International spiritual teacher and guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar recently traveled to Erbil, Iraq, to host a conference addressing the persecution of women and minority religions and ethnic groups by the Islamic State militant organization. Representatives from Yazidi, Christian and Muslim populations took part as Shankar and other humanitarian workers explored ways to integrate mindfulness practices into rehabilitation efforts in the Middle East.
Shankar is a spiritual guru from India who founded the Art of Living Foundation, which teaches mindfulness and breathing techniques around the world. HuffPost Religion spoke with Shankar over Skype shortly after the conference ended on Nov. 20. The teacher reflected on the successes and limitations he has encountered thus far in his work with people who have experienced trauma at the hands of the Islamic State.
How did the conference go?
Very good. We had Yazidis and other religious minorities, Shias, Sunnis, Christians -- mostly young people in the group and some elders, too. We had ministers and members of Parliament taking part in this. Everybody had this one concern: how we can bring more security to women. It’s a very big issue.
What is your strategy for addressing the plight of women in the region?
First, there is a deep trauma in the hearts and minds of people here. There is fear of un-acceptance. Yazidi girls, when they have been abused, the community does not accept them back. We need to integrate back into society those who have escaped from the IS grips.
Those who have suffered big trauma, they had to leave their homes, they lost their kids, their children were killed in front of their own eyes, they were taken away from their own family members -- they all need a healing touch. So we are trying to give them confidence that they should go on and start their life all over again with a fresh outlook.
In addition to medical facilities and psychological counseling, you provide meditation and breathing practices. Can you tell me more about this and the effect it has on people living with trauma?
We are teaching a number of such techniques -– breathing techniques, mindfulness and meditation techniques. This is the real thing that’s helping them come out of their anger and anguish. It gives them some inner strength and inner confidence that says "I will face life in the future." Another thing is the parliamentarians. We created a program for them as well, and their experiences were really moving. This was even appreciated by the president of the Parliament here. He said he finds a renewed spirit in his own members of Parliament who have undergone the program.
Do you think mindfulness and meditation should be a part of peacekeeping strategies in other conflict areas of the world?
Absolutely. Peace is a thing that is in the core of our existence. It’s something that can build up from within. You need a technique that can touch the inner core of our being. Just talks won’t help.
Meditation seems like a very personal practice, but how can it help people transform when the society around them is still so troubling?
Meditation is not the answer for everything, but it provides you with a basic inner strength and calmness of mind. You need to be not impulsive. Especially decision-makers need to come from a space of calmness. That’s why meditation helps: Though it is personal and individual, it affects the behavior of a person. Behavior affects the teamwork, and teamwork is needed to achieve anything in the world.
You were in Iraq in 2007 –- how have things changed?
This time I have come to Erbil and to other regions which I had not visited before. Work is going on but this advent of IS has caused much more heartburn among the people. What they have done in the neighboring state [of Syria] has spilled over to Iraq, [and] now there is much more need today of peace building and trust building amongst communities.
What role can interfaith work play in healing this region?
Interfaith dialogue can send a message, especially to the young minds, to follow the path of peace and diversity rather than moving to extremism. There are three things we need to do.
One is to heal the wounds of the people. The second thing is to prevent young people who are hurt by these events from joining the fanatical or fundamental forces. This is something that needs serious prevention from interfaith dialogue and by community leaders healing the wounds of the young people. We need to send a strong message of love and compassion, which is much more prevalent than these few fringe elements of terrorism.
The third thing is reaching out to those who have already gone astray. This is where we are at a loss -- how to get to those people. Perhaps the religious community can send a message that what they are doing in the name of peace, in the name of God, is not correct. Even terrorists have become tech-savvy. Through technology they should know that the top religious leaders are condemning their actions. Then the next thing would be to bring them back to the mainstream, bring them back from terrorism to play a more constructive role of helping the society.
I will need all the help from all the governments of the world and all the NGOs and all faith-based organizations. This is a job not one person or one organization or a few individuals can do. This is something that we all have to collectively do for the sake of humanity.
Is the international community doing enough?
At this point in time you can’t say anybody has done enough. There is so much to be done. Unless peace comes back it is not enough.
We have to move from an eye-for-eye, tooth-for-tooth philosophy to reconcile to the present, let go of the past and look for a fresh new future. This is the ideology we need to instill in people: to look forward and teach them the power of the present moment, rather than brooding over the past or being revengeful about the past. Our effort is in this direction, bringing truth and reconciliation through meditation, through dialogue, through games and through all possible social, cultural and spiritual activities.
I would also like to mention that we have saved a girl who was raped 30 times. Every day -- multiple times -- she was abused, raped. And this girl has been rescued and the whole family rescued. The people who are responsible for that have already been put behind bars through our legal help.
Were the aggressors affiliated with the Islamic State?
Yes. There were several girls whom we have been working with who have been saved from the trauma. Many were sold for as little as 10 dollars and we’re giving them medical aid and trying to bring them back to normalcy. It’s a hair-standing story, one after another after another, the way the girls, the womenfolks, 15-year-old girls, 9 years, 12-year-old children have undergone things that no one should ever undergo in this century. This is something which has been done intentionally and with such vengeance and hatred, which needs all types of condemnation around the world.
Why this particular attack on women?
I was told by the Yazidi community that there have been 74 genocides against this community before. This is sheer oppression of a religious community which has been there thousands of years. They were threatened: Either they convert or face prosecution. With such things -- forced conversions and threat with the sword -- womenfolks become the easy target. God only knows why they do such things to women. I mean ... there are no words to even think why they do like this.
Is this another area where mindfulness can help shift humanity’s attitudes toward women?
Definitely. If someone meditates even for a few days, a few glimpses of mindfulness will not allow someone to be violent and be so cruel. The cruelty in a man is because he has not looked inside. No child is born cruel on this planet. It’s wrong indoctrination, number one, for they think if they kill someone who is an infidel they’ll go to heaven. Wrong indoctrination or stress or fear or the wound that they have suffered because of wrong things that have happened in their own life.
With all of your travels, the things you’ve seen and heard, what helps you maintain hope and keep your spirit up?
What I teach really works. It really helps me keep my smile on in spite of everything. It’s like asking "Doctor, when you are amidst all the sick people, how do you maintain your health?" You have no other choice.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.