Monthly Archives: December 2016

Finding the Light: An Afternoon with the Muslim Women’s Association – Katelyn Lamson

By Katelyn Lamson, American University School of International Service

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Audience members for the Muslim Women’s Association screening of Journey into Europe gather with Ambassador Ahmed following the film. Credit: Katelyn Lamson

On December 15th, 2016, a group comprised mostly of women, both Muslim and non-Muslim alike, gathered together in a beautiful estate along the banks of the Potomac River for a screening of Ambassador Akbar Ahmed’s latest film, Journey into Europe, an exploration of the historical and contemporary influences of Islam on the European continent. The event, organized by the Muslim Women’s Association, featured a diverse range of prominent individuals, hailing from a number of countries, including the United States, Qatar, Egypt, Tunisia, and Bosnia.

Though the film was focusing on Islam in Europe, the themes of the film were just as relevant to the United States. Indeed, across the West, the challenge of coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims has been palpable, particularly with respect to the topics of immigration and terrorism. As both a student and a member of Ambassador Ahmed’s team, I had frequently witnessed these clashes of ideas firsthand, seeing these debates create substantial rifts between family and friends alike. As our car made its way through D.C. and Virginia, I confess I was feeling a little glum. Hate crimes were on the rise across the United States, and it seemed as if every day I found myself in the middle of yet another emotionally charged debate combatting stereotypes of Muslims. I worried that the country I loved so much was slipping further and further away from its promises of liberty and justice for all.

It was perhaps fitting, then, that the screening of the film was to take place less than a mile from Mt. Vernon, the sprawling estate of President George Washington, who, like several of the country’s founding fathers, had articulated the themes of religious pluralism. Indeed, a 1797 treaty of peace and friendship between the United States and Tripoli, which was sponsored by George Washington, noted that the United States has in itself “no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen [Muslims].” I hoped that, in this tranquil setting, I might find that spirit again.

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Ambassador Ahmed delivers remarks on his film, Journey into Europe, to members of the Muslim Women’s Association prior to the group’s screening of the film. Credit: Katelyn Lamson

Following our arrival, Ambassador Ahmed addressed the gathered audience, emphasizing the importance of scholarship in Islam. Indeed, he said, the influences of Islam on Western civilization have largely been forgotten; even Muslims have forgotten this history. Yet since the eighth century, Islamic scholars made substantial contributions to art, literature, philosophy, history, science, and mathematics. The history of Europe is intricately tied to the history of Islamic civilizations, he emphasized. This legacy of scholarship must be rekindled among Muslims in the twenty-first century. After all, Ambassador Ahmed reminded us, the Prophet Muhammad himself had once implored: “The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.”

We were shown selected scenes from Journey into Europe, including Ambassador Ahmed’s visit to Spain to explore the history of the Islamic civilization in Andalusia, the influence of Islam in Sicily, and an examination of both the conflict between Muslims and Christians in Bosnia in the late twentieth century and the lasting impact of Islam in the Balkans. The audience was rapt with attention, shedding tears while watching the scenes of war-torn Bosnia and smiling warmly at the expressions of interfaith compassion exuded by those Ambassador Ahmed interviewed.

Following the screening, we gathered in the living room for a discussion of the film over a delicious meal featuring such dishes as chicken pilaf, cheese squares, baklava, and basboosa, prepared by our host, Aida Mady, who is also the founder and owner of Cooking and Beyond, a catering company serving Egyptian cuisine in the D.C. area. Jan Du Plain, a prominent D.C. personality, PR and events specialist, and founder of Du Plain Enterprises, had tears in her eyes as she as she recounted the scenes she watched; indeed, she said she was overwhelmed by the emotional power of the film. A longtime friend of Ambassador Ahmed’s since the early days following 9/11, she repeated what she had said several times in the past: “He is like the Dalai Lama of the Muslim world and deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.” She felt much hope seeing these efforts to promote peace and tolerance. “We need to keep looking for the light,” she said determinedly.

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Ambassador Ahmed gathers with Sister Maria Roche of the Stuart Center, who offered him a blessing for his work in building bridges. Credit: Katelyn Lamson

Amira Dzirlo, a survivor of the Bosnian war who knew some of the individuals featured in the film, echoed Ms. Du Plain’s sentiments. The film needs to be distributed as far and wide as possible, she insisted. She was deeply moved by the scenes from Bosnia, as they brought back so many memories. Though the horrors of the war were impossible to forget, she said, we must find a way to make progress. “We need to know how to be in charge of the light.”

Zeina Alkhalaf, a student at George Mason University pursuing a Master’s in Public Health, eloquently captured the spirit of scholarship among young Muslims. She agreed with Ambassador Ahmed’s assertion that the historical contributions of Islam have largely been erased. Sadly, young Muslims are not exposed to any of this history, she said. Indeed, she concluded, the most important task of the young generation, particularly among Muslims, will be this project.

To me, one of the most remarkable aspects of the event was how wonderfully it captured interfaith encounters in the United States. Indeed, Catholic Sister Diane Roche, RSCJ, of the Stuart Center in Washington, D.C., enthusiastically expressed her support for the efforts of Ambassador Ahmed, offering him a blessing. She was delighted to have her photo taken with the ambassador, and said she would be proud to upload the photo to her Facebook page. I, as a fellow Catholic, was inspired by her example, and was reminded of the importance of expressing my own faith by reaching out to those of other faiths.

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Author Katelyn Lamson gathers with colleague Patrick Burnett prior to the screening of Journey into Europe to listen to Ambassador Ahmed’s opening remarks, highlighting the importance of the film in light of heightened tension and violence worldwide. Credit: Samia AbdelWahed Photography.

As I sat there, listening to this diverse group of women share their stories, the hope that had been slipping away from me for so many days was at once rekindled. Though many had faced such incredible obstacles, they were still filled with such radiant optimism, constantly seeking to make the world a better place. They reminded me that progress does not always come with rushing speed; often, the most important work involves education and individual acts of compassion, changing one heart at a time. Even in the darkest and most difficult of times, we must constantly focus our attention on the relentless pursuit of that light.

In the mid-afternoon, we all said our farewells and departed. I could not help but smile as we passed the home of the former president of the United States, who had encapsulated the spirit of peaceful coexistence among faiths at the time of the country’s founding. It was wonderful to see during those few joyous hours spent along the banks of the Potomac that the American spirit of inclusion is still alive and well.

The Birth of a Messianic Jewish Community in Pakistan – Dr. Amineh Hoti – The Huffington Post

The global image of Pakistan today is unfortunately marred by negativity, not to mention media portrayals that wrongly characterize the country as a lawless breeding ground for Islamic extremism. Many in the West know only of attacks committed against religious minorities, giving the sense that unless one is a fundamentalist Muslim, one has no place in modern Pakistan. But the real story of Pakistan is not this simplistic. Pakistan is a richly diverse country with many religious and ethnic communities living in the country and there are many fascinating stories here.

Just this past week, I had the privilege of eating a delicious traditional Pakistani dinner with one of the top leaders of the Pakistani Jewish community – a community whose existence I was unaware of until a chance encounter at the 9th Annual Interfaith Common Word Conference in Islamabad where I was the only female speaker on a platform of diverse faith leaders and senior politicians. It was here where I met and later received a dinner invitation from Rabbi Aftab Anwar of Rawalpindi at his home, a man born Christian but who converted to Messianic Judaism because of his contacts and connections he made through Facebook. His story, in a country whose Jewish community, one would think, is virtually nonexistent, and where Christians, one may assume, almost exclusively convert to Islam, is extraordinary and is a testament to the power of dialogue, pluralism, and connectivity in the 21st Century. Considering the importance of my being introduced to this community as an anthropologist and field researcher I believe further research is required.

When I first met Rabbi Aftab, I learned he was one of nearly five thousand Jewish believers in Pakistan. A few thousand Jews in an estimated two hundred million is a drop in the ocean. And as a sign as to how small the community is, Rabbi Aftab told me he called himself a ‘bishop’ because he said people here in Pakistan understand the concept better. But through this community we get to know not only about their own history but also the larger society in which they live, we see how different cultures can adjust and accommodate to each other in this case Islamic and Jewish in modern day Pakistan, South Asia.

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Muslim Women’s Association of Washington Hosts Screening of Journey into Europe – Wardella Doschek – Views and News

Fifty-six years ago, in 1960, Begum Aziz Ahmed, wife of the Pakistani Ambassador to the United States, had a brilliant idea. Recognizing the great cultural diversity of the Muslim world, she was instrumental in forming The Muslim Women’s Association of Washington, DC. It was originally a cultural exchange group whose membership was comprised of ladies from the diplomatic community, including the wives of many ambassadors, in addition to other Muslim women in the metropolitan Washington, DC area. There was also a prominent American presence, including members of the State Department and other intellectual figures.

Throughout the years members of the MWA have learned much about each other’s cultures thanks to the activities of this organization. It also does charitable work, providing partial scholarship support to young Muslim women who wish to study in the Washington, DC area. Today the organization continues under the leadership of our President, Fife O’Connor. Fife is originally from Egypt, and with her indomitable spirit she has been an important presence in the MWA since 1968 when she first became a member.

In 2007, four years after my reversion to Islam, I joined the Muslim Women’s Association and soon assumed the Board position of Secretary. So I have attended many meetings of this fine organization. Recently we were fortunate to host a very unique event. Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, who is one of the world’s leading experts on contemporary Islam and one of the world’s 500 most influential Muslims, joined us for a private screening of his amazing new documentary film entitled Journey into Europe. On a frigidly cold and windy afternoon, numerous members and guests of our organization gathered at the home of one of our long time members, Aida Mady, to view this important new work.

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“Decades of Negative Coverage on Muslims Has Led to the Rise of President Trump, Brexit and Marine Le Pen” – Dr. Amineh Hoti, The Huffington Post

LAHORE, Pakistan ― There is a golden rule of compassion: do unto others what you would have others do unto you. Yet, in today’s world, we have seen racial and religious hatred directed towards women and minorities mainstreamed. Violent hatred in the West has reached an all time climax, with some of President-elect Trump’s supporters promoting the KKK and even Hitler with graffiti on school and campus walls and acts of harassment and intimidation towards minorities across the U.S.. Recently, Chinese girls on university campuses have tweeted about how they have been abused and told to get out of America. Muslim women have had their hijabs pulled off violently and even set on fire. African Americans who have lived in America for generations have been abused and violently told to “get the f***k out of this country, b**ch!” Mosques, synagogues and churches have sadly become sites of racial and religious abuse. The rise of President Trump in the U.S. (and for those who did not vote for him do not give up hope for he may be as good a president as he is a successful businessman?), the success of Brexit in the U.K., the increased popularity of Golden Dawn in Greece and the potential presidency of Marine Le Pen in France did not come out of the blue – the scene has been prepared for them, consciously or unconsciously over the last few decades.

I have been watching with deep concern over the last three decades a systematic attack on a certain minority community ― Muslims and their faith identity, Islam. When I was living in the U.K. as a scholar more than two decades ago, I recall the systematic negative reporting on Islam in general and Pakistan in particular. Like so many other friends of mine (non-Muslims and Muslims), this problematic coverage bothered me because first, it was not always factually correct and second, it was vitriolic. I wrote to Channel 4 in response to a negative documentary they released but nothing came of this feedback. The reporting only became worse with every incident of terrorism in which a Muslim was involved. Every time there was an incident, the universal pain of the attack would be forced to become obscure by the use of such terms as “terrorism,” “militant” “Islamic terrorism” and “Islamism”― unnecessary and provocative terms that associated extreme violence with the religion of Islam and the global community of Muslims ― in the media to describe the perpetrators. This is surely a terrible mistake, which I hope intelligent thinkers across the West would pick up.

Indeed, scholars like Muhammad Bauben in his book Image of the Prophet Muhammad in the West (2007) have pointed out the negative association of violence with Islam since the crude times of the crusades in Western popular thought and later in scholarship. Yet the global community of Muslims, consisting of more than 1.5 billion ordinary people, are “normal” people who aim for decent lives for their families ― work, jobs, education and above all peaceful living. But sure there is a crisis in the Muslim world of lack of education and opportunities. There are many scholars who keep warning against labeling any community, let alone the Muslim community, but the media in general have not heard the rational voices of caution. Every explosion is associated with Islam, a world faith that, like any other Abrahamic faith, promotes compassion and a peaceful way of life. We have to separate the religion from the acts of its deviant followers who are in fact far from ideal Muslims, they are mere criminals.

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