The Muslim Women's Association of Washington, DC
Hosts Screening of Journey into Europe
By Wardella Wolford Doschek
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.
In the spirit of interfaith dialogue encouraged by the film, members of the audience included not only Muslims but also members of other faiths. We were honored to be joined by a number of Christians, including two Roman Catholic nuns, as well as one of Ambassador Ahmed's students who is a Hindu. Also in attendance was the daughter of the original founder of the Muslim Women's Association.
I have previously reviewed Journey into Europe for Pakistan Link, and I have seen the film on a number of occasions. Each time I see it I learn something new because it is a work of considerable depth. Overall it explores the relationship between Europe and the Muslim world. Too many people both in the West and in the Muslim world are unaware of the immense impact that Islam has had on Europe. This film is a very successful attempt to correct that situation.
The film is divided into three parts, the first dealing with the period of Muslim rule in Spain from the eighth through the 15th centuries knows as La Conviviencia. Unfortunately, this period has been virtually eliminated from Spanish history as taught today. The second part considers the effect of Ottoman rule in the Balkans. What many do not know is that Muslims in the Balkans represent some of the oldest European stock. The final portion shows the effects of colonization and immigration. Hearing the present-day Mayor of Cordoba say that what he wishes to say to the Muslim world is, "Gracias for all it has contributed to his country's heritage" was encouraging indeed. And how many people know that "Ole!", the cry called out at many bullfights, comes originally from the name "Allah"? These are just a few of the things that we learned from watching the film.
Immediately following the screening we were treated to a delicious luncheon featuring authentic Egyptian cuisine. Dolmas, kabobs, and baklava were only a few of the delicacies served. Our hostess has a magnificent home overlooking the sparkling waters of the Potomac River. It is only a short distance from Mt Vernon, the home of America's Revolutionary War hero and first president. Many of us gathered to eat in Aida's beautiful living room for an informal discussion with our speaker.
Here Ambassador Ahmed showed what a seasoned professor and statesman he is. He was accompanied by his team member and program coordinator, Patrick Burnett, as well as by two students from his American University class entitled The World of Islam. Ambassador Ahmed invited Mr Burnett to tell the group about how he had become involved in the project as a team member and what an impact his involvement has had on his life.
The two students who accompanied the Ambassador also shared their stories of how their studies have impacted them. One of the ladies hails from Alaska and the other from India. Each has had her opinions modified considerably by the knowledge gained from the class. And each is now devoted to bridge-building between peoples and cultures. Also in attendance was one of the students for whom the Muslim Women's Association provides scholarship support. She, too, indicated that after seeing the film she is even more committed to spreading the word among young people about the importance of bridge-building.
Other members of the group joined the discussion. Jan Du Plain of Du Plain Global Enterprises spoke for us all when she confessed that her reaction to the film was very emotional. Calling Ambassador Ahmed "the Dalai Lama of the Muslim World," she said that it was hard to speak and that she had tears in her eyes while viewing many parts of the film because she found it to be overwhelming.
Seeing the heartbreak of the Bosnian mother who had lost so many family members moved us all. But it was especially touching to Amira, one member of the audience who comes from Bosnia. She actually knows the Bosnian people who were interviewed during this portion of the film. What she was seeing was so important to her that she recorded that part of the film on her cell phone. During the discussion she shared her memories with the group.
We also gained some insight into the challenges of making the film itself. From a logistics point of view, the effort was truly heroic. From arranging the numerous interviews included in the film, many of them with individuals of considerable stature in their fields, to simply procuring all the travel arrangements, there were many challenges. Thankfully Ahmed and his team overcame all of them and produced what is truly a Hollywood quality film.
The pursuit of knowledge, ilm, is strongly encouraged by Allah Almighty in the Qur'an. In fact, the word ilm is the second most frequently occurring word in the Qur'an after the name of Allah. An effort to obtain and disseminate knowledge of the interaction between the Muslim world and the West was a primary driving force in the production of Journey into Europe. Both Muslims and non-Muslims need to be educated about how interlinked our histories are, and how much progress can be made in all fields of human endeavor when people of all faiths work together. Because history has shown that people of many faiths can work together successfully, we know that this goal can once again be achieved.
Following the meeting we received the following message from Sister Diane Roche, one of the two Roman Catholic nuns who attended the meeting: "Both Ann and I were overwhelmed with gratitude at the chance to meet Ambassador Ahmed and to see the film. I felt I was in the presence of one of God's messengers of peace, and I left feeling inspired and energized to do everything I can during these dark times to educate myself and others about the many contributions that Islam has made and continues to make to human progress."
Ambassador Ahmed often quotes, "The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr." The production of Journey into Europe, soon to be followed in 2017 by a book of the same name, shows that Ambassador Ahmed unequivocally belongs to the former category. The Muslim Woman's Association was indeed fortunate to have him share his immense knowledge with us.
The takeaway message for the day was that Europe must learn that its own civilization is derived from the cultures of ancient Greece, Rome and Andalusia. It must rediscover the importance of knowledge--ilm--and it must challenge all forms of violence as being completely unacceptable. If Europe can do this, it will once again be a beacon of hope to the entire world.
(Wardella Wolford Doschek is Secretary of The Muslim Women's Association of Washington DC She is the author of Straight and Sensible: My Journey to the Straight Path of Islam)