Interview #2: Why I Left Organized Religion

This is my second interview with Ali N. Swetat (23). Ali has been a close friend of mine ever since we met for the first time at the University of Haifa in Israel. Back then, in fall 2015, we were both young and naïve, full of hopes and dreams for the future. He was a devout Muslim and I was a neoconservative evangelical Christian. Now we have both grown up and become more realistic and mature. Ali will soon graduate in psychology and go on to pursue his career as a psychotherapist. He has left organized religion and now dedicates his life to intercultural understanding and reconciliation.

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Ali N. Swetat and me

Hello Ali, how have you been doing lately?
Ali: Thank you for having me first of all. I’m doing pretty good, just came back from vacation and now we have Holidays, Passover, for two weeks. I am currently working on my Bachelor thesis and I have to do some other things.

When I first met you, you were a Muslim, right? What made you doubt your religion, or religions in general?
Ali: I remember that I wasn’t very religious at any point of my life before university. And then, when I came to the university and I met different people, we talked about religion and I became interested in knowing more about my religion. I started reading the Qur’an and the Bible. Then I became very devoted to Islam. But there were many things that I disagreed with, also with the people that I met in the community. It was pretty hard for me, you know, to be there and just pretend to be okay with it. And I had so many questions and I couldn’t just go there and say: “Everything’s fine!”.

Yes, I can see your point…
Ali: Yeah, I don’t like to follow something blindly. I started doubting some of the things and disagreeing with much of what I’ve heard on YouTube or in the local mosque. And the other thing that annoys me is, you know, I went to mosques and some churches and I don’t like when people care about their community more than they care about anyone else. I like to care about everyone and to show the same affection and love to everyone, not just to certain people because they are…

… because they are in your club?
Ali: Yes, but it is also in every other religion. If you go to a mosque, they say: “Oh Muslims, pray for the Muslims!”, but why not pray for everyone? And it’s the same thing with Christianity and Judaism and with every other religion. And for me that’s just categorizing people and it’s something I don’t like.

You also met a lot of different people at the university, a lot of Americans and strange Germans (like me) who have been fervent evangelical Christians. What is your perspective on evangelical Christianity?
Ali: Haha, okay, that’s interesting. I found it, in a way, nice at the beginning. I went to a couple of churches with you, I remember we once went to a church in Haifa and to another church in Germany. And it’s nice, you know, the community afterwards and people talk, it also reminds me of the same thing in Islam, you know after they finish at the mosque. It’s quite nice. But at the same time, so often times I felt that evangelical Christians are very nice to you and talk to you, but they have one purpose: to convert you to their religion. I sometimes felt people were lying in my face. I couldn’t know how real these people were.

And on the other hand, I had arguments with many evangelical Christians and it was interesting for me to see that most evangelicals that I met were very much pro-Israel and I, as a Palestinian, I disagreed with them on so many levels. I don’t know, it was just very uncomfortable to talk about politics. I felt like it was easier to talk with a Zionist Jewish settler than with an evangelical Christian (laughs). It’s interesting to see their interpretation and the mixture of religion and politics. They support Israel blindly and fully. That’s disturbing for me.

So, of all the different currents of Christianity that you’ve experienced (Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, evangelical, etc.), which one is closest to your own personal spirituality?
Ali: That’s an interesting question. I don’t think any of them. I believe in God. For me it’s about the relationship that I have with God, how close I am to God, other things are not really important to me. I just pray to God and that’s it. Prophets and other people, they are nice, they have a message to give to the people, but now I know about God and I have a personal, direct relationship with Him. And in Christianity, it’s very much about Jesus, but for me it’s just about God.

You grew up with different cultures and religions, you speak several languages, you know your way around in the Middle East. What, in your opinion, is the greatest obstacle to peace and progress in this region?
Ali: It’s complicated, it’s not just one factor. There are different people who have interests in the Middle East. I think there are many people who are not interested in solving the conflict. They make things worse.

In an earlier interview you said you consider yourself to be an Arab Palestinian. In what ways has the political conflict between Israelis and Palestinians played into your spiritual journey away from traditional Muslim religiosity?
Ali: I think there is no relation between the two.

So it was a separate journey?
Ali: Yeah.

What would you say to a neoconservative evangelical Christian like me?
Ali: I would say ‘May God be with you’ and may he lead you on the right way. Read your Bible! (…) And if you need any help, I’m always here to help with any question.

Ali, thank you so much for joining me today and all the best to you!
Ali: Thank you so much for having me!

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