United We Stand Conference: Eavesdropping on Muslims
Thomas Ryan, CSP
United For Change is an organization that was created to galvanize the Muslim leadership in North America to take on issues that are too large for any one individual leader, organization or group to effectively address. Founded three years ago, it’s first conference in Washington, DC addressed the question of malaria in Africa. Last year in Montreal, QC, the focus was on “Our Families, Our Foundation,” and the threat posed by domestic violence and divorce. This year’s conference drew over 3,000 Muslim participants from the U.S. and Canada to the convention center in Washington, DC on September 10 under the theme of “United We Stand: One Nation, One Destiny,” and brought together leading Western intellectuals to address the role of Muslims in the West ten years after 9/11.
When you have an opportunity to “listen in” on the conversation taking place within a family, you get a level of honesty you might not otherwise get, and it can provide insight into the operative values guiding the lives of those family members. Would you like to “listen in” to what Muslim scholars and spiritual leaders were saying “within the family” to members of the Muslim faith community?
Dr. Merve Kavakci, a lecturer on International Relations George Washington University in D.C., described the challenge when she said, “A religion dedicated to peace is now associated with violence. That’s the grim reality. We must look within to see how we can better represent our religion.”
Dr. Altaf Hussein, a former executive committee member of the Muslim Alliance in North America, sought to set the record straight in his reflection on spirituality as a catalyst of mercy: “9/11 resulted in the deaths of over 3000 people. It left over 3000 children without a father or mother. We hold those 19 spiritually void men and their organization of terror responsible. They were a part of a cult of terror whose world view contradicts the most basic convictions of Islam. The killing of an innocent person in Islam is like killing all of humanity, and saving a life is like saving all humanity. The prophet Muhammad taught us discipline, self-control, and above all, mercy. He taught his followers to be just, inclined to forgiveness. This cult of terror must not be allowed to hijack the religion of Islam. Islam is not at fault; there is nothing in Muslim teaching to make one think that outright violence against innocent people could ever be justified in the name of Islam. The heedless and heartless acts of violence they perpetrate have nothing to do with Islam. Had they had an ounce of genuine spirituality in their veins they could never have taken actions that have resulted in the loss of so many innocent lives both on 9/11 and in the intervening years through the ensuing war in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Mercy as a Distinguishing Trait of Islam
Imam Zaid Shakir, founder and chairman of United for Change, spoke about mercy as a distinguishing trait of Islam: “Now is not the time to hide from the challenges facing us as a Muslim community. Now is the time for action, for heroic action. Heroism cannot be separated from mercy. Mercy in Muslim tradition is the attempt to bring benefits to others and to ward off harm. That is also the essence of heroism. The willingness to suffer so that others can have—this is the spirit of compassion and mercy that must come to mark our lives in this country and in our world. This has to become the foundation for our politics and economics.”
Shaykh Muhammad Ninowy, an Al-Madina Institute foundation scholar, took that a step further: “All but one of the 114 chapters in the Qur’an open with the declaration, ‘God is the all merciful and compassionate’. Compassion is the foundation of the faith. It’s not about talk, but about action. People don’t want just to hear that Islam is a religion of compassion. They want to see Muslims practicing it. Actions speak louder than words. Muslims have the largest numbers of victims of violence in the world today. And at the same time they are viewed as disrupters of peace. How can we expect the American people to believe that we love them when we don’t even love ourselves. We have to get rid of the internal contradiction within ourselves, because people are judging us not by our words but by our actions. The people of North America are thinking people with a capacity to change. They are capable of changing their perception of Muslims. We can make America even more beautiful and diversified, capable of speaking the truth, supporting it in realizing its ideals.”
The Way Forward is Education
Imam Sayed Hassan Al-Qazwini, the leader of the Islamic Center of America in Detroit and who has spoken in more than 400 churches since 9/11, shared how much of the anti-Muslim sentiment that currently exists in North America is predicated on ignorance. "There are four key points that Muslims need to pursue: 1) Educate Americans and Canadians about our religion. 28% of Americans still believe that Obama is a Muslim. We are not interested in proselytizing. It is enough for us to speak the truth. The moment people hear the truth, it will have its own effect. 2) Participation. When Jews came to this country they kept their Jewish identity but shed their European identity. We need to maintain our Islamic identity, but to integrate into our societies here, to respond to floods and hurricane victims as much as any other Americans. 3) Get organized. How many grass roots organizations there are in this country! We need to follow suit, to become part of the political and public system. 4) Stop fighting with one another as Muslims. We are one ummah (community), and we must treat each other as such. Shia’s and Sunni’s can remain who are they are, but we must work together.”
Dr. John Esposito, the founding director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington spoke about the need for a new narrative. “The tragic event of 9/11 has been widely exploited. Islam and Muslims have been brush-stroked as terrorists. What we have seen are culture wars promoted by the far right popular cultural outlets. The way forward is education. Mosques, Hindu temples, Buddhist Temples are now part of our landscape. Our religious traditions do have doctrines that truth does exist in other faiths. We’re being called to transcend a ‘black and white’ world. At the heart of our American identity is e pluribus unum—out of many one.”
The following day, the 10th anniversary of the 9/11/ attack, the spirit of learning about one another with openness and respect marked the 9/11 Unity Walk. Every church, synagogue, temple and mosque on Embassy Row in Washington opened up its doors to build bridges of respect to each other and to symbolically show the world a dramatic display of unity. Reminiscent of Gandhi’s walks, people of all faiths and none put aside their differences to learn about each other. Nationally and internationally, it’s a statement of what is possible.
Fr. Thomas Ryan, CSP directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, DC.