The traditional Muslim call to prayer echoed across USIP’s atrium yesterday evening as the institute ushered in its third annual Iftar, marking the breaking of the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan. But it wasn’t just one imam’s voice. Instead, five Muslim clerics and a poetry reader from six traditions—Senegalese, Syrian, Pakistani, Iranian, Turkish and Moroccan—represented the theme of the event: The Islamic Mosaic.
The evening’s celebration of diverse Islamic traditions began with Quranic recitations by Imam Ali Tos from the Diyanat Center of Maryland in the Turkish tradition, Imam Bashar Arafat from the Civilizations Exchange and Cooperation Foundation in the Syrian tradition, and Moroccan devotional music from Nabil Faqir and Ali Sbai. The night’s emcees, USIP Senior Program Officer Palwasha Kakar and Program Officer Muhammad Rahim, and other institute experts and guests offered reflections on the theme to the more than 100 guests gathered, which included local religious leaders, U.S. government officials, Muslim peacebuilders and ambassadors from Somalia, Tunisia, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the U.S. representative from the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq.
“It is precisely this diversity within the Muslim world that violent extremists cannot tolerate.” – USIP President Nancy Lindborg
“Ramadan is the month of peace, of celebration, and it’s a time when believers around the world, including many of the places where USIP works, engage in prayer, fasting and compassionate action,” USIP President Nancy Lindborg said. “These are the values that mark Ramadan and they are the same values that mark peacebuilding – charity, sacrifice and compassion. We know that these values are cherished by people of many faiths, many religious traditions.”
Lindborg and others cited the juxtaposition of diversity and the violent extremism wrenching so much of the world today.
“It is precisely this diversity within the Muslim world that violent extremists cannot tolerate,” said Lindborg, who speaks often of the need to build peaceful and inclusive societies. “So we celebrate that diversity tonight as a source of strength in Muslim communities and a means by which those of many tribes can come to know and appreciate one another, as we know from the Holy Quran.”
Islamic Relief USA, a non-profit humanitarian and development organization, was a key co-host of the event, along with the Afghanistan Holding group, United Muslim Relief and a number of individuals: Rafat and Shaista Mahmood, former Ambassador Laurie Fulton, Rafic A. Bizri, Maqsood Chaudhry and Asad Chaudhry.
Anwar Khan, chief executive officer of Islamic Relief, noted that “Muslims came to this country 400 years ago in slave ships.”
“I remember after 9/11 when somebody wrote somewhere, `a Muslim-looking man,’” he recalled. “I don’t know what a Muslim-looking man looks like. He could be white, he could be black, he could be tall, he could be small, he could be fat, he could be thin. That’s the diversity, that’s the beauty.”
Representative Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota who is one of only two Muslim members of Congress, had planned to attend the Iftar before his flight was delayed due to weather, but he sent a message to the gathering via staff member Hassan Ali: “During this month, it’s clear that our commonalities are far stronger than the things that divide us,” Ali said. “More than a third of the world’s population is part of the Muslim community. While the stereotypical Muslim is from the Middle East, we know better: Indonesia, India and Pakistan host the world’s largest Muslim communities. Our brothers and sisters are spread across Africa and right here in the United States.”
Rabia Chaudry, a Jennings-Randolph Senior Fellow at USIP whose work tests theories about how to counter violent extremism, gave the following keynote remarks, after her introductory comments:
Every year, during the annual USIP Iftar, we decide to highlight an important aspect of Islam in the Muslim world. Last year, it was women in Islam, their contributions to religious faith and community. And this year, in the face of rising intolerance and polarization across the globe, USIP has very appropriately chosen its theme to be diversity.
Like many of you, I have sat through a lot of talks on diversity, a lot of Islamic lectures on diversity and interfaith events on diversity. And many of us are well-versed on the kinds of scripture and sources we draw from when we talk about diversity. We just heard a recitation from the Holy Quran, chapter 49, verse 13, in which Allah (subhana wa ta’ala) says, “Oh mankind, we created you from a single pair, a female and male, and made you into nations and tribes so that you may know each other,” and a commentator adds “so that you may not despise one another.”
There’s another tradition in Islam in which it is said that there is rahma, mercy, when scholars disagree. This is a great source of comfort to many because it means that, when scholars disagree on things in Islam, we have a vast array of choices in how we want to practice our Islam. There are people of faith who consider that the vast diversity of the creation of God is a direct reflection of his own diversity and God’s vastness. After all, if each of us is created in his own image, then none of us can exclusively claim him. There’s also this idea in Sufi and ascetic traditions that God keeps himself hidden from his own creation so that he cannot be blocked and penned in, so he can’t be limited. He is so vast in his diversity that it is to an extent that we cannot even imagine, and so we don’t even try.
Well, we love to hear talks about peace, love, inclusivity and diversity. They are great feel-good concepts. But here’s the thing—when God and his prophets are talking about anything, we have to realize that they’re not just meant to be pretty words, not just kumbaya fluff, they’re not artistic flourishes on scripture. They’re serious business.
So as people of faith, we have to ask not just what has God and his prophets said but why have they said it? Why is diversity even addressed in scripture? Why is it brought up when we talk about disagreements among scholars? There’s always a purpose. Is God just showing off and saying, `Well, look at all the different things I can make, all the different kinds of people? Or did he just give us a few passages that we can use at interfaith events so that we can feel good and collegial towards each other? I don’t think it’s either one of these things.
But let’s do a little thought exercise and imagine a world without diversity. What would it look like and sound like and feel like? We all dress the same and have the same haircut and speak the same language and live in the same kind of housing, eat the same food, listen to the same music. It sounds a little bit like a prison, a gulag, a worldwide concentration camp.
God knew this. He knew exactly what a world without diversity would look like, and that’s not what he wanted for us, and that’s certainly not what he gave us, because right now what we are facing, nose-to-nose, is the challenge of globalization, and being up-close-and-personal with people—in a way we’ve never been before in history—who are not like us, don’t think like us, don’t believe the same things as us. This is a great challenge. The world has never been smaller, and according to Islamic scholar Dr. Sherman Jackson, this proximity is actually creating emerging, deep-seated anxiety within people, because they don’t know how to deal with it—they don’t know how to deal with the closeness to the other.
Those of us who do interfaith and cross-cultural work, we’re already ready; we know we’re going to encounter people who are not like us. But a different kind of anxiety emerges when you’re talking about people in the same community who end up not thinking like one another, who use the same text as you, the same scripture as you, but they come to completely different conclusions. How to deal with that, because that’s the reality of the Muslim world—that the practice and the methodology of our faith looks as diverse as we all do.
So we already know that difference of opinion is a mercy, but we also have to understand that accepting that difference is a test of our faith. Are we able to expand ourselves, our souls, our minds to accept how God decreed the world should be. Right now, it doesn’t seem that we are able to do that.
The anxiety of diversity in spaces that we aren’t equipped to handle is exactly what we’re seeing today, and it’s manifested in conflict and violence. We are witnessing the catastrophe of not embracing diversity. What else is ideological and violent extremism if not a wholesale rejection of diversity of people and cultures unlike our own? From the KKK to ISIS, from Dylan Roof to Omar Mateen, hate and violence is really a fight against diversity. It’s a fight against people who look, act, think, worship, live and love differently from us.
Countering Violent Extremism
I came to USIP after a number of years working in CVE, countering violent extremism, and I recognize well that extremism is precisely that—a rejection of diversity. But if that’s the case, the opposite is also true—that diversity is not only the key to countering violent extremism; it is also the key to building and keeping peace across peoples, nations and societies.
And USIP recognizes the strength of diversity in indigenous peacebuilding traditions, from Afghanistan, where elder women have the power to bring about a ceasefire if they walk into a conflict arena and remove their scarves, to Kenya, where for generations, methods and values of peace are passed down through dance and storytelling, to the practice of shura and ijma, which is consultation and consensus.
Across the Muslim world, USIP honors and draws upon these many different kinds of diverse peacebuilding practices. USIP also recognizes, as is often said around here, in every conflict there is opportunity. And for better or worse, we are right now surrounded by opportunity.
This room is full of leaders, respected dignitaries, people in positions of privilege who have the power to take advantage of all of these opportunities. I hope that we are all able, in whatever capacity we have, to influence people who look to us for leadership, not to just tolerate diversity, but to embrace it as part of God’s greater design, as part of what is best for humanity, and what is necessary for peace.
In closing, I wish you all ease in your fasting for the remainder of Ramadan, and success in finding both the inner peace that this month was developed to bring about, and the external peace that our work demands we make happen in the world. Thank you and asalaamulaykum.