ITD hosted three programs for Uzbek imams and educators. The groups came to experience American life and to learn about Islam in a religiously diverse democratic society. They lived with American host families and spent their days attending and participating in tailored seminars, discussions, and field visits, as well as in cultural activities in Western Massachusetts, Boston, and New York City.
The goals of the programs were:
- To broaden the participants' understanding of how Islamic communities work in a diverse, democratic society
- To develop the participants' capacity to create cooperation among mosques within their communities and between religious and government institutions.
- To encourage discussion and implementation of faith-based programs that address social issues in the community
- To increase understanding between the citizens of our two countries and build enduring and fruitful interfaith relationships.
The programs were intense, fast-paced, and focused on spiritual as well as practical matters. The Islamic Society of Western Massachusetts hosted the group on numerous occasions for prayer services and socializing. Lectures on Judeo-Christian religions in the West, the history of religion in the U.S., and Islam in America, were complemented by visits to churches and synagogues, religious primary and secondary schools, and Hartford Seminary, the only U.S. institution of higher learning that trains Muslim chaplains.
The visited faith-based and inter-faith community service programs like food pantries, soup kitchens, and cot shelters, and a Quaker-affiliated grassroots organization that promotes anti-war and social justice actions.
In addition to all these activities, the group took time to meet together to reflect on what they were seeing. During the course of the programs they became acutely aware of the separation of church and state, how the freedoms guaranteed in the bill of rights work, the role of religious organizations in educating young people, the active involvement of women in all phases of American life, and the importance of interfaith work. They were fascinated by the presidential election campaign and surprised to discover the extent that church leaders spoke out against government policies.
One group attended a lecture class on the History of Islam at the University of Massachusetts. They were surprised by the free exchange of ideas and mutual respect that characterized student-faculty relations. All one hundred undersgraduate students stayed after class to hear the group's brief presentation on Islam in Uzbekistan. The group also gave a fuller presentation at a meeting for Five College Faculty and Students. This wide-ranging exchange lasted for over two hours. For many in the group, these culminating experiences were profound and transformational. By the end of the program they understood the importance of educating children from a young age to become critically thinking, self-reliant, tolerant and responsible citizens in a democratic society.
The group's visit generated a great deal of positive public attention locally. Many of the American religious leaders and academics who met the Uzbeks, and all of their homestay host families, said the experience was extremely valuable for them as well.
Participant comments regarding homestay families:
"Their kindness, openness, and hospitality."
"Going out together during the weekends, cooking together, having free/open conversations with them every day."
"Sincere attitude towards us, all the events they organized, always considering our needs and preferences in doing anything (food, travel, recreation), bringing up well-behaved children who are respectful to their parents."
"Their kindness to each other, always trying to understand me better."
"Everything my host family has done to please their guests: preparing foods they want, visiting parks, sports facilities, shops, museums and other places. Their and other American people's interest in our religion and beliefs, and country, their integrity and cleanness, interest in politics and the future of their country, and simplicity."
Participant comments regarding how they will use the information and experience gained through this program:
"I plan to write a book about world Muslims. This book will also tell about the life of American Muslims who live together with people from various religions, which will be ready in 5 years. Another thing I want to accomplish is involving more women and children in religious education process, which will be done through mosque's own financial resources."
"I am planning to write articles based on my experiences and information gained during the program. Then, I will try to use them in my religious studies activities. I am planning to research Islamic Arabic-letter manuscripts on people's hands in in Karakalpakstan. Gathering all Islamic manuscripts into one place, studying them, translating and presenting to public."
"I would like to create a website. In this website I plan to establish online contacts between this and last-year program participants. Organizing online chats for Muslim clerics. Organizing online chats among leaders of different religions. Help local students and teachers establish contact with students and teachers I met during my stay in USA. Involving and getting the support of government agencies in religious matters. Using newspapers, radio, TV and magazines during the whole process."
"Creating a library at the mosque, organizing a small bookstore at the mosque, Instead of being dependant on outside for financial support, being able to do charity activities for the community and increasing the community's activeness. Before I will start the library and the bookstore I will learn about the libraries and book trade."
"First of all, I will use in my work activities all the experience I gained during the program. I will organize meeting with community leaders, people and of course with youth and during these meetings I will share with them my knowledge and experiences, tell them about American people. I will use my experience to help people in having good knowledge about Islam."
"First of all, after returning to Uzbekistan I will visit schools and organize meetings with teachers and students. During these meetings I will tell them about the methods teachers use, thinking abilities of the students and ask them also to be similar to their American fellows. I will create religious kindergarten in my mosque. By developing this kindergarten step-by-step, I will then create a private school. Moreover, I will start a library in our mosque. Also, like I have been planning for long time, create a madrasah for Qari, people who memorize the whole Qur'an. Of course to realize these things is not easy, however, I hope to make them work by cooperation with influential members of the community and parents, Inshaallah."
"I cannot express in words everything I want to do after I have seen and learned so many things during this program. However, I will work hard with all my strength to teach our people to have independent thinking abilities and freedom."
Participant general comments:
"Certainly, the program was much more interesting than I expected and at the same time was very meaningful. Participants took a lot of things from this program and I believe the results of this project, and consequences of these results will be positive. I thank all people involved in this program."
"The structure of this program, host families, transportation, and food is very well organized. We did not expect to have such kind of services. I would like to thank everyone who contributed to make this program available for us."
"In my opinion the program is wonderfully structured. All the events of the program were well planned. I think expected goals were achieved during the program. Host families were well selected. I was glad to know that most of the families were religious, who follow their beliefs. Host families accepted us very friendly and were in good relations with us. Especially their interest in Islam and respect of the other religions was a pleasant thing to observe. ITD always provided transportation for us, made sure that we had halal food and took us to halal restaurants. The most memorable event for me was our trip to Boston. The times when visited the ocean and other places of the city will remain for me as one of the most memorable moments of my life. ITD staff treated us very well and were always trying to help us. I am very satisfied from the program and I believe that it will help me in my future works."
"Everything was at excellent level and I am very grateful, I am for continuation of this program!"
"Everything went well. However, organizing meat (food) according to Islamic Shariah would be great."
"Everything in the program: transportation, host families, food, good treatment of host families was great. I have positive opinion about the ITD staff and others and I am grateful to everyone."
"This program is well thought and organized. I had three host families and all three of the were three different worlds. All of these families friendly and welcoming to me. Our trip to Boston was great, fun experience. I express my gratefulness to all ITD staff."