus who do tons of events. Just go there [to those events] and show your support, and engage in those conversations. Each student has valuable thoughts and perspectives to share.