by Khalid Mozaffar
“New acquaintances become new allies, and finally new friends, and even a new interfaith family. The highlights for me were Professor (Tariq) Ramadan’s keynote remarks and just enjoying the great vibe all over McCormick Place! It’s great just to be in such a space, where folks are so positive and energized! Can’t wait until next time.”
This was how one of our Catholic friends, Nick Battaglia of St Irenaeus Church of Park Forest, described his experience at the first ever MAS-ICNA Interfaith Symposium (IFS 2015). Mr. Battaglia, accompanied by his wife Ms. Phyllis Bacon, was among the over 100 interfaith partners and activists who attended the symposium. On Sunday, December 27, the IFS 2015 brought together Christians of many denominations, Jews, Sikhs, Bahai’s, and Muslims for an afternoon of many talks that challenged us to help one another to be better people for each other’s sake.
There were three segments to the Symposium. The first was a luncheon with a keynote address given by the world renowned eminent scholar and thinker, Dr. Tariq Ramadan. He addressed the very relevant subject of “Islam’s Perspective on Pluralism: Examples from the Life of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)”.
Mr. Battaglia was not alone in being moved by the simplicity and passion of Dr. Ramadan’s words of wisdom. By the end of the talk, everyone in the room was inspired, eager and anxious to take action. As Dr. Ramadan put it, not just talk among those of us who already believe in interfaith dialogue and harmony, but to take this same message back to each of our own communities and places of worship and to convince the unconvinced about the way forward – not just to tolerate each other but to sincerely respect each other by knowing each other.
The luncheon was followed by a “Joint Interfaith Plenary” — a session showcasing the depth and intensity of support for the American Muslim community by a wide spectrum of faiths. It was a show of American people of faith standing in solidarity with fellow citizens, who happen to be Muslims. This one hour session, attended by thousands at the main convention stage, was called “Faith Communities for a Better World.” The IFS 2015 Chairperson, Karen Danielson of MAS and Mosque Foundation, welcomed and introduced her eight guest panelists one by one, each of whom are not only interfaith proponents and activists, but also leaders of their Faith Communities whose ideas and words can — and do — carry weight.
The first panelist on the Joint Interfaith Plenary to speak was Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, President of Sound Vision and Radio Islam. He was selected five times as one of the “500 Most Influential Muslims” in the world. Imam Mujahid also chairs the Burma Task Force USA to stop the genocide of Rohingyas. He is currently the Board Chair of the Parliament of the World’s Religions and it was in this capacity that he spoke to the audience about the importance of this global movement and of networking to combat the well-funded global menace of intolerance and hate.
The other seven panelists representing their Faith Community were:
- The Very Rev Thomas Baima: Vicar for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the Archdiocese of Chicago. He served as editorial advisor for the journal Chicago Studies which published the Spring 2008 issue: “Catholic-Muslim Dialogue: Reflections and Perspectives.”
- Rabbi Michael Davis: Founding member of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council. Founder the Open Hillel Rabbinical Council which works to bring Palestinian voices to Jewish Hillels on college campuses.
- Rev Dr. Stanley Davis, Jr: Co-Executive Director of the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago (CRLMC), as well as Executive Director Emeritus of the Chicago and Northern Illinois Region of The National Conference for Community and Justice.
- Dr. Robert Henderson: Serves on the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States. His initiation and direction of the study “Models of Unity” resulted in a landmark analysis of intergroup unity in the Chicago metropolitan area.
- Jasvir Kaur Singh: Board member of Sikh Outreach Services, which serves local Sikh youth and seniors and coordinate efforts to feed the needy. She is co-founder of Sikh Healing Collective and she volunteers globally and locally in disaster relief efforts and on medical missions with various organizations.
- Rev. Jay Moses: Pastor at Hope Presbyterian Church in Wheaton Illinois. Serves the committee for Interfaith relations and as the Muslim Relations Coordinator for the Chicago-land at the Presbytery of Chicago.
- Dr. Marcenia Richards: Pastor at Life Center Ministries. Formally the Executive Director of the Peace Coalition against Violence at St. Sabina, Marcenia is also the Founder of Fierce Women of Faith, an interfaith coalition of woman advocating for peace.
- Rev Dr. Mark Swanson: The Harold S. Vogelaar Professor of Christian Muslim Studies and Interfaith Relations and Associate Director of Center of Christian-Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice. He is an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
The Joint Interfaith Session ended with the very moving and impassioned words of none other than Dr. Larycia Hawkins who has been in the news lately about her courageous and principled statement of solidarity with American Muslim women and her personal belief that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Dr. Hawkins, a tenured professor at the Wheaton College, was recently suspended by her employer for her actions of solidarity. Although she could not attend in person, she sent in a recorded audio message that was played for the guests. She was recognized for her principles, her words and her actions. There was no better person who embodied every message and every word spoken at the Interfaith Symposium by the panelists and the keynote speaker that afternoon than Dr. Hawkins – a devout Christian — by her actions and her determination to stand up for the right principles.
Many of the guests at the Symposium remarked that they could not decide which of these two programming segments inspired them more and filled them with hope and sense of empowerment – Dr. Ramadan’s keynote address at the luncheon or the messages of solidarity from the Joint Interfaith Plenary panelists.
The last segment of the Symposium was the equally important and crucial parallel sessions that covered the two topics of “Islamophobia, Hate and Racism” and “Interfaith Engagement for Social Justice”. These discussions gave the attendees a complete and realistic picture of the overall social and religious environment of the times that we live in, both positive and negative.
The first session was moderated by Pastor Nancy Geode of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and discussed in depth the panelists’ experiences and views on Islamophobia, hate and racism. The panelists in this session included
- Zahra Billoo, Executive director of CAIR San Francisco Bay Area
- Ariel Levin, Coordinating Committee member of Jewish Voice for Peace-Chicago
- Jasvir Kaur Singh, Board member of Sikh Outreach Services
The second session on Social Justice was moderated by Pastor Michael Kooy of Grace Community CRC, Oak Lawn, IL. The two panelists for this discussion were
- Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid President of Sound Vision and Radio Islam
- Dr. Marcenia Richards Pastor at Life Center Ministries and founder of Fierce Women of Faith
Each speaker brought unique, wisdom and personal experience to the topics and discussions and provided strategies to combats these social ills. Those in attendance got the opportunity to recognize the challenges and the opportunities faced by Muslims, people mistaken for Muslims and people of faith at large. The audience learned firsthand about the collaborative work being done to bring about a “Better World” for all.
By all accounts, the program was a huge success, with many attendees anxious to come back next year with more of their fellow congregation members and all determined to take the message of unity, respect and interfaith harmony out to the world, locally and globally. The launch of this annual program, by the very able leader and visionary Karen Danielson, seems to have met and exceeded MAS mission and goals, by the Mercy and Help of Allah, of taking their mission of awareness of Interfaith Dialogue to the next level – the level of action – and to make the American Muslim Community to be among the leaders of this mission and not just followers! Alhamdulillah!