By David Dumke
This article was co-authored by Amirah Masnavi
21 October 2014
On September 15, 2001, just days after al-Qaeda carried out their notorious terrorist attack against New York and Washington, Balbir Singh Sodhi, the owner of a gas station in Mesa, Arizona, was planting flowers along the perimeter of his business when he was shot five times, dying from his wounds. Sodhi’s death was a misguided effort by a man intending to kill Muslims in retaliation for the terrorist attacks carried out days earlier by terrorists who falsely claimed to speak for Islam. Ironically, the assailant had misidentified Sodhi as a Muslim, not knowing that the Dastar was Sikh, not Muslim, clothing. Of course, even if he was Muslim, a lust for revenge does not justify the killing of any innocent human being regardless of his or her faith. But Sodhi’s death also highlights the prejudice that exists even in the United States against people of different faiths, who wear different clothes. Had Sodhi been female and Muslim, he could have been killed for wearing a Hijab rather than a Dastar.
The right to wear a Hijab is not as issue that has been discussed as prominently in the United States as it has in Turkey, France, and elsewhere in the European Union, where banning it has been a matter of law. In the United States there is no such debate about whether one has the right to wear a Hijab or Dastar, or any other items of religious clothing regardless of the faith. Yet the Sodhi murder highlights the very real prejudice that lurks below the surface of any criminal or civil code. And it highlights an issue which can best be addressed through education and dialog, and understanding and respecting basic human rights including the right to wear a Hijab, a yarmulke, or any other religious garment. This in many ways is similar to an effort undertaken by religious leaders in Florida over the last several years after a self-proclaimed Christian minister from gained notoriety for announcing his intention by to burn a holy Quran.
This week, the Grand Voices Project partnered with the University of Central Florida (UCF) to co-host an interfaith forum aimed at expanding dialogue and building conflict resolution strategies at the local, national and international levels. Representatives from a diverse range of cultural and religious institutions spoke at the UCF Student Union, which is located at the heart of America’s second largest university. In addition to a panel of local religious officials, speakers included representatives from the U.S. State Department and United Nations Alliance of Civilization.
While the conference covered a range of issues and looked at a number of effective interfaith programs operating in Florida, the United States, and around the globe, it also dealt with a number of recurring problems. This included the challenges posed by ignorance and prejudice – particularly of those who look and worship differently. For example, there was considerable discussion about the right for Muslim women to wear the Hijab, a topic of controversy in many nations. The Hijab itself is often misunderstood, and many unfamiliar with Islam continue to see it as a threatening symbol.
The Sikh Dastar has been similarly been misinterpreted, and subject to prejudice, as have other clothing of religious significance. But part of tolerance, and a basic human right, is the necessity for believers of different faiths – including Muslims who wear the Hijab – to practice their religious as they see fit – including wearing religious attire. And it is up to interfaith groups at all levels – from local programs such as the Central Florida Interfaith Alliance to the participants in the Vienna-based King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue – to help educate and increase tolerance between and among religions.
Individual participants at the forum offered unique perspectives based on their work and experiences. Arsalan Suleman, the U.S. State Department’s Deputy Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and Counsellor, spoke on his role as bridge builder between the United States and Islamic world. Suleman spoke about the importance of interfaith activism, and how local projects in the U.S., including in Florida, serve as great examples of tolerance. He also mentioned the importance of the freedom of expression and worship, such as a woman’s right to wear Hijab.
An impressive panel of local religious leaders, all members of the Central Florida Interfaith Alliance, discussed pluralism. The panel included a Sikh, Muslim, Hindu and Christian. The Christian and Muslim participant, along with a rabbi who could not attend the event on account of a Jewish holiday, host a popular weekly radio show which focuses entirely on interfaith issues. The panel discussed the challenges involved, and most effective strategies, in building interfaith dialogue. One important component to the discussion is the level of discrimination faced by Muslims wearing the Hijab, or Sikhs wearing the Dastar. It was a poignant discussion; each contributed specific tenets from each of his respective faiths that speak to unity, cooperation and peace building efforts.
The conference ended with the keynote address by High Representative Nassir Abdul Aziz al Nasser of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations. Ambassador Nasser expressed that there is still much work to be done “as educated individuals, diplomats, academics and leaders who understand the challenges of our time, to must build bridges for humankind that are strong enough to carry the weight of our differences.” He stressed the need for ongoing work toward respecting diversity, promoting understanding, and practicing tolerance among people of different faiths. He concluded by stating that the responsibility for this work was shared by religious leaders, academia, civil society and business leaders – at the local, national and international levels.
David Dumke is a veteran commentator on U.S.-Arab relations. Amirah Masnavi is Executive Director of the Grand Voices Project, which works to promote tolerance among people of different faiths.