Usra Ghazi: Enhancing Interfaith Understanding

May 26, 2014
Usra Ghazi: Enhancing Interfaith Understanding
At left, MTS candidate and CSWR junior fellow Usra Ghazi

MTS candidate and CSWR junior fellow Usra Ghazi began asking questions about religious identity and interfaith understanding at a very young age. Born in Karachi, Pakistan, she was four when her family first arrived in Chicago, later to settle in Skokie, Illinois.

“We were on the north side of Chicago, but my life revolved around talking to my parents only in Urdu because English was forbidden in the household,” Ghazi recalls, “and going across the hall to the home of an older Pakistani woman who taught us how to read Qur'an, going to Sunday school at the local mosque in Chicago where the teachers were all Indian or Pakistani. We were taught Islam in English, and so I developed a very South Asian brand of American Islamic identity.”

Though part of a close-knit South Asian Muslim community in the Chicago area, growing up in a non-Muslim country meant “we were always the other,” Ghazi says. “We had to strive that much harder to eat according to the Islamic precepts, or to find a place to pray on the school field trip to Six Flags Great America—I'm at an amusement park and I'm praying in a corner.”

During a visit with family back in Pakistan when she was ten or eleven, Ghazi realized that religious practice was different for her cousins: “Growing up in a predominantly Muslim country, they took their religious identity for granted,” she notes, whereas, for her, “the experiences of having to really hold on to my faith identity played a big role in developing my religious identity.”

Just as Ghazi was entering high school, a large interfaith event in her community was hosted at the public high school in her Skokie community. “The Qur'an and the Bible in the Light of Science” brought hundreds of people out to hear a conversation between a Muslim scholar and a Christian scholar.

“What I ended up seeing,” Ghazi remembers, “was a full-on boxing match–style debate between the Muslim and the Christian where they just argued with each other. This was my first exposure to a supposedly interfaith event, and I was so embarrassed. This was not a conversation. This was not interfaith.”

“That led me to organize interfaith dialogues,” Ghazi says, “where I would invite a Sufi individual, have conversations on Shia perspectives and Sunni perspectives in Islam, or bring together Jewish, Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist individuals, because the high school was very diverse. These early experiences opened my eyes to the diversity of practice that exists within Islam, and also in all different types of religious communities, but I also wanted to counter that first experience I had in seeing an interfaith conversation go wrong.”

Her early leadership brought her to the attention of staff at the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), an organization founded to promote interfaith cooperation among students. Ghazi became an IFYC youth board member, interned with the organization during her college years, and also went to Amman, Jordan, as part of an IFYC international exchange program sponsored by the Clinton Global Initiative and the office of Queen Rania of Jordan. Two years of working and studying in Jordan, and further time with the IFYC back in Chicago, convinced her she wanted to enhance those experiences with more intensive academic study.

While still a teenager, Ghazi had also started a community service organization with other young Muslim women who wanted to do more than simply attend services at the mosque and Sunday school. Instead, every weekend they would meet to have religious conversation and then work on service projects together—serving meals to the homeless at Chicago shelters, stormproofing windows in homes of the elderly, or cleaning up one mosque's neglected women's prayer area. This was another formative experience, Ghazi says.

“I was struggling against what I saw as complacency within my faith community and the real need for people to be helping others on important community issues like hunger and homelessness.”

As she and her friends attempted to follow “a model of service and intentional reflection,” Ghazi found herself in conversation with people of religiously diverse backgrounds around such questions as what Islam says about hospitality or civic engagement, about service and justice.

“This made me want to go back and understand my faith even more and to be able to answer those questions. It's a very beneficial process in faith formation to be in intrareligious conversations and also in interfaith conversations.”

Conversation is something that takes place all the time at the CSWR, and the idea of being a part of an intentional community intrigued Ghazi, who had lived at home during her undergraduate years, while studying religion with a focus on ethics and social justice at DePaul University in Chicago.

Learning that the CSWR also offers a junior fellowship program that might afford her even more opportunities for collaborative, interfaith work, Ghazi applied for both residency and the fellowship—and received both.

“This is the kind of community that I've always wanted to study, but also be a part of,” Ghazi says. “The sort of feedback I get when I tell the other residents about the kinds of things I'm looking at has been so genuinely supportive. This is really a wonderful and nurturing environment.”

What Ghazi is learning in her classes, as president of the HDS Muslim Council, and through her efforts to organize a coalition of Harvard students called Harvard Better Together, has been augmented by questions and thoughts that have come to the fore in discussions with CSWR residents.

Her conversation with other residents at the CSWR has led her “to think more deeply about how, as someone with a background in religion, I can contribute to the important conflict resolution and peacebuilding work that's happening internationally, but also domestically, and be able to be realistic in my assumptions about what impact interfaith engagement can have.”

“I attribute this to the CSWR being such an interfaith but also international community to be in,” Ghazi says. “To have people from the Republic of Georgia and India and other parts of the world to bounce ideas off of, and to see how their actual lived experience relates to the things I'm thinking about, has been immensely helpful and keeps me grounded in a way I would not have been if I'd been living and studying somewhere else.”

—by Kathryn Dodgson

This article appears in the Spring 2014 edition of CSWR Today.