Cultural Liaisons

February 11, 2009
By Sara Birkenthal BRONZE, Westfield, New Jersey
Sara Birkenthal BRONZE, Westfield, New Jersey
2 articles 4 photos 0 comments

When I signed up for the Startalk Arabic Program hosted at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah I expected to spend a month of my summer wholly immersed in Arabic culture. I knew that the program would provide a difficult, yet rewarding introduction to the Arabic language, as well as to the Islamic religion. I was ready for the challenge and to engross myself in learning about a part of the world which had interested me for as long as I could remember. I did not expect to find myself living among a mystifying social, religious, and political culture, different from the one which I had intended to find.

To say that life in Provo was immeasurably different from life at home would be an understatement. I had never visited this part of the country before and from the second I got off the plane I realized that the people in Utah were different from myself. Upon arriving, I was aware that I would be attending a Mormon university located in the area with the highest Mormon population in the world. Yet, before attending the program at BYU, I had never met a Mormon person and suddenly, there I was, completely immersed in their culture.

After I began to adjust to my surroundings, a fascination towards the Mormon culture grew inside of me. I satisfied this newfound inquisitiveness by posing endless series of questions to everyone I met. I asked questions about the Mormon religious beliefs, Mormon missionaries, Mormon families, and Mormon dress codes. I may have asked too many questions-but I needed to find the answers, needed to know the facts. I did not only depend upon the answers of others to satiate my curiosity; instead, I began to seek answers for myself.

While in Utah I attended a three-hour Mormon religious service. I took note of Mormon liturgy and compared their practices to my own. Religiously, I do not agree with Mormonism as whole, however there are aspects of the religion which I find inspiring, namely the Mormon philanthropic spirit and the Mormon acceptance of international cultures.

Eager to learn how the Mormon religion influences the political beliefs of its followers, I attended a political event on campus. I was not surprised to recognize that the vast majority of Mormons are overwhelmingly conservative. My time in Utah helped me to perceive the vastness of the American political spectrum. I had spent so many years of my life shunning conservative beliefs, but the people I met in Utah enthused me with their family values and commitment to our troops.

As the weeks went on, I began to compare these Mormon values to the Islamic values I was learning about in the classroom. I began to draw parallels between these two lifestyles, specifically noting that in both the Mormon and Islamic cultures religion dictates every aspect of society. I compared these religiously-dominated lifestyles to my own way of life, in which religion is not a dominant factor. How would my life have been different if I had been born into a Mormon or Islamic family instead of into my Christian/Jewish/agnostic/religiously-confused family? If I had been born into a religiously grounded family, I would have grown up with a secure source of hope to cling to in times of trouble. At times, I have felt like this source of optimism is missing in my life. My parents did not raise me with any formal religion; therefore, I view all religions, and cultures, with both an open mind and skepticism. I have developed a life-long curiosity for others peoples' religions, seeking information in a subconscious effort to understand the value or disvalue in having a strong religious foundation. While I am by no means anti-religion, I am not sure that I will begin to understand the role of religion in my life anytime soon, so I question others to try to make sense of the role of religion in my life and the lives of others.
My time in Utah, spent investigating the Mormon and Islamic ways of life, answered some of my questions about religion but also raised some new ones. While I see value in having a strong religious foundation, I find both the Mormon and Muslim lifestyles slightly objectionable. Because religion is so prominent in these two cultures, the ability for their adherents to question their faith is taken away. Although I acknowledge the importance of strong faith and family tradition in religious communities, I believe in utilizing self-reflection to adapt a pre-existing set of religious beliefs to my own liking, to form my own set of religious beliefs, or to shun religion all-together, if I so choose.

My month at BYU underlined one paradox which I believe to be meaningful: while the Mormons I met, the Arabs I learned about, and the friends and family I returned home to could not be more different from one another, parallels can be drawn between seemingly disparate groups of people. We are all citizens of humanity and I will continue to seek understanding of others and myself.

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