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Voices of the Next Generation: Maryem Abdullah

Thinking on the future of interfaith, the Parliament of the World’s Religions invited several interns to share on the topic of the next generation of the movement and living out the vision of those pioneers celebrated this important anniversary year. On November 16, 2013, four young adults spoke their hearts and minds to a welcoming crowd of 180 Parliament supporters.

The following interview reflects the vision of Parliament intern in communications and outreach, Maryem Abdullah, a student in the Honors College at University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) and premier student leader of the UIC Model United Nations. 

What do you consider to be your identity as an young adult joining the Interfaith movement?  

Personally, I identify as a Muslim-American. I was born and raised in Chicago, and so the United States is all I know, and which is why I identify as such. I do hold my Arab heritage close and it will always be a part of me. While I love the fact that I am Arab, I have a hard time [personally] identifying as such because of where I grew up and what surrounded me as a child and young adult. Above all that, however, Islam is near and dear to my heart. No matter where I am, how long I’ve lived there, and with whom I surround myself, I will always have my Muslim identity.

What are some common misconceptions of young Muslim and Arab women you encounter- having grown up in the United States?

Something I face often is the misconception that all Arabs are Muslims and all Muslims are Arab. However, they are not the same or, in my opinion, even similar. Being Arab or from the Middle East is a culture and Islam is a religion. While the two can coincide, they do not have much of a relation to one another.

What is the role of religion in your life?

Having a sense of religion helps me with difficulties I face on a day-to-day basis, and I am thankful to my parents who raised me in a household that incorporated religion in most aspects of my life. While I will be the first to admit that I am no model Muslim, my relationship with the God I believe in is the most important thing to me. I don’t think that the black and white version of a faith is what defines a person—their spirituality and connection with their God is what matters. It is a shame that these misconceptions and prejudices leads people to commit hateful crimes against those who look, speak, or dress a certain way. While it saddens me to see such hate in the world, it lifts my spirits to know that the interfaith movement is widespread and that there is hope to end hate and intolerance.

How does being both Muslim and American inform your perspective of the Interfaith movement?

I think the combination of being American and Muslim has helped me become more optimistic about the interfaith movement. I think the interfaith movement will have more of an impact because this generation is more inclusive. Generations only become more tolerant, so it fosters a positive place for the coming together of various faiths, religions, and cultures. In my opinion, we are less clingy to traditional views, and more open to new people, traditions, and ideas. I believe the younger generation sees the world through a different lens than those who raised us. Our previous generation paved the pathway for change, and with the current generation’s open-mindedness, I think greatness can happen.

What evidence of change and greatness do you see happening?

I have my mother to largely thank for my understanding of how much a group of people can impact a community. She was one of the five founding partners of an all female Muslim law firm. At the time I was in 9th grade and I couldn’t care less about anyone’s accomplishments but mine, but now that I’m older and my professional dreams have evolved from an actress to a lawyer, I have come to realize and appreciate all that she has done to further the tolerance of the Muslim community, and for women around the world.

What is your hope for the future of the interfaith movement?

As a member of a generation that is incredibly open and honest, I am happy to see a strong stance against hate and intolerance.

Who embodies the hope of a stronger interfaith movement to you?

I think Malala Yousafzai, a 15-year-old who stood up for the educational rights of women and was consequently shot by the Taliban, is an amazing example of sticking up for what you believe in, despite the hurdles that may come your way. Malala, along with countless other young women working towards common goals, teaches us what we’re up against- and how strong we can be if we come together for a common cause. We have a long way to go with countless bumps ahead of us, but I’m confident that the interfaith movement will lead to a hate-free and more tolerant world.

Seminary Student Reflects on Religious Pluralism Class

The following article is a final synthesis paper written by Lora Burge, a seminarian at McCormick Theological Seminary. The course, Religious Pluralism and the Ministry, has been taught by Prof. Robert Cathey and CPWR Trustee Janaan Hashim since 2006.  The course developed as an off-shoot from the 2004 Parliament in Barcelona.  Over the course of the semester, students actively study five faith traditions: Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Hinduism.  Students’ final reading includes Tariq Ramadan’s The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism.  Equipped with a semester of observation, research, and writing, students leave the class working on a philosophical and/or theological framework for thinking about religious pluralism in Chicago and beyond.  With Ms. Burge’s permission, Prof. Cathey and Prof. Hashim are pleased to share with you this young interfaither’s thoughts.  Enjoy.

Finding a Universal

by Lora Burge

Humility is my table, respect is my garment, empathy is my food and curiosity is my drink.  As for love, it has a thousand names and is by my side at every window.  –Tariq Ramadan  [1]

Approaching the sacred, finding the holy, listening to the divine, worshiping God within and among us.  As I reflect on the journey and experiences of this semester, I can’t help but marvel at everything I saw and observed.  On one hand, it’s hard to make comparisons between the different religions.  Friday afternoon prayers, puja, and a Shabbat service are organized different ways for different purposes.  Yet, on the other hand all these involved searching.  Looking out and watching for something bigger, something outside of themselves, something beyond human reason and quantifiable experience.  They were seeking Brahman, Allah, YHWH, God, enlightenment.

Growing up in a pluralistic, postmodernist world, I have always been taught to be suspicious of overarching truths and meta-narratives.  I’m well-steeped in the practice of criticism and always asking “Whose truth?  Whose narrative?  Who’s speaking?  And with what authority?”  I wonder if those questions don’t put more distance between myself and my neighbors.  Are these questions I was taught to ask other-izing the “other”?  It’s a lot easier to ignore, overlook, and mistreat people when central parts of their identity and belief have been objectified away.

I am such a product of my own education that I have a hard time conceptualizing what a universal truth would look like.  I was taught to be so suspicious of any universals as to make them seem an impossibility.  I will always be a child of postmodernism, understanding life in terms of social constructs, contextual truths, and lived experience.  It seems unlikely (at least now) that I will completely break out of this mold of thought that has been the result of two decades of education.  Yet now I criticize the critical mode of thought itself.  If we objectify all truth, and conceptualize of each human being as living in her or her own uniquely-constructed world, then we’ve erased the possibility of common ground and shared experience.  Anybody outside of myself will always be “other” to my reality.  Not just somewhat “other,” or different, but completely so, which will make relating and understanding each other difficult.

Here’s the crux of it: by asking so many questions and stripping things bare as social constructs and humanity-made realities, we’ve removed the common ground out from under our own feet.  Precisely by focusing on each individual’s uniqueness, we’ve lost sight of or lost altogether the universal nature of our own humanity.  We are making “other” out of our own flesh and blood.  Until we learn a new way of thinking, we will continue to push people away as irreconcilably different.

The Universal

Something then must be done to reclaim our common ground.  It is not hard to see the ways in which our world is tearing itself apart: wars, violence, poverty, economic injustice, and more.  Yet how will we put it back together with such differences?  It is imperative that we relearn how to understand our common humanity rather than focusing on differences.

If nothing else, we all share in the same humanity.  We all breathe, eat, sleep, learn, and to some extent live in community with other human beings.  Some faith traditions understand the condition of being human as the nature of being created in the image of God.  Some understand the human condition as rooted in suffering.  To others, being human is something to be mastered through rigorous spiritual disciplines.  Regardless of our personal understandings of what it means to be human, we all are, and that is one universal characteristic that we share.  Across religious, political, ethnic, racial, cultural, economic and any other constructed categories that divide us, we are all human.  So what are we to do with our universal human nature?

It is time to recognize that shared humanity in itself is enough of a foundation for shared common ground.  We must move forward understanding that we share at least one thing with the rest of the world: our being.  This shared existence is something to be honored and respected.  Tariq Ramadan notes that, “We must love human beings, with their qualities, their beauties and their difference, but also with their weaknesses, their doubts and their fears.  This means acknowledging that they, like us, are capable of the best and the worst.[…]  Our love must be resolutely universal, and eager to share.”[2]  If human nature is the universal condition, then love must become the universal action.  Each of us from personal experience knows of the human potential for good or for evil, and everything in between.  Love cannot be measured out on the basis of works and worthiness: this will only lead to constructed divisions, categories, and the naming of people as foreign “others.”

Instead, this universal love needs to be something that we have in common and something that brings us together.  The free, unconditional giving of love is not something that comes easy.  Survival instincts and greed lead to the selfish management of resources, even love.  A few millennia of stingy, particular love have left us a world full of divisions, hatred, and violence.  There must be another way.

Namaste

There is a practice within Hinduism of bowing to other people and saying “Namaste,” or “I bow to the God in you.”[3]  Hindus will bow to other Hindus and non-Hindus alike; to them, there is God in everyone.  For Hindus, this practice is based on their universal conceptualization of a sacred nature present within each human being.  It would be presumptuous to think all human beings would want to engage in the practice of Namaste bowing.  With many theological, spiritual, and anthropological understandings of what it means to be human, finding the sacred in our fellow humanity will not be a practical approach to the universal.  Yet there is something in the practice that could be a helpful model.

There is no rationale or emotion tied to the bowing.  I am not bowing to thank someone for a gift or a professor for help with an assignment.  I recognize there may be circumstances where this bowing is easier and other situations where it is really hard to see God present in others.  But regardless, the bowing happens simply to unconditionally honor the God-nature in others.  This is precisely what we must learn to do.  Regardless of any words or actions we may use, we must learn to love and respect the humanity—the human nature—of the people around us, both in the local but also the global sense.  We need to recognize that within every other there is a shared human nature, a shared life force, and in fact, he or she is not such an “other.”

This is precisely what I had a taste of this semester.  Going to a synagogue, a mosque, a gurdwara, a Buddhist center, and a Hindu temple—I was an outsider and an observer but I never felt like an “other.”  All of our speakers and hosts were eager to have us there and as equally enthusiastic to help us learn about their faith tradition.  In some instances, there were shared elements of religious heritage between us, and in other instances, none.  Yet we are all human beings, living from the same human condition, and searching for similar things.  Instead of seeing a young white liberal Christian woman from the West coast, each of them chose to see and affirm a fellow human being also searching for a life of meaning and happiness.

Moving Forward

This is what I need to take with me: there is one possible universal truth, and that is love for my fellow humanity.  Not a love that requires uniformity in belief or political systems, not a love that dissolves diversity for a false sense of unity, not love that has any conditions or requirements at all.  This universal love then is a deep, unconditional positive regard not because of how people are in the world but because they are in the world.  This love honors people simply and wholly because they have a human nature and being, which means they are like us.

This universal love is something that needs to be cultivated and practiced.  In an economic system based on achievement and merit, giving anything unconditionally is uncommon.  Universal, unconditional love for the human nature of all people is not something that will happen overnight; it will happen in many specific moments and encounters.  Tariq Ramadan explains that, “Love too is a journey.  We have to set out, get away from ourselves.  We have to take the first step, and keep our balance.  And, ultimately, it is all a question of balance.”[4]  We need to step away from our specific selves, step into our common humanity, and live from a universal love and a shared reality that we are, in fact, all human and we share in this thing called life.

Bibliography

[1] Ramadan, Tariq, The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism (London: Allen Lane, 2010), xii.

[2] Ibid., 25

[3] Pandit, Dr. Bansi, “Hindu Tradition.”  Lecture, McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago, IL, 2 December 2011.

[4] Ramadan, Tariq, The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism (London: Allen Lane, 2010), 195.

The Women of Medinah

Janaan Hashim

Janaan Hashim

by Janaan Hashim

I have a new-found respect for Muslim women who look nothing like me, but share the common thread of faith. The media has painted them in a negative, oppressed manner; one in which they must be “freed” by the West. These women are completely covered in a black abayah, similar to a burqa but with a much better cut and design, with a veil allowing only their eyes to give me a visual identity of them and wearing black gloves and socks. For the past five days, I’ve watched these women achieve an incredible feat that would make any “pro-women” group proud.

It is the peak of the pilgrimage season for Muslims, and most pilgrims stop by Medinah to visit the city of their Prophet Muhammed. In terms of numbers, an expected 6 million Muslims will be in the neighborhood, and with a large percentage of these pilgrims stopping by Medinah to pray in the Prophet’s Mosque to which his home was atached and where he was buried. As such, it’s not hard to imagine how many people want to visit the place where they can give their salutations to the Prophet and pray where he led his followers. There is a special area between the Prophet’s home and his pulpit where it is believed that praying on that ground is as though one is praying in the Heavens, and thus, it is a highly sought after locale in the mosque.

What does this mean for women since, as in all mosques, there is generally a separation of the genders? First, it means that the women of Medinah become the female security and organizers. With incredible patience, positive attitude mixed with humor, they marshal in hundreds of thousands of women each day, all from hundreds of countries and with just as many different cultural norms.

They have an order to bringing in the female worshipers, grouping them generally by language. People speaking English, like Americans, Australians, British, Canadians, are grouped together on a rectangular Persian carpet; next to them would be women from Africa; next to them women from Western Asia and Russia and so forth. They are told to sit and to wait while a group ahead of them, again seated, receive a short talk on the history of the mosque, its religious significance, and the importance of maintaining patience and a level of dignity when going to the special area. Once the group that is in the special area leaves, the group receiving the talk moves in, and then the group that was sitting advances and receives the talk.

This is a great system, except not everyone can understand it or has patience with it. The women who are there are from every walk of life with levels of education that span the spectrum. Thus, if someone doesn’t “get it,” trouble can arise.

Despite their efforts in explaining the procedure and calling for calm and patience, for some reason, there tend to be a few people who just don’t get it.  They become impatient, act upon it, and decide to move forward on their own. What happens is that others follow. The female security do everything they can to prevent this from happening, but if the numbers are too great, since each group can be several hundred, they have to acquiesce and wait for the next group to come in. On one of my visits, I was at the front of the line sitting with the first group when this happened.

Being the person I am, following instructions to the letter, I remained seated as two or three women stepped around me and disregarded the security. Within seconds there were more women following suit and, all of a sudden, these strong hands grabbed my forearms that were protecting my head and pulled me up. It was one of the female security persons, who gave me the look that nothing was going to happen to any of the visitors on her watch. Realizing the danger I was in after she pulled me up and as hoards of women passed by me, I was incredibly grateful and wanted to hug her for her quick thinking and actions. Before I knew it, though, she was back to work, getting the masses to sit again and wait their turn.

In the second grouping, an incredible trance overcame the several hundred women. Our leader at this point stood at the base of one of the pillars and in a story-like tone, began her talk in English. I looked behind and no one was fidgeting, no one trying to leave the group and lurch forward, inadvertently creating havoc. Then she repeated the talk in fluent French, and again, no one moved. When it was our turn to visit the prime space, everyone rushed and I noticed the security standing on the pillars, overlooking the crowd, guiding people toward the exit, ensuring their safety. They helped clear the way for the elderly, they respectfully removed people who wanted to remain so as to make room for others; they essentially kept the order.

The space we were in was tiny, and the managing of thousands of people from all over the world was impressive. No men were around – they weren’t needed. These women were in control: efficient, patient, and professional. In the way they carried themselves and executed such a massive feat – and doing this everyday – to me, what they wore means nothing. If you put a business suit on them, you’d think they were CEOs; if you put a uniform on them, you’d think they were officers. Bottom line, they were sharp women doing their job in a manner that makes this sister proud.

Janaan Hashim is a member of the Council’s Board of Trustees and the host for Radio Islam.

November 15th, 2010 at 2:21 pm

Posted in CPWR

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At the Mosque in Beit Fajjar after the Fire

Janaan in mosque at Beit Fajjar

Janaan in mosque at Beit Fajjar

by Janaan Hashim

While wrapping up our one-week visit to Israel and Palestine, human nature’s ugly face left its mark in a house of worship.  Not associated with the Nobel Women’s Initiative, a sister delegate and I embarked on our own to offer our support in the small village of Beit Fajjar in Palestine.

The mosque was, indeed, torched and Qurans were visibly set aflame.  The carpet was some sort of man-made material and so the flames only went as far at the accelerant that caught fire.  Make no mistake, the heat was so intense that the tiles on the pillars weakened their adhesive and they fell off, landing in a mess on the charred floor.  The soot was thick and provided a clear layer on the walls and ceiling; kids wrote in it Islamic phrases in Arabic, such as “Allah” and “Muhammad.”  I didn’t read anything derogatory against the assailants, though clearly the opportunity was there.

Who would do this?  What was their aim?  Why damage a house of worship?

Janaan holding burnt Quran

Janaan holding burnt Quran

The offenders were nearby Israeli settlers.  They left their mark above the front entrance, spray painting “Price Tag” above the door.  This is the price that the Muslims, living in the Occupied Territories, are paying.

The people there were, much to my relief, not angry or spiteful.  Hollywood would have the streets filled with demonstrators all sweaty and angry, fists pumping into the air.  They would want the impression that Muslims and Arabs are emotionally reactionary people; hot-headed if not barbaric.  An Israeli and American flag would likely be burning, perhaps the image of a settler dangling from a noose.  But just as Hollywood creates fiction, so would be such an image.

To the contrary, the imam and others that we talked to were calm and patient.  They showed us the damage; in the corner a TV crew and other media were documenting the hate crime.  At one point, they interviewed the mosque leaders who did not raise their voices or vow for revenge.  They simply allowed the damage to speak for itself.

At one point, I asked to sit and reflect in the mosque.  They left Ann and me there; Ann sitting by the front door as I found a place in the middle of the destruction, devastation and black remains.  I sat and reflected, supplicated.  I prayed for the Creator of all to keep these people strong and I prayed for the settlers who did this—for God to guide them and to realize their wrongs, to become better human beings.

Boys at Beit Fajjar

Boys at Beit Fajjar

Before I left, I found myself surrounded by about 15 curious boys.  I chuckle because I knew what was going on in their minds: we have to see for ourselves the American Muslim woman who wears hijab, can it be?  I realized an all too familiar role when I travel to the Middle East not just as a sister of faith, but as an American Muslim.

I told them to remember their faith.  I told them not to let their anger make them like the people who did this, but instead, to rise to the occasion and to be the Muslims that their faith and their prophet calls upon.  The adults understood, but I wonder about this younger generation.  God willing, I hope and pray they follow the footsteps of their village leadership.

The boys followed Ann and me as we went outside and waited for the bus to return us to Bethlehem.  We noticed some activity on the street with an extremely large tarp and then, minutes later, realized what was happening.   The tarp was hoisted to the roof of the mosque and then dropped down to protect it from nature’s elements.  No loud screaming or protests from the street, just doing the next logical thing—prepare the mosque against further damage.

A few days later, Rabbi Eilberg from our delegation sent me an email with an article attached.  Much to my happiness, a group of Rabbis from a nearby settlement approached the mosque with new Qurans in hand.  They condemned the acts stating that there is no place in the Torah or Judiasm for such acts.

Imagine the effect this bold stand will have on the village leadership and villagers themselves.  Imagine that not only did they receive media attention, not only did an Irish woman and American Muslim visit, but the common hand of faith reached across the aisle to recognize a wrong.  Imagine the effect this will have on creating a better tomorrow.

Janaan Hashim is a member of the Council’s Board of Trustees and the host for Radio Islam.

At the Tombs of Abraham and Sarah

by Janaan Hashim

The mood was tranquil, though despair hovers over the mosque’s more recent history.  If anything, it is a sad, sad story.

Hebron experiences the most violent treatment of Palestinians by Jewish settlers.  In addition to seeing a Palestinian’s home literally split in half for a family of settlers to live in, main access streets being blocked, a water well spoiled with raw sewage, businesses closed by force and inventory ruined, debris and objects thrown upon Palestinians, the local mosque was also split in half.

Muslims go through two Israeli walk-up checkpoints to enter the mosque and to worship.  Dressed in fatigues and with machine guns at the ready, the tone of worship didn’t really greet me as it usually does when I enter a mosque, though it did remind me of what I need to pray for.  The other half of the mosque has been converted into a synagogue; Muslims cannot access it.

While potentially this could have been a terrific interfaith opportunity, it became a disastrous act of oppression.  The dispute: the tombs of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Zacharia are all within the original mosque structure.

In a claim to its historical significance, Israel claimed the half with Zacharia as their own.  The Palestinians of Hebron see on the horizon a future claim for the rest of the mosque under the same reasoning.

In the mosque, I reflect.  Would Abraham want this for his progeny?  Would Sarah be proud of her descendants?  What kind of message would they send to their people if they were watching from a distance?  Who knows.  As parents, perhaps they would have sent their kids to time-out and told them that they would only come out when they were ready to sit together and to think creatively of an equitable and just solution in a civilized and dignified manner.  Abraham is not with us nor Sarah…and their message?  Where is that?  I worry that their message is fading as land becomes more important than human dignity and respect.

After praying with the community, I went to Sarah’s grave and prayed for peace and forgiveness upon her soul and for the guidance of her progeny as well as her step-progeny.

Janaan Hashim is a Trustee of the Council and a participant of Nobel Women’s Initiative Delegation to Israel and Palestine.

October 4th, 2010 at 4:00 pm

Council Trustee, Janaan Hashim Travels with Nobel Peace delegation

Janaan Hashim, longtime host for Radio Islam, writes about her experiences traveling with the Nobel Women's Initiative delegation through Palestine and Israel.

Janaan Hashim, longtime host for Radio Islam, writes about her experiences traveling with the Nobel Women's Initiative delegation through Palestine and Israel.

by Janaan Hashim

Janaan Hashim is a member of the Council’s Board of Trustees and is currently in Israel/Palestine with a delegation of the Nobel Women’s Initiative to “focus on learning from and spotlighting the work of women peacebuilders.”

My day began with a blessing in Hebrew after breakfast with my new Rabbi friend, Amy Eilberg.  She’s is a member of this delegation and person who I deeply respect.  I respect her for her courage to look truth in the eye and to try to sort out all that she is taking in.

We are in Ramallah, a large, bustling town in the Occupied Territories. In a large church hall filled with 300 Palestinian women, we heard their their stories of difficulties and were inspired by their signs of determination and strength to shape their own futures. Rabbi Eilberg was, for sure, the only rabbi in the crowd.

Did she feel uncomfortable?  Perhaps…I would.  Despite the setting, she carried herself with poise and dignity.  How would TV-land portray this scene?  Perhaps with a woman walking past Rabbi Eilberg and spitting in her direction, or perhaps with a mob surrounding her, trying to blame her for making their lives so difficult.  This was the farthest thing from what happened.

Our delegation was very warmly received. Nobel peace laureate Jody Williams assured the women of our purpose – to hear their stories and to take them back and relay them to the world.  We listened intently to their common problems, problems that are no stranger to the world: unemployment, access to health care, violation of basic human rights.  Other problems were less common to those of us in the West: tight checkpoints prohibiting movement, confiscation of land, being shot.

Members of the Nobel Women's Initiative Delegation to Israel/Palestine

Members of the Nobel Women's Initiative Delegation to Israel/Palestine

We heard stories of inspiration: a woman who married young and went back to school to earn her bachelors degree, another woman with a handicapped hand not holding her back from living a life of dignity, and women helping other women in business.

The rabbi listened and absorbed; the women watched and observed.  Tiny steps toward feeling comfortable with one another during a very intense time in history.  I’m certain the rabbi will remember her experience for many years…but I wonder if she realizes how her presence may have positively impacted these 300 women… how her presence may have made a difference in these women’s lives the next time they see a Jewish woman.

CPWR Trustee Reflects on 2010 Nobel Women’s Initiative

From Nobel Women’s Initiative

By Janaan Hashim

No expectations.  In my years of travel, I’ve learned to have no expectations so that when things happen, I’m pleasantly surprised or not disappointed.  This is how I’m entering this trip: an all-important delegation to soak in the stories, sights and sounds, whatever they may be.  After all, this is the time for listening and learning, the reason why we have two ears and one mouth.

As an American my friends run the gamut, and through these friendships I’ve learned about different faith traditions and cultures.  A rabbi once told me that from communication comes understanding, from understanding comes respect and from respect comes love.  You don’t have to be Jewish to know and experience these words of wisdom.

I have friends who have lived on a kibutz, and I have friends who own the land on which that kibutz was built after being taken from them by force.  While we cannot role back the hands of time, we can look forward and see what we can do with our hands, together, in the interest of a just and safe Holy Land for all of its people.

Click here to learn more.