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As one of a number of discussions they have sponsored this fall, students from Milton’s Public Issues Board invited Tamara Kirdar to discuss notions of Islam with Milton students in assembly this morning. Mrs. Kirdar was born in Iraq, but spent much of her youth in England, as her family was unable to return to Iraq safely after the revolution. Mrs. Kirdar’s children are members of the Milton community—Amin ’01, Muhammad, Class II, and Faisal, Grade 6.

For Mrs. Kirdar , the sense of not belonging to the cultural worlds she inhabited as a youth—the lack of awareness and/or misinformation most people had about her native land, region and religion— was hurtful. Those challenges when she was younger transformed her, however, so that now she feels she can belong anywhere. Wherever she is, she is an Arab-American, a Muslim whose religion is in her heart and expressed in her every-day life.

The prophet Mohammed founded Islam as a highly personal spiritual striving for a holy life, supportive of and even related to the two major religions of his time and region: Christianity and Judaism. Mrs. Kirdar explained to students that the word Islam itself means surrender, and its root word, salam, means peace. Mohammed believed that all religions that honored a single God (their people were “people of the book”) were related to each other, unified by their pursuit of God.

The practice of Islam revolves around an individual’s relationships to the five pillars of the faith and personal fulfillment comes from purifying your soul. The meaning of jihad is struggle, and it relates to the inner spiritual conflict people all experience each day, trying to choose what is right. “Jihad is not a holy war; it is a holy struggle,” Mrs. Kirdar explained. The only was sanctioned by the prophet’s teachings are those of self-defense, when Moslems need to defend themselves against persecution. The greatest jihad, however, is the conquest of the self. Killing your own species, killing innocents, and suicide, however, are explicitly forbidden in Islam. There is no room in Islam for forcing another to accept certain beliefs, said Mrs. Kirdar. Faith is interpreted very personally in Islam, and a person strives, himself, to live within the five pillars of the religion.

The terrorists and fundamentalists, therefore, act outside of the tenets of the religion. They use religion to promote a personal political agenda. Feeling anger and revulsion at the actions of extremists on September 11, Mrs. Kirdar has restored her faith in Islam and refuses to let “criminals,” as she identifies them,” hijack my religion.”

Students asked Mrs. Kirdar many questions, for instance: Why does the religion that liberated women 1400 years ago repress women in some countries today? Has President Bush, in your opinion, supported Muslims sufficiently after September 11? Is the media emphasis on Islamic countries hating the United States overblown? How do you feel about the United States possibly interfering with the leadership in a number of Middle Eastern countries?

Mrs. Kirdar told students that while she toyed with the idea of writing a paper and reading it to them, she ultimately decided to speak from her heart and try to answer their questions. Students’ thanked her and rewarded her efforts with sustained applause at the end of the assembly.