Faith as heritage, faith as recognition

Today’s guest blogger is Remz Pokorny, a senior at Brandeis University, majoring in Political Science and Middle East Studies. He … Continued

Today’s guest blogger is Remz Pokorny, a senior at Brandeis University, majoring in Political Science and Middle East Studies. He is also an IFYC Fellow and an active member of the Brandeis Baha’i Association.

Let’s start at the beginning: My mother is a refugee from Iraq, driven from the land of her birth by religious persecution. My father is from an upper-middle class family in Kansas, and as a young child, he moved to Washington state.

My parents met at a Baha’i fireside–an informal gathering where a spiritual topic is presented and discussed–in Concord, New Hampshire; my father was working as a staff writer for the Boston Globe, and my mother had just recently immigrated to this country. Had they not been involved with the Baha’i community, they would not have dated or decided to get married, bringing me and my brother into the world.

From the outset, my identity was ambiguous, almost indefinable. But from the cradle, my mother acquainted me with her native tongue, Arabic. She taught me the story of her persecution as a Baha’i in Iraq, which is an unfortunate narrative for many Baha’is in the Islamic world. Her father and mother were imprisoned for 6 years during the 1970s.

“Ahli chanow bel sijin min ani chinit jahala,” my mother always reminded me. “My parents were in prison when I was a child.”

When other people heard my mom say that her parents were in prison, the question was often the same, “My goodness, why?”

I’m sure their first thought may have been that my grandparents were lowlifes or career criminals. But instead, my mother’s response would shock them.

“They were imprisoned because they were Baha’is,” she would say. “Because they were Baha’is.”

From a young age, my mother instilled in me a sense of Baha’i pride. She loved to talk about her family and their contribution to the Baha’i narrative. One of her aunts was given the title “Knight of Baha’u’llah” for her role in starting the Baha’i community of Cyprus. My mother spoke of the 1960s as a heroic era for the Baha’is of Iraq. Her father, who, despite the fact that he was going blind, would fearlessly defend the Faith against Iraqi government agents who made a habit of dropping in at the Baha’i National Center in Baghdad and harassing whomever they would encounter.

My grandfather was a member of the national governing body of the Baha’is of Iraq, so he was usually one of the first people they would want to speak to. Pointing to the stacks of Baha’i scripture in the national archive they would say, “We’re taking these books.”

My grandfather’s response would be, “Just take a minute and read them first, and then tell me if there is any harm in having them around.”

The agents eventually confiscated the entire library of Baha’i books but were nevertheless impressed at my grandfather’s audacity in defending his faith.

My mother’s approach in raising me as a Baha’i was primarily emotional. The stories she told me and the prayers she would teach me were an important part of my upbringing, sparking emotion and a deep connection to the narrative of my faith, which is still persecuted in Iran, the land of its birth.

My father’s approach was different. His relationship to me has always been loving, but very distinct from my mother. Unlike my mother, he was not raised a Baha’i. He became a Baha’i after years of seeking spirituality in his youth. He encountered the Faith as early as high school, but he had questions and doubts that made him disregard religion altogether for quite some time.

After years of covering politics as a journalist, it took an “aha!” moment of sorts to realize that he had been missing something huge in his life.

“Why did you become a Baha’i?” I would ask him.

His response would usually be something along the lines of, “It’s the only thing that made sense to me.”

Sense. What an interesting way to look at religion, I always thought.

My father shed a whole new light on what it meant to be seeker of truth, wandering a spiritual path in search for peace. He taught me never to take things for granted or to get too comfortable with an “inherited” Baha’i identity.

Indeed, he stressed and my mother confirmed that Baha’i children are encouraged by our sacred writings to “investigate truth independently,” and not just to declare as Baha’is because of tradition or family history. Ultimately, I accepted my religious identity because of my own efforts at exploring its truth and relevance to my personal needs and the needs of our age; not merely because that is how I was raised.

Nevertheless, these two unique but not mutually exclusive views on faith–emotional and rational–have shaped who I am as a religious young person. I am grounded, but restless. Detached, but determined. I do not see these two views as opposed, but complimentary. Neither is my simultaneous exposure to Eastern and Western culture.

Like my parents’ marriage, I feel I am contributing to the constantly-evolving narrative of the Baha’i Faith, one that has seen millions of people of varying and sometimes previously irreconcilable backgrounds come together to work for the oneness of mankind.

“So powerful is the light of unity,” writes Baha’u’llah, “that it can illuminate the whole earth.”

The content of this blog reflects the views of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views of either Eboo Patel or the Interfaith Youth Core.

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  • JeremyLambshead

    Excellent piece! Your story is an important one, illustrating the role of both mind and heart in the life of faith. I particularly appreciate your discussion of these two aspects of religion as complementary rather than oppositional. They seem to reinforce rather than challenge each other – your acceptance of the Faith after investigating it for yourself vindicates the spiritual truth for which your mother and grandfather sacrificed, and sheds further meaning on your family’s rich heritage and religious history. Thanks for sharing!

  • AustinDude

    Very compelling article. Thanks for sharing this story. It also made me think of how my parents’ faith influenced my beliefs and, now transitioning my role, how I am attempting to pass along to my children the love of God and teaching them the best way I can. In the end, however, they will learn more from my ACTIONS that they will from my WORDS.

  • WendyS9

    Thank you for sharing your story. I have often heard stories of Baha’is from Iran suffering persecution but not so much from Iraq. It will be a glorious world when people can just believe what they want as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. I still don’t get why people think persecution is the right thing to do to someone. Do they think it will change someone’s mind or heart? I’ve been a Baha’i for 45 years now, and I really appreciate hearing your story.

  • levrickards

    This is a beautiful testimony, Remz. I love the image of your mother reminding you, in Arabic, of the challenges her parents faced. And the story of your grandfather confronting Iraqi agents with wisdom and humor — Before taking the books: “Read them first.” The ability to harmonize an emotional and a rational approach to religion is a precious thing. In today’s society we are often expected to be one or the other — emotional or rational, spiritual or material, individual or community-focused. But religion challenges us to confront these sorts of false dichotomies within our own soul, and within our sphere of daily action. As Baha’u’llah said, “Let deeds, not words, be your adorning.”

  • abhab

    People in the West are puzzled by the extent of Muslim discrimination against and persecution of Non-Muslims . This is a coordinated effort by the religious establishment, society at large, as well as the instruments of the state. Killing the apostate is considered among the most popular Friday sermon in mosques, even those in the West.