Thursday, May 13, 2010

Leading Mauritanian imam visits US for interfaith dialogue

A US State Department invitation brought Imam Ahmed Salem Ould Cheikh Javar overseas to discuss the issue of tolerance as part of a wider dialogue among religions.
Interviewed by Mohamed Yahya Abdel Wedoud for Magharebia in Nouakchott – 13/05/10
[Mohamed Yahya Abdel Wedoud] Imam Ahmed Salem Ould Cheikh Javar praised the US for its tolerance after participating in an interfaith dialogue there.
The general secretary of the Union of Imams of Mauritania, Imam Ahmed Salem Ould Cheikh Javar, recently returned from the US after taking part in an international dialogue among leaders of various religions. He was invited by the US State Department and travelled as an international visitor on interfaith dialogue.
The imam, whose organisation works in fields including AIDS prevention, met with Magharebia and mapped out some of the ideas of religious tolerance he discussed with other participants.
Magharebia: How was your trip to the United States?
Imam Ould Javar: I visited several states, including Washington, Texas, California and New York. I found out that Muslims are very active in America. I met with different organisations concerned with the dialogue among religions, which comprise Muslims, Christians and Jews. I also visited some centres in Texas that translate Islamic books to English and publish them in co-operation with the Center for Middle East Studies. In Los Angeles, I visited the Religious and Civil Values Center, which is concerned with teaching world religions, including Islam of course, at regular schools. What I liked most is that they teach Muslim civilisation from the old era to the modern era with all objectivity and honesty. The students of that centre are not Muslim. From that, we understand that the United States is keen on encouraging religious dialogue among nations and peoples. It should be noted here that the US Constitution states that the United States has no [official] religion.
Here I want to say that Islam is an open religion that acknowledges all religions and is based on the principle of "no compulsion in religion" and "call to the way of your God with good admonition". Based on that, Muslims have to approach the other for the sake of dialogue. The world today has become just one village, and as Muslims, we have to carry out campaigns to correct the concepts that others have of our religion. Unfortunately, many people in the West don't know anything about Islam except for what they see on television, which is a negative thing for us as Muslims.
I've told everyone I met that a Muslim is the one who acknowledges the others; that a Muslim is the one who opens his heart for the other; and that the Muslim is the one who only says good words to the other. Together with my colleagues, we managed to explain to the American people that the true Islam is the Islam that observes the Qur'an and Sunna, and that the true Muslim is the one who puts before his eyes the principle of "no compulsion in religion".
Magharebia: How did you find the US and its people?
Imam Ould Javar: In fact, we don't see of America anything but the horrible images which we see on TV; we don't know anything about it. When I went down there, I was actually very surprised with the tolerance of the American people and their love for others. I went out at the airport not knowing how to speak any English and I didn't have anyone with me. They served me from the moment I arrived at the airport until my departure. I saw how hospitable the American people are and how very respectful of others they are. What I liked about America is the religious freedom there; no one would ask you about your religion. Frankly, my view of America changed deep inside me and I literally told them at the end of the programme that I wanted to see some Americans travelling to the Islamic world so as to learn about Islam, and I wanted to see the peoples of those countries coming to America so as to learn that it's not a country of guns and horror movies only; rather America is a country with a coherent, harmonious and friendly people.
Frankly speaking, I found that America was completely different from what I thought in the past. For instance, there was a little problem at the airport with the writing of my name. The police treated me in an extremely polite, respectful and humane way, saying to me several times "excuse me"; something that made me very happy and relieved.
Magharebia: What's your advice to young Muslims after your trip?
Imam Ould Javar: I advise them to show breadth of mind and to seek sciences from where they are, especially Islamic, Christian and Jewish sciences, as personal knowledge. I also advise them to have good manners. I've also noticed that the Americans pay attention to the individual, which is a good thing. We as Muslims should also pay attention to the individuals and to develop them.
Magharebia: What are the most important difficulties that faced you during this trip?
Imam Ould Javar: The most important difficulties are represented in the language, although the supervisors of the programme assigned distinguished interpreters for me. However, I found out that the English language is a must-learn language in this era: it is the language of the world and I advise everyone to learn it. In short, I learnt that whoever doesn't speak English is an illiterate person; French doesn't get past Africa.

Interfaith dialogue from youth to life's end

We can continue to learn from other faiths, even at the end of our lives.

By guest blogger Lisa Calderone-Stewart
I was very honored to be invited to lunch recently by three Muslim women.

I became involved with interfaith dialog in 2001, after the events of September 11. Locally, the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee began holding adult dialogs, and over punch and donuts, I met a physician who worked with Muslim teenagers. When he found out I worked with Catholic teenagers, we both had the same idea at the same time. We said to each other in unison, "We should do something like this with young people!"

Our first event was called, "Sons and Daughters of Abraham." It was an all-day youth forum for Muslims, Catholics, and Jews; it took almost a year of planning. Our team included 18 young people - six from each faith group. Three teenagers acted as the emcees; three teenagers each gave ten-minute presentations (with power point slides) about his or her faith - Islam, Catholicism, and Judaism; and twelve teenagers were table leaders for the participants.

We adults never approached the microphone. Once trained, the youth ran the whole day, and they did quite well. After a morning conversation in mixed groups, and a delicious lunch, the groups reconvened with their own congregations to plan interfaith projects. What followed was a year of invitations to different events, such as a Shabbat service at a synagogue, a picnic in the park, a potluck at a church, the painting of a mural with interfaith symbols and images, and "Midnight Muslim Bowling."

At the potluck, we each brought foods from our own traditions, and talked about the holiday or holy day when the foods were usually eaten. It was more fun than we thought it would be. I remember a Muslim teenager stood up and said, "We must be doing something right. Here we have Jews, Christians and Muslims, all eating together, telling family stories, and laughing. I know my parents would never have been able to experience this."

Eventually, there was a call to bring in more faith groups. After a retreat, we began our current program - the Interfaith Youth Cafés. Three or four times a year, a different congregation hosts a café, and teenagers gather, discuss certain conversation questions around a theme, reconvene with their own group, and report about what they learned. At the end, the groups each take a turn saying a prayer for everyone from their own tradition. There's something about this experience that's quite transformational. It becomes impossible to hate an entire group of people once you have eaten and laughed and especially prayed with them.

I would dare say it's the best way to prevent religion-based terrorism. At every café, there seems to be at least one young person who comes for the first time, admits to past prejudice, admits he or she had been so wrong about people of another faith, and is so glad to have learned so much.

Our cafés have been attended by Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Presbyterians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Quakers, Methodists, Episcopalians, Hindus, Christian Scientists, Unitarian Universalists, Lutherans, Baptists, Serbian Orthodox, Bahá'í, and United Church of Christ.

At my lunch with my Muslim friends, we reminisced about the early events, and we talked about what some of the teenagers had said: how the training meetings and dialog had completely changed their opinions about people of other faith groups. I told them what an honor it had been to become their friends and to be trusted to work so closely with their sons and daughters.
One of the main reasons we met for lunch is because they know I am dying.

I had not been able to attend any of our café events this year, although I wrote the conversation questions and prepared the hand-outs. I have just been too tired to go. So I was very eager to see these women one more time.

They told me about one of their sayings: A life is well lived if one of three things comes about: Children that keep blessing, knowledge that keeps teaching, and charity that keeps giving. They told me they could see all three in my life.
I've told this story several times, and still I cannot repeat it without feeling chills, without spilling tears. What a beautiful concept. And I only learned it in the last year of my life.
It is something we can all pray for - for our families and our friends and for everyone we know and everyone we don't know.

I shall pray it for you:

In your precious life,
May you be surrounded by children that keep blessing,
May you be enlightened with knowledge that keeps teaching, and
May you be inspired by charity that keeps giving.

Amen from all of us who pray to the One God of many names with our many different words.

Interfaith dialogue from youth to life's end