Last Saturday, about 100 Delawareans shared a unique spiritual and cultural experience. They participated in a dialogue on the role of faith in Middle Eastern and American communities. A delegation of Islamic and social science scholars from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, joined with twelve leaders of various faith communities – Catholic, Jewish, Methodist, Muslim, Hindu, Presbyterian and Christian Fellowship – to engage in a conversation that neither focused on the commonalities of their faiths nor on its differences. They instead celebrated the role that their faith played in their lives and in the life of their communities.
The event was hosted by the Westminster Presbyterian Church, a community of believers which is taking a lead in understanding Islam and reaching out to Muslims. I had the honor of moderating this event and I can testify without hesitation that it was indeed a stirring experience.
The citizen ambassadors are on a three week tour of the United States, coordinated by the University of Delaware, to engage American scholars, religious leaders, policy makers, and students to explore the increasing role of faith in our societies. They seek to share and explain the importance of Islam in their lives. Islam constitutes Muslim individual and collective identity. It underpins their social and political norms and in general it frames the purpose of their lives. This was apparent from the remarks that the visitors made.
But they also emphasized the diversity of opinion and practice within the Muslim community. They recognized the presence of a vitriolic and radical strain within Muslim society today but they also reminded the audience that the majority of Muslims followed a moderate middle path.
Two of the scholars are from the holy city of Mecca and they talked about the cultural diversity, theological multiplicity and moderation in religion that is so characteristic of Mecca. They lamented that it is now being overshadowed by a harsher and intolerant interpretation of Islam, known widely as Wahabism. Their overriding message was simple – there is only one God, every faith recognizes this, and that God is Great.
The Egyptian scholars emphasized the importance of justice and equality in US-Muslim relations. They expressed anguish over the difficulties with US foreign policy, condemned extremism and intolerance everywhere and called for Americans to not just aim for tolerance but for mutual respect.
The scholars met with several groups in the Delaware valley. At the University of Delaware they met with a large group of students and discussed the economic and social realities of the Muslim World. They met a diverse cohort of University faculty who challenged them about the rise of extremism and intolerance in Arab culture. In Philadelphia they met with members of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, where an intense discussion ensued on various topics including Anti-Semitism and Anti-Americanism in the Arab World, Arab hatred in Israel and Islamophobia in the West.
The scholars also had an exposure to a heady combination of grace, wealth, and power when they were hosted by the Wilmington World Affairs Council. The conversations at the council started with an intimate tête-à-tête during dinner and culminated with a frank and occasionally moving conversation on US-Muslim relations. Later one of the visitors remarked that he was now getting a better understanding of what made America such a power in the world.
The last stop was at Masjid Ibrahim, the biggest mosque in Delaware. Here the visitors tried to lecture the Delawarean Muslims on the importance of inclusiveness and suddenly found themselves in a passionate debate on how to interpret scripture. A non-Muslim graduate student who witnessed the dialogue summarized it as an unusual encounter that demonstrated how much the community members cared for each other while passionately disagreeing among themselves.
After each of these dialogues, I and the team of students working with me on this project sought the feedback of the participants of and on camera. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. People found the dialogues informative, enlightening and experientially rewarding. They did not come out reassured that all was well with the world. But they did come out with a better understanding of what was happening in the hearts and minds of the other.
Most importantly, both visitors and hosts felt that they had shared their thoughts and feelings, their fears and hopes about the other directly. Their experience was cathartic and a triumph for public diplomacy.
We live in a multicultural, multiracial and multi-religious society. Differences, small and profound, exist and we celebrate them. But in order to maintain a vibrant, productive and peaceful society, to prevent conflict and eschew dysfunctionality, we have to inculcate respect and tolerance for these differences and that can only come from mutual understanding and mutual acceptance.
Muqtedar Khan is Director of Islamic Studies at the University of Delaware and a Fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.