PROVIDENCE — The sound of prayers in Arabic and Hebrew resounded simultaneously outside of the State House Sunday night in the name of peace and justice.
Two high school seniors — August Kahn and Danish Azam — from Providence’s Wheeler School organized the interfaith prayer service that drew roughly 40 people. Kahn, who is Jewish, and Azam, who is Muslim, said their goal was to show that Jewish and Muslim communities in Rhode Island are committed to having productive dialogue. They also said the event was intended to condemn religious extremism and intolerance.
“We want to show that there’s a group of people who are willing to foster and promote interfaith dialogue and come together to understand each other,” said Kahn, an 18-year-old from Barrington.
Azam, a 17-year-old from Warwick, said the two got the idea after watching a video online that showed a small interfaith group praying in Los Angeles. He said their goal was to draw a larger group to a public space.
They drew children, parents and the elderly to the event, which they advertised on Facebook. Tensions in the Middle East also prompted the pair to organize the event.
“Judaism and Islam are both Abrahamic religions so they share common roots. We are allies,” Azam said.
While the prayers recited were from the Jewish and Muslim faiths, the pair pointed out that some who came weren’t of either faith, but attended to show support for the dialogue.
In 2005, surrounded by reporters, television cameras and photographers, a woman led Friday prayers in New York. In 2012, an Imam established the first “inclusive mosque” on the outskirts of Paris for gay, lesbian and transgender Muslims. And in 2013, the spotlight was on the first gay Imam in the U.S., Daayiee Abdullah, who, despite condemnation, performed funeral rites for a gay Muslim who had died of AIDS. All these examples show that winds of change are sweeping over Islam. Of course, not everybody agrees with these actions. For some these show signs of a revolution, for some it is ‘biddat’, an unapologetic innovation, and for others it is just sheer blasphemy.
The “inclusive” mosque was established by Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed, an Algerian-French Imam. The mosque, Zahed says, was a project that stemmed from “a long personal journey” — he grew up tolerating many snide remarks before coming out to his parents at the age of 21. Zahed said in an article in The Guardian that he set it up so that there could be “a place of worship where people will always be welcomed as brothers and sisters, whatever their sexual orientation or ethnicity.” It all started when a Muslim transgender died and nobody was ready to lead prayers for burial. Zahed stepped in and created history, and this immediately led to the integration of the marginalised. Says Zahed: “Thanks to both the media’s interest and to academic work, we sought to organise inclusive Jumu’a prayers despite the risks. Nobody generally wants to pray for a transgender’s death or for gay weddings. Today this is no longer the case.”
Keeping Zahed company in the U.S. is Imam Daaiyee Abdullah, believed to be the only openly gay Imam in the U.S., who came out to his supportive family many years ago. Born to Christian parents, Abdullah acknowledged his sexuality before embracing Islam. His story is similar to Zahed’s: he also led the funeral prayers for a gay Muslim when other Imams refused to step in. Such has been the impact of Abdullah’s work that when I speak to Zahed, he recalls Abdullah’s words to substantiate his point. Says Abdullah: “Islam is a living religion, it must breathe.” Zahed adds, “Diversity as sacred, unified yet differentiated human nature — that is the ‘social contract’ that the Quran has offered for 14 centuries. And the Arab-Islamic civilisation, known until recently for its tolerance, was to some extent its vivid illustration.”
“Yesterday there was tie-dye, sports, swimming,” says Riva, a camper from Bellevue.
But Kids4Peace ultimately has a deeper purpose. The camp brings Jewish, Muslim and Christian 12 year olds from Washington state together with 12 year old Palestinians and Israelis, from Jerusalem, for 12 days.
“Where I live everyone is Jewish,” says Meital, a Jewish girl who lives between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. “There’s different varieties of Judaism where I live but there’s no Muslims or Christians. But I have met Arabs before.”
Meital’s lack of exposure to other cultures and religions is exactly why the camp was established.
“The organization was started in Jerusalem, in 2002, during a time of pretty intense violence in the Middle East, in Israel/Palestine in particular,” says Kids4Peace Northwest regional director, Jordan Goldwarg. “And the goal has always been to bring kids together to talk about their religion, their culture, their heritage and to learn from each other. Also, just to have time and opportunity to be kids together and to grow up in a safe environment.”
Twice a day, between weaving friendship bracelets and roasting s’mores, the kids are led through some pretty deep discussions.
“Learning how to be a better listener. Learning how to build trust with other people. Learning how to see different perspectives and different sides of a story,” Goldwarg said. “We also spend time everyday engaged in interfaith learning. So the kids really start to understand: What does it mean to be Jewish? What does it mean to be Muslim? What does it mean to be Christian?
The values of each of these faiths lead us towards peace.”
In many ways the United States appears to be in its most inclusive moment. The Black Lives Matter movement is drawing crucial attention to police violence against African-Americans. The Supreme Court has recognized the right of same-sex couples to marry in all 50 states. Caitlyn Jenner’s public gender transition has brought the struggles of transgender Americans to the national spotlight.
However, even in the midst of these crumbling barriers, prejudice against American Muslims remains robust. Many Americans across the political spectrum appear to view discrimination against Muslims as an acceptable form of profiling. On July 16, after 24-year-old Kuwaiti-American Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez shot and killed four U.S Marines in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the incident was immediately labeled an act of terrorism. A Muslim shooter was all that was needed to apply the tag. It did not matter that the shooter, like many other troubled Americans, had issues with depression, substance abuse and came from a broken home.
A week earlier, Ali Muhammad Brown, who allegedly killed a college student in New Jersey last year, became the first person to be charged under that state’s terrorism statute. The only basis for the indictment was Brown’s alleged confession in which he said the murder was an act of “vengeance” for lives lost in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Iran.
By contrast, another deadly shooting on June 17 in Charleston, South Carolina, where white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine people, was simply treated as a hate crime. This has been true in other cases of mass shooting. For example, James Holmes who killed 12 people and injured 70 in a movie theater in Colorado was never charged with terrorism. The implicit assumption is clear: Only Muslim mass murderers are treated as terrorists.
As the 14th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, the endurance of Islamophobia can no longer be pinned to ignorance or isolated instances of religious bias. Instead, the construction of the one-dimensional Muslim — a homegrown assassin that poses a consistent and covert threat to American liberties and freedoms — has become a conceptual necessity to justify a pervasive surveillance state.
Since 9/11, many American Muslims have struggled with misconceptions and stereotypes made about them and their religion. According to a Pew Research Center study, a majority of US Muslims say it is more difficult to be a Muslim in the US after 9/11. Yet many have decided to fight these stereotypes with good humor – literally.
The Muslims are Coming is a documentary that follows Muslim comedians as they use their stand-up shows and pranks to fight Islamophobia:
Check out Harvard University’s pluralism project’s latest project:
For twenty years, the Pluralism Project has followed the development of America’s fast-changing religious landscape and studied new forms of civic and interfaith relationships. The events of 9/11 demonstrated the importance of interfaith groups already formed; in the ensuing decade we have witnessed the growth of hundreds of new interfaith initiatives. Given this rapid expansion, what we might describe as the “interfaith infrastructure” is emerging in real-time, providing an innovative context for the kind of engagement we describe as “pluralism.” In 2011, we embarked on a pilot study, funded by the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, to look closely at interfaith efforts in twenty cities across the United States. While this initial study is a selective portrait, it is a first step towards our larger goal: to document and resource the interfaith movement in America.
by Pearl Stewart
To some it might seem counterintuitive that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 inspired Dr. Brad Tyndall to begin a series of presentations titled “The Loving Side of Islam.” But the former Peace Corps volunteer and Fulbright Scholar says faculty and administrators at Colorado’s Front Range Community College, where he was teaching at that time, saw a need for a swift response.
When an administrator called an emergency meeting to discuss the situation, in light of the campus’ diverse population, which included Middle Eastern and Muslim students, Tyndall offered his services. His Peace Corps work and positions in Sudan, northern Yemen, Kenya and Tanzania with the U.S. Information Service and U.S. Agency for International Development gave him insights into Islam that he wanted to share with the campus community.
“A couple of days afterward, I did a presentation, and people wanted more and more of it in philosophy class, comparative religion class, sociology class and in the student center—and [the presentations] evolved in such a way that it got deeper and deeper spiritually,” he says.
Tyndall says that he wanted to address both Muslim and non-Muslim students in the aftermath of the attacks, so he chose to describe some of his positive experiences as a development worker in Muslim countries.
Thirteen years later, those campus presentations became the basis of Touching God: A Journey, a Guide to Mysticism in Christianity and Islam, published by AuthorHouse.
In his opening chapter, Tyndall recalls that on 9/11 “we were facing the reality that some American students ignorantly figured that we were attacked by Muslims and thus all Muslims were the enemy.
… As for our Middle Eastern students, or anyone who looked remotely Middle Eastern, we rightly figured that they’d feel targeted.
In fact most, if not all, refrained from going to class.”
Tyndall, who speaks Arabic and has a doctorate in economics from Colorado State University, is currently senior vice president of academic affairs at Colorado Mountain College, where he also teaches sustainable economics.