Helping Iraqi Students Create a Culture of Toleration

by Anne Reynolds

Helping Iraqi Students Create a Culture of Toleration

Islamic Studies professor Abdulaziz Sachedina has come a long way to the Fairfax Campus of George Mason University.

Born in Tanzania in 1942, he began his academic journey first to India, where he was awarded a BA in philosophy, political science, and Islamic studies from Aligarh Muslim University. From there, he moved on to Iran, Iraq, and Canada, where he earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in Middle East and Islamic studies from the University of Toronto. Along the way, Sachedina trained at a madrasa in Iran to further his understanding of theology and jurisprudence, and added Arabic, French, Hindi, Urdu, and Persian to his native fluency in Swahili and English.

From a 35-year tenure at the University of Virginia, Sachedina came to Mason, where he serves as a professor, the IIIT Chair in Islamic Studies, and the chair of the university’s Religious Studies Department. He has worked as a consultant for the U.S. Departments of State and Defense and taught at the Foreign Language Institute.

“Academic work needs to go beyond the academia to benefit the general society,” he said in an interview with Maydan, a publication of Mason’s Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies. “Professors are not simply to restrict themselves in the Ivory Tower.”

And it is this spirit of service that drives his current, challenging project. For the past five years, Sachedina has taken part in the U.S.-Iraq Higher Education Partnerships Program, traveling regularly to Iraq to meet with a cohort of university students dedicated to increasing interfaith and intrafaith understanding.

Funded through IREX, an international nonprofit organization, he and colleagues from Rutgers University conduct youth camps in Najaf, Iraq, that bring together university-aged youth leaders with Sunni and Shiite backgrounds and train them in peace building and conflict resolution.

The team works to ensure that they engage students who represent the variety of religious backgrounds of the Iraqi people, including Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, Yazidis, Christians, and nonbelievers. Over two-week periods, the students learn about concepts of pluralism, retributive/ restorative justice, the relationship between religion and politics, the role of women’s rights, and ethics, and prepare to bring these lessons back to their respective universities to continue the conversations with their own classmates.

“The result was amazing,” Sachedina wrote in his report to IREX. “For the first time, youth leaders saw the camp moving toward the vision of building strong human relations on the basis of human dignity and human moral agency.... [W]e became confident that minds were changing.”

The work with the students was not without significant challenges, he says. “We are not the only ones who are influencing them. They go to their homes and the parents say, ‘No way are you going to have any relationship with the Sunnis, no way are you going to have a Shia come to your house.’”

Moreover, Sachedina notes the authority of the religious leaders. “The sermons are not toward tolerance or community building,” he says. “How do we negate that? It took us about three years, slowly, to build what I call ‘a foundation of a culture of toleration.’”

While Sachedina recognizes his colleagues’ back-ground in team building and conflict resolution, he senses that his own well-traveled background brings a vital element to the process.

“I also have worked in Palestine and the West Bank, so I have this understanding that if you really want to have an influence in the native communities, you need cultural legitimacy,” he says. “That can come only from taking their resources seriously and showing them, look, you have this. You have it in the Quran, you have it in the Bible, you have it in your texts, why don’t you use this?”

He stressed that the message is getting through. “All of a sudden, you have people who are willing to listen to you,” he says. “I think that’s what they needed. They needed a choice.”

The work that Sachedina and his team pursues in Iraq goes beyond academic, to demonstrate an effort to listen, understand, and help the students to not only do the same, but to spread the culture of understanding back through their respective universities. It is his great hope to do the same at Mason. Based on his results with his students in Iraq, he sees hope closer to home.

“It’s working,” he says. “It takes a while. You can’t change minds overnight.”