720 new ways to see US religious identity

by Beth Katz
26 June 2012
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Omaha, Nebraska - “Often…when I say I am Muslim, I stun people because I don’t fit the stereotype. I just actually had somebody walk into my [dorm] room, ask me what I was doing and then they responded with ‘Wait, you’re Muslim? But you’re not even brown!’”19-year-old Emina confessed in a video blog. As I watched her speak, I nodded my head sympathetically.

How many times did people tell me I didn’t look Jewish when I was growing up? Too many to count, I thought.

But what I didn’t expect was how gracefully Emina handled this encounter. Rather than bitterly lashing out, she used this experience as an opportunity to debunk stereotypes that she frequently encounters about being Muslim. It was incredibly powerful to witness this young woman openly sharing in her own words what it meant to her to be Muslim rather than allowing others to define this for her.

Her video blog was one of several created for a youth service programme through Project Interfaith, an organisation in Omaha, Nebraska dedicated to building understanding and relationships across beliefs and cultural lines. We were so inspired by Emina’s video that it led us to ask, “What if we could give more people the chance to define and share their religious or spiritual identity in their own words and confront the misconceptions they face because of it?"

This is how RavelUnravel.com was born: an interactive, multimedia exploration of the religious and spiritual identities that make up our communities and worlds.

What makes RavelUnravel.com unique is that it is a space where individuals from a wide variety of religious and spiritual identities discuss their identities in a personal way, as well as the stereotypes that impact them and whether or not their communities have welcomed their chosen religious or spiritual paths.

The site currently contains over 720 videos of personal interviews. These are categorised by religious and spiritual identity so that users can browse within a category and gain an appreciation of not just the diversity of the religions and belief systems people identify with, but also the tremendous diversity of belief, practice and cultural backgrounds within the same religious or spiritual identity.

For example, when visitors go to the Muslim category on the website, they can listen to Muslims from a variety of ethnicities and backgrounds, including Muslim women who wear headscarves and those who do not.

Whether hearing from Khalid about how a visit to a mosque when he first arrived in Omaha from Oman shaped his impressions of the United States, or from Lyneea on what it means to her to wear a headscarf, or from Yasmine about why she doesn’t wear one, the power of these stories is in their ability to make people appreciate the reality that true religious identity goes beyond the simple labels we often use.

The site also allows any user to upload their own video so that the number of diverse stories among and within religious and spiritual identities continues to grow.

Our hope at Project Interfaith is that through RavelUnravel.com we can reshape the way people think, learn and talk about identity, religion, spirituality and culture -- topics which are typically taboo, but often define our interactions with others. In times of great economic, social and political instability like today, religious, spiritual and cultural identity are all too often used by leaders and groups who breed fear and division in society in order to advance their own political and social agendas.

Even in more stable times, openly and respectfully learning and talking about these topics has not been the norm in most communities, schools, and households in the United States. This is a terrible loss for us as individuals, and collectively as a society.

Yet when we are able to freely share and inquire about each other’s religious and spiritual identities, it provides opportunities for collaboration, hospitality and empowerment.

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* Beth Katz is Founder and Executive Director of Project Interfaith. You can watch the videos mentioned in this article here: RavelUnravel.com. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 26 June 2012, www.commongroundnews.org
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