Interfaith at the White House
By Dr Amineh Hoti
Centre for Dialogue and Action
As I entered the White House what struck me for being perhaps one of the most important residences in the world is its modest scale despite the wealth of America as a country. Rulers of poorer countries like ours would do better when they spend on the development of the country and education of its people and not on themselves remembering the famous words, “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country”.
As an educationist, I was one of four people invited from Pakistan to the American President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge about a month ago; in total 500 other people were invited. This was an exciting time to be in Washington DC as two more exemplary world leaders were also scheduled to visit the White House and meet with President Obama - the dynamic Chinese President Xi and the popular Pope Francis. Both leaders came with important but different messages which would determine peace between civilizations.
Against this background there was also the big challenge of what was happening to the Muslim world – clandestine foreign interference, wars and violence forced even well-off people to become homeless immigrants — with their own countries in turmoil — breaking into Europe – some accepted empathetically, others rejected violently. The scenes of mothers and fathers on TV with little children being torn apart by inhuman laws was heart breaking. One European camera-woman was shockingly caught on video kicking a child from Syria as she entered the borders of Hungry with her father. On American television, shallow candidates such as Donald Trump (with a lot of money but little intellect) stood for the next presidency and openly talked ignorantly about “the enemy” as Islam.
Muslims were the subject of an unsavory variety of Islamophobic attacks. The media — loving the sensationalism — inflamed the problem. As a result, there were also many reports of mosques and women in hijab being increasingly attacked and assaulted. I thought to myself, there will be a lot of challenges ahead of us and we will need to find answers within our own traditions; and as a global citizen who cared about her world, I thought that it is vital for us as a world civilization to find solutions to the conflicts in the world today.
The conference I was attending at the White House also reflected a desire to create a more peaceful world. After a long journey from Pakistan, I joined an impressive number of religious scholars from various faiths, leaders and university heads from around the world. The three-day event in September 2015 was mainly organized with leadership from an excellent team of government and university partners, including Melody Fox Ahmed (an American married to a Pakistani Muslim) who works as Assistant Director at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, at Georgetown University – one of the top universities of America. The other key organizers and partners were President Obama’s team at the White House, the Department of Education, the International Shinto Foundation, and Howard University — the oldest African-American University.
At Georgetown University in the historic Riggs library with Father Frazer from India and Professor Akinade from Georgetown University in Doha, Ken Bedell of the Department of Education asked me to start the panel discussion. I began by emphasizing that the world is in flames, the problem is global, and we need to work hard to put out the flames through sustained, effortful and united work in inter- and intra-faith education by learning about our own rich history of coexistence and emphasizing this as opposed to difference.
Two other functions were held at the White House. The excitement for us participants of entering the White House was dulled down by its high level of security: the long line of participants from different countries with their various national clothes looked like, as one observer pointed out, “a rainbow of diversity”. People were mingling together: some in Pakistani shalwar kameez, others in orange Buddhist and Hindu holy dresses, yet others in formal Western clothes. Each participant had to show their identity twice, move from iron doors to entrance points where, alone, each one of us was made to stand still while from behind low shutters a few inches away was a fierce-looking Alsatian dog to clear us. In front of me, a very large security guard with his gaze fixed. It was a tense moment. Disgruntled participants were charmed by small smart packets on their seats of welcoming Hershey’s kiss chocolates that had the seal and signature of the President of the United States of America. At night a lavish sumptuous dinner for the conference participants at the Turkish embassy in Washington DC reflected Eastern warmth and hospitality. Senior Turkish ladies at the embassy were articulate and smart.
Some of the key ideas that were conveyed during the three days were that interfaith is a concept in which people of each faith or community begin to learn to respect “the Other” – the religious other, the ethnic other and the gendered other. We accept difference and see diversity as a strength and not adversity. We respectfully allow for faith expressions, see the ethnic other as a brother (or sister), and understand that women are complete individuals in their own right with intellectual capabilities and full rights. Speakers at the conference mentioned how important not just interfaith is (i.e. dialogue between people of different faiths and cultures) but also intra-faith (dialogue with people amongst our own faith community who hold different perspectives).
Although we all outwardly agreed that interfaith dialogue is an ideal and a norm we should all hold to, even some “experts” who were present displayed biases and prejudices. One panelist on a diverse interfaith panel argued that his persecuted minority community shoulders all the responsibility for dialogue and improving relations with the majority faith community – an opinion others disagreed with. There are many in all communities who work hard to build peace and also those who destroy it within seconds. In another incident I heard that one male attendee seemed to be only focused on enforcing his version of female modesty among his co-religionists. Even those who agree to participate in dialogue conferences have much to learn about how to see and interact with “the Other”.
After the conference I was invited to teach two university classes at the American University in DC - one on women in Islam at Professor Akbar Ahmed’s World of Islam class with the Pakistan Ambassador’s wife, Begum Shaista Jilani, and another class, Professor Brams’, on Eid day on inter-cultural communication in which we showed our film, Journey into Europe. The film ends with a message from the Pope of reaching out to Muslims in an embrace, as Muslims do during Eid. Articulating one’s own perspective while embracing “the Other” is the message of hope in desperation, despite the challenges that lie ahead, the lesson is of showing courage to understand, reach out, and help the other in order to build the blocks of a more cohesive world.