Introductory Essay


Mikeal Parsons

Freshman Seminar Response Paper

            I remember my excitement when I was placed into a freshman seminar on the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. I had a strong background in German philosophy and a personal admiration of Nietzsche. I arrived in class the first day and was one of 12 white males in the seminar taught by a young Caucasian professor. I enjoyed the first discussion but also wondered if I was making the most of the diversity that should be explored in a setting so intimate as that of the Harvard Freshman Seminar. However I was soon to undergo a dramatic change in setting and topic when I discovered a conflict in my schedule that would prevent me from continuing my participation in the Nietzsche seminar. In every way possible, I would be placed into a very different setting studying a very different subject than that of my previous seminar or anything available to me in Waco Texas.

Upon arriving I was greeted by a unique group of students and teacher that provide me with my first “this is Harvard” moment. Since then I have only been captivated by each person’s attributes, background and resulting insights. I really feel as if spending two hours a week with any single person in the class could have provided me with an ability for personal reflection and transformation so being surrounded by all 11 and the professor would truly become overwhelming at times. I typically try to read everyone’s response before coming to class and in doing so have been much more successful in contextualizing each person’s comments throughout the discussion within the framework of their written words. Because I will address the readings later in the paper, I can say I think the conversations derived from the readings were some of the more entertaining and informative discussions I have been a part of. People shared everything from personal philosophies to opinions on foreign policy both inside and outside of the middle-east. The strong opinions of each person however, were never hampered by an environment not open to any and all ideas. Disagreements occurred but they were discussed with mutual inclusivity and with the other persons view point always at the forefront of their argument.

I was very intimidated the first class I attended because of my lack of prior Islamic understanding, culturally or religiously. But very quickly I discovered this made me the perfect candidate for the class. Growing up in a family with two parents as professors, and professors of the culturally rich subjects of biblical theology and renaissance art history, I had developed a way of thinking that made me more receptive of unfamiliar societies than the average person. When I discovered the best way to attain the knowledge of my peers and professor, I also discovered the best way for me to enhance the learning experience of those around me. The way I could do this was not pretending to be an expert of any part of the culture as many of the students in the class were, but instead relate what I learned in an analogous comparison with that which I did understand. This served too purposes. The first was to provide other students in the class with an alternative way of understanding the complexities of Islamic culture that helped simplify some of the major themes. The second, less apparent way, was for those who did have a firm grasp on the intricacies of an Islamic characteristic as they could now hear a different viewpoint and relate what they understood to a potentially new concept they may not have as much experience with. All in all the class developed not only my understanding of Islam but also my ability to learn from and teach to those around me.

The second aspect of the class I want to reflect on is that of the literature. Because I will explore the analytics and rhetorical implications of several pieces I will focus primarily on the impacts, applicability and understandings I found in the literature. The first reading of “Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World” remained the most powerful reading for me throughout the seminar as it provided a necessary debunking of classic western misconceptions. In fact what really resonated was the mention of Waco alongside Syria and Afghanistan. Of course being from Waco I am more than aware of the tragic events that transpired at the hand of a few crazed religious fundamentalists however I never considered it central to the identity of Waco and certainly not to the identity of our nation. And prior to this class I believe it was a result of Waco being subjected to this one isolated incident and I would chalk it up to a blip in the history of Waco. However that is not how it is regarded by outsiders, as I would understand over the span of my life. Any time I was not in Waco and would mention where I was from, those who had heard of it had heard of it only for the Branch Davidians and their isolated actions. I thought hard about this, and while there have been more than just a few isolated religious fanatical events in Syria and Afghanistan, the author chose to equate the three for a reason. And this reason I believe is to show how the majority of people in those regions are marginalized by a radical minority. It is a very rare occurrence for such an event to transpire, but it can continue not because of the oppression that comes from the religious fanatics, but from the neglect of other societies around the world as a result of their acceptance of the misconception that there is nothing of note in Syria besides the political unrest as a result of religious fanatics, that there is nothing of note in Afghanistan besides American apathy as a result of religious fanatics, that there is nothing in Waco besides backward thinking fundamentalists as a result of religious fanatics. There is a clear theme here, and religious literacy and cultural empathy is necessary in transcending the view that has now become the status quo.

And finally, when contemplating what I will retain five years from now and further down the road I am prompted to answer with lessons learned about how to approach such religious discussions. It is not necessarily specific facts about Islam or authors but instead it is the overall message of Islam which at its root is a religion, not a political manifesto. This will absolutely remain at the forefront of my consciousness but there are multiple aspects I hope to continue to reflect upon and expand my knowledge of. In particular I have been fascinated by Islamic art work and its incorporation of the written word into the art. I have always grown up to appreciate art in a form of representing people and situations. I have enjoyed modern art but never truly seen the significance of it and have always been partial to older works. But experiencing art in the Islamic culture has changed my perspective on things. When I fully realized the extent to which the written and spoken word are valued and then saw it illustrated in art I was moved in a way very different from other art forms. It seemed to do a wonderful job of embodying multiple aspects of the country. It gives a creative sense to the piece through illustration but then draws upon the uniformity and familiarity of words. If I can retain these two things, the message of Islam and the novelty of its art work, I will have regarded his class as a great success.

In conclusion I have greatly enjoyed learning from each person and truly believe I have gained lessons that will last me for a very long time. It has provided me with an ability to reflect on other cultures despite opposition found in the media. The best way to understand a culture at its present time is by reading popular, and rejected literature by people of the society. This was our approach for the last 12 weeks and I feel much more enlightened because of it. Being a freshman I was very pleased with the type of transformation I have been provided with in only my first semester. It was a nice supplement to my predominantly STEM schedule. I hope to take classes on various cultures in the future and look forward to the possibility of expanding my understanding of Islam in coming semesters.

Reluctant Fundamentalist


Richie the intellectual 


My final piece is a photograph I took inspired by the Reluctant Fundamentalist. I was motivated in the struggle between father and son and decided to photograph that which was the opposite of what it appeared. The son’s revert back to Islam while the father remained caught up in Islamic differed significantly from the typical story about west vs Islam. A parent usually fights with a child about how to maintain their Islamic routes, but in this case the child is reprimanding the parent for lack of commitment. It is an interesting perspective, and while I’m not convinced it is actually possible it raises some interesting questions. Such as whose responsibility is it to provide a role model. For example who does the reader sympathize with, typically it is the child because of their naiveté and desire to fit in with their peers that prevents the parent from understanding the fascination with western culture. However in this story the child in fact condemns his father, an act that brings up numerous emotions because we actually feel hesitant to side with the father who we believe has lost his identity by adapting western way of life. Little empathy is given to him but for no apparent reason besides the age difference, anyone can struggle with fitting in and it is best left up to that individual to decide for herself on how to handle it. My picture displays a common stereotype of athletes at Harvard that results in a stigma placed on them by other students. This features a picture of my roommate reading about climate change, a passion of his that many people would assume he does not participate in because of his appearance.




Circle Expressions

Next is the art I used to symbolize the message of Persepolis, growing up to parents who are active members of a revolution is likely to take a toll on any family. But for a girl discovering her identity and looking for role models it can be especially impactful. The protagonist struggles with her roots and finds outlets it much of western society despite her communists parents. She finds outlets in western music and activities ranging from drugs to promiscuity yet still keeps her parents mindset as she idolizes people in prison and those persecuted for the sake of the war. This story was one of the less Islamic intensive stories we read and enjoyed it in part because it was nice to see other literature from that region that shifted its attention to governmental issues. In clear support of communism, the story shows the reality that is the revolution. It is easy for people to discard death tolls and participation when they do not understand the familial implications of the revolution. Each person killed or injured is some one’s father some one’s mom some one’s daughter. But at the same time, little emotion can be shown on the part of the family who is affected. It is like they are forced to disengage regardless of the circumstances. Humans are not naturally repressive of feelings no matter how strong the faith in the goal. This realization inspired my art in which I display a number of different internal emotions portrayed with various colors, all on the back of a blank expression forced upon the beholder in light of the circumstances.



Complaint and Answer


Art colors

My next piece is over the perception of God inspired by the Complaint and the Answer. Throughout the book I had feelings that were brought me back to what I had been taught in my several years at Catholic school. It had to do with the various uses of God and people’s opinions of him based on what they wanted to believe. God could be merciful, ravenous, damning, peaceful happy or destructive all depending on not just the religion you asked but what person in the religion you asked. In more ways than we realize, the positives and negatives of our life affect our faith and how we think of God. In many ways it is impossible to qualify what most people agree to be a supreme being. However we find ourselves doing it because to humanize something is to make it less mysterious. But at the same time it also causes what are likely to be many misinterpretations. Everyone could be wrong and everyone could be wrong, it is unfair to credit your situation singularly to a divine being. This is what I believe to be the message conveyed through the Complaint and Answer. God is not responsible for micromanaging individuals lives, most faiths believe he has a presence but also grants free will in which case your present situation is not the fault of god and he should not be blamed for any current predicaments. In trying to credit or discredit God with impacting daily events it is to turn him into something he isn’t and to disengage from what it means to be faithful. Because religion is faith based, when that faith is extrapolated into areas that are no longer faith dependent it is likely for someone to misconstrue religion and use it as a scapegoat. My picture illustrates the various colors on the specter ranging from cool to warm colors corresponding to the various opinions and feelings people express towards God.



Mardas on a Rainy Day



Madras on a rainy day was probably the most graphic, discomforting book I read, and I really enjoyed that. While there were definitely parts of the book I thought were extraneous, I enjoyed it because it was novel to me how an author could imagine all those dramatic events and incorporate them into one feeling without feeling as if she was losing her reader. For this reason it was particularly compelling because it is a unique culture and person that can produce literature such as this. From the numerous secrets to the climatic rape and invasion by the Hindis, it took a turn for the worst at every breaking point throughout the story. It reminded me very much of Kite Runner in the sense that there seemed to only be compounding despair and distress brought on by the culturally closed mindedness of older members of the society. Only in Madras on a rainy day, there is no redeeming element. Whether it is overbearing parents or religious extremism, religion can result in the oppression of numerous people. This is because religion is faith based and so many people believe in it that it is hard to resoundingly disprove those who are most outspoken about their faith. Religion isn’t a science and it borders on illogical because of the predetermined framework set upon by the bible quran or other religious text. Unlike philosophy which guides a person to having a fulfilling life, religion focuses on the afterlife. Horrible things can be justified if one is convinced they will be rewarded in another life. My art project focuses on the large number of secrets that must be concealed by the beholder, also similar to Kite Runner. It begins with the secret dread of an arranged marriage, transitions to a revelation that the husband is gay and concludes with the bleeding sheet that epitomizes the necessity of concealing secrets that would not be accepted by the Islamic community.



Beggar’s Strike


Muslim Slide Show

The beggars strike may have been my favorite piece. Having read the Communist Manifesto I really felt a strong analogy between the proletariat resistance to the bourgeois being embodied by the poor who abandon the kingdom in the midst of a ceremony in which they play a major role. In a way it was a critique of capitalism as it proved that the systems capitalism/feudalism give rise too allow for the oppression of a significant amount of people. But without that group of people the system inevitably falls. This speaks to the fact that any system inherently designed to rely on the oppression of people is immoral and unjust. And like in any society it is important that the oppressed resist and behave in a way that prevents further oppression. My work is a collage of various stereotypes of people and how they appear to other members of society. Like in reality it cannot work unless each person plays a significant role in comparison with the other. The same can be said of the collage. Without each person, the picture has holes leaves the viewer displeased. It does not matter what is there but trying to fill the picture with only upper class, middle class or lower class citizens would not work because a society must be comprised of a number of each. However the collage is also representative of the mixture of classes. There must be mobility, a chance for improvement. Otherwise the collage is simply a row of pictures grouped together based on social class, in which case it ceases to be art work. It fails to be a successful style of government when things are distinguished that shouldn’t be.


Swallows of Kabul


I am trapped inside

I cannot escape this place

But what traps me here


Could it be my mind

Is it something external

I fight the outside


But that is not it

It is there internally

I cannot decide


To be trapped is death

I lose my identity

I change my own thoughts


I am at a loss

I don’t know how to resist

Stuck between two things

For swallows of Kabul I was intrigued by the change in characters relationships by the external and internal pressures resulting from an oppressive Islamic culture. Zunaira a strong independent woman would soon be reduced to questioning her ideology and husbands character as a result of isolated events. It is just further evidence that events take a toll on people, especially in an environment that is suffocating the very ideals that someone holds in highest esteem. Zunaira unfolds throughout the entire novel, to the point where she neglects her lover and allows another woman to die in her place. To describe the emotional struggle within this piece I wrote a poem in which an internal and external battle occurs from stanza to stanza eventually crushing its victim between the two. This is a sad occurrence but is common of people in dire situations, especially when there is little hope to get out. This message carries weight through not just extreme scenarios but also in societies with a large amount of inequality or lack of social mobility. Hope is an important thing and in its absence individuals and eventually classes collapse on themselves. It is a way of non-violent oppression. And in many ways it is the worst form of oppression. It rids people of a sense of identity and identity necessary for protest or resolution to change the status quo. All of the most successful dictatorships have been successful because they have collapsed the morale of their opposition and silenced them by destroying hope. My poem is supposed to describe the essence of oppression internally and externally and how it is combined.



We Sinful Women



We Sinful WomenMuslim Poem

 Originally reading the background of the authors and then their poems, it was clear feminists writings from women in the middle east are particularly moving given much of the oppression present in this region of the world. Having now read and discussed the significant impact of language, in particular, poetry in Islamic culture, the poems can be read as the highest form of argument through which the women writers present their point. I enjoyed many poems, especially “O God of Heaven and Earth” which I would have been happy to explore, however I settled on We Sinful Women because I felt it had the most feminist undertones and transcended time in a way that few pieces can. As a result, I felt the best way for me to deepen my understanding of the poem and how it could still apply today would be to attempt my own. Written more in the voice of a 21st century western woman, I felt as if the poem could easily be transcribed to any period with any group of woman that suffered from discrimination and inequality. Writing in this perspective was a unique experience for me and forced me to not only sympathize but empathize with women from both the middle-east and western society. Regardless of the problems encountered by women, there is a uniting factor that oppression carries which ultimately leads to its downfall. For this reason it is interesting to compare various works written by the oppressed and study how deeply seeded their resentment for dehumanization is and how easily it spreads and relates to those who share their circumstances.


Children of the Alley


Islamic Presentation Being Catholic, the religious allusions were immediately apparent. However what also became apparent was the virtual nonexistence of comparable Christian literature. In this story the author embraced each religions major character while it would be very difficult to find such work written by a Christian or Jewish writer. I thought this interpretation spoke more to the importance of the idea of these religious figures as opposed to the physical characteristics of the people which are shamelessly quarreled over. This idea inspired my collage which is composed of the various people alluded to in Children of the Alley and their images as seen by various societies across the world. It features a black Jesus, a Jewish Jesus, a middle-eastern Abraham and many others. The point is not their image but rather what they stand for and I think that this is realized when seeing all these different figure together. With Islam embracing and acknowledging the significance of the multitude of Jewish and Christian figures, many of whom appear in the Quran, it takes a place as a religion that can understand its peers much better than those of other faiths understand Islam. It is likely that this is a blessing and a curse. A blessing because Islamic people are less likely to divert attention to religious fanatics because they understand the misinterpretations of those fanatics, be they Christian, Jewish or of another faith. However it is a curse because of the significant amount of people who do not understand basic Islamic teachings and thus are subjet to gross generalizations as a result of their own religious extremists.

Rethinking Contemporary Islam


Three Pictures

This has been far and away the most impactful piece I have read this semester. My knowledge of Islamic culture and faith was limited to new reports and fictional literature, which I now realize may have been worse than having no knowledge at all. Three things that stood out to me and provided context throughout the future discussions I learned from this reading. The first was the context of the versus that discuss Muslim actions towards muslims and non-muslims. Muhammad was suffering under the persecution of Middle Eastern Jews and Christians and thus would likely have been speaking out of the necessity of his own safety. The differences in Sunni and Shia was the second piece of information I collected from the readings and discussion. I found it very interesting when juxtaposed to different Christian sects. The differences in Islam come from the descendants of their most esteemed prophet, while in Christianity these differences arise as a result of specific biblical interpretation. And can essentially be attributed to the verse Matthew 16:18, in which both Catholics and Protestants reference in support or denial of a singular head of church. The final lesson I take into account when contextualizing prior discussions is the hierarchy of Islamic leaders and the plethora of diverse interpretations that range from state to state, school to school, and religious leader to religious leader. This has specifically helped me in dialogue on contemporary literature which requires an underlying understanding of Islamic culture. My first discussion was with Professor Ali in which I was directly able to discuss these three elements I drew from the article. Doing this allowed me to further generalize each point and broaden the scope through which I could apply it. My picture is a combination of the three settings integrated into one to provide a tangible reminder of what I need to be aware of when reading contemporary texts.


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