Maja Balaban Lolic

Gender and Religion Today

Representations of Jewish-Christian Relations in Literature
Religion is...
Bridging the Great Divide: the Jewish-Muslim Encounter
Jews, Christians and Muslims in Europe: Modern Challenges


I grew up during the Civil War in Bosnia and Herzegovina and come from a mixed ethnic and religious background. I studied International Relations in Cyprus and at the University of Indianapolis. After graduation, I decided to return to Bosnia and Herzegovina, full of enthusiasm to make a positive change. Luckily, I got a job in the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where I worked in two posts: EU Integration and Commission for Youth Issues (Sarajevo). I moved back to my hometown Banja Luka, where I worked in the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Water Management of the Republic of Srpska.

However, I realised that the most important issue in Bosnia and Herzegovina is inter-ethnic and interreligious understanding and decided to study further. I started looking for opportunities to study and learn about interreligious dialogue online and found about the Woolf Institute's online courses, which was a perfect opportunity for me, since I wanted to stay in Bosnia and Herzegovina and apply my knowledge. I established an association of citizens with a group of people ”UG POMOZIMO DJECI" in 2017 and since then we implemented 10 projects in the field of interreligious understanding. We strongly rely on identifying coherence factors in our cultures and focusing on similarities which unify us, while representing differences as source of beauty which pluralist society and diversity bring. All the project proposals were based on the knowledge I gained at the Woolf Institute. We have over 4000 members.

I found out about the Woolf Institute from a Bosnian peace-building network. My first online course was Jews, Christians and Muslims in Europe: Modern Challenges in 2017. I learnt a great deal from the course; for me, the most important thing I gained was a totally new perspective and way of looking at "others". One of the most important lessons I learnt in this course is the one about the Golden Age of Andalusia in Medieval Spain. This age resembles my romantic view of the world and I believe it is possible to reach again. This gave me energy and optimism to continue my work in the field of peace-building, so I continued my studies – MA in Inter-Religious Dialogue and Peace-Building (Faculty of Catholic Theology, Faculty of Orthodox Theology and Faculty of Islamic Sciences in Sarajevo) and I was also appointed as member of the Governing Board of the Peace-Building Network. As I believe that forgiveness is pre-requisite for positive peace, but unfortunately often misunderstood, I devoted my MA thesis to this topic.

The next course I took was Representations of Jewish-Christian Relations in Literature and it influenced me a lot. This course is amazing and what I love the most is the way it explains how effective messages in literature can be, how they influence our way of thinking and shape our views, especially during childhood. I understood that biased approaches do create stereotypes, which are later difficult to eradicate. But, I also understood that literature, theatre and all forms of art are also useful tools for dialogue and peace-building. I met brilliant people – the tutor and fellow students - whom I consider to be my friends today. One of the fellow students inspired me to start studying Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the Gratz College in Pennsylvania, and this is one of the things of which I am particularly proud.

Later, I took the course Religion is... This course was particularly useful with regards to acquiring skills of critical thinking. It provided me with important information and knowledge from the field of sociology of religion. Art and religion, I believe, are the most influential cohesion factors in pluralist societies. The course gives insight into the way that religion has changed over time, and the way it is interconnected with all important factors in society. I learnt where to look at in order to dismantle narratives.

Especially interesting is the course Bridging the Great Divide: the Jewish-Muslim Encounter. Trying to bridge the great divide is something which marked my life. Yet, the divide I was trying to bridge is the deep division between the politics, interpretation of history, religion and people in the Balkans. Above all, I was striving to bridge my own internal division, as I come from a mixed ethnic and religious background. Feeling frustrated and being overwhelmed by fear since childhood, I have had a strong identity crisis. This crisis caused internal conflict which reflected in many problems initially, but later brought positive changes. The Woolf Institute brought me to think about bridging other divides as well, in this case Jewish-Muslim encounter in the Middle East.

Fear and frustration may cause violence and self-destruction, and very often they cause strong beliefs and opinions. It is important to explain our approaches rather than assume our thoughts and positions are so clear and right that there is no need to elaborate and analyse. But, at certain points of time, we realise that we should listen more carefully. Listen to both ourselves and others. And that is where the change starts. That is the point from which I see the possibility to transform the conflicts, both internal and external.

It is not easy to start questioning and explaining our views. When it comes to complex issues, such as Jewish-Muslim relations in the Middle East, I believe that online discussions, like those provided by this course, are extremely important. When we are online, we have a buffer of time and space, and necessary distance. And this is a great way of creating a safe space for participants who would otherwise not communicate. It would be of great importance to include more people into such conversations. Of course, the conversation should be guided by experienced and trained professors, as it is the case in this course, Bridging the Great Divide: the Jewish-Muslim Encounter.

Gender and Religion Today was the most difficult course for me, since I have not thought critically about most of the topics it covers earlier, as I was focused on different issues. Actually, I was not aware of the importance and dangers of "misperceptions" of "gender" in traditional interpretations of religious teachings. This course is a great introduction into the systematic study of gender and religion. It makes us analyse various and varying manifestations of religion in diverse social contexts, teaching us to think critically about intersection of gender and religion. …Very important course which I would highly recommend!

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