December 21, 2023

How Can We Engage in “Sacred Witness” Amid Deep Conflict?

Najeeba Syeed, a Muslim scholar recognized as a leader in peacebuilding and social justice practice and research, explains how to foster constructive interfaith dialogue – including engaging in “sacred witness” – during periods of heightened religious or political tensions.

In This Episode...

Najeeba Syeed and Eboo Patel explore the ethics and future of interfaith work amid deep divides across religious communities. They focus on the impact of global wars and crises on religious communities and discuss the role of institutions in promoting interfaith understanding through open-mindedness and deep listening. 

About Najeeba Syeed

Najeeba Syeed is the inaugural El-Hibri endowed Chair and Executive Director of the Interfaith Institute at Augsburg University in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She has been a professor, expert practitioner, and public speaker for the last two decades in conflict resolution, interfaith studies, mediation, restorative Justice, education, and social, gender, and racial equity.

She has facilitated conflict resolution processes for conflicts in many schools, communities, and environmental and public controversies. She served as the co-chair of the American Academy of Religion’s Religion and Politics Section and was a member of the Academy’s Religion, Social Conflict, and Peace Section. She was elected by the body of the American Academy of Religion to serve on the governing body of the Program Committee. She is a past board member of the National Association for Community Mediation, National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation and serves on the Higher Education Advisory Council for Interfaith America, and Advisory Council for Peace and Conflict Resolution at the Tanenbaum Center and past chair of the Pasadena Commission on the Status of Women. She served on the Teaching Team for the Luce American Academy of Religion Summer Seminar on Religious Pluralism and Comparative Theologies.

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How Can We Engage in “Sacred Witness” Amid Deep Conflict?


Eboo Patel: This is the Interfaith America Podcast, and I’m Eboo Patel. 


[00:00:13] Eboo Patel: Welcome to the Interfaith America Podcast. I’m Eboo Patel. My friend Najeeba Syeed is a Muslim theologian, a lawyer, an interfaith studies leader and practitioner, and an individual who went to a synagogue in the weeks immediately following the brutal Hamas attacks of October 7 and said to a group of Jews, “You will be safe with me. It is because I am a Muslim that I extend my hand in warmth and welcome and safety to you.” 

I’m excited to welcome Najeeba Syeed to the Interfaith America Podcast. Najeeba is a professor, a public speaker, an expert practitioner in the fields of conflict resolution, interfaith studies, mediation, education, deliberative democracy, as well as social, gender, and racial equity. She’s also the inaugural El-Hibri Endowed Chair at Augsburg University and the Executive Director of Interfaith at Augsburg. In 2021, Najeeba entered the political sphere by serving as Chief of Staff to Nithya Raman, the first Asian American woman elected to the Los Angeles City Council. 

During her time as Associate Professor of Interreligious Education at Claremont School of Theology, Najeeba was named the Southern California Mediation Association’s Peacemaker of the Year. Najeeba, welcome to the Interfaith America Podcast. I’m excited to talk to you about why, as a Muslim, you extend your hand in warmth and peace and safety to other religious communities. What about your life journey brings you to this place? What does it look like to create constructive dialogue in a classroom during times of intense global conflict? 

Let’s begin. My friend Najeeba, thank you for joining me. Salaam alaikum to you. Let me ask you this question. Such a difficult time right now. Difficult time for Muslims, difficult time for Jews, difficult time for everybody. How’s your spirit doing? 

[00:02:22] Najeeba Syeed: Yes, I think it is a difficult time for everyone. One thing that’s really been illuminating for me is that you never know how a global crisis is going to impact you and students. I was really struck by one of my students after one of my classes. She took me aside and said, “Hey, I just want you to know, Professor Syeed, I really didn’t know much about this region before this moment.” It really was eye-opening to me that whatever I might be going through or individuals might be going through, other people are just learning, are just coming to the table now, or just hearing. 

How do we make room for all of those folks at this place, whether it’s our universities or our communities to have a conversation? I could have responded to her and said, “Well, why didn’t you know anything? What’s wrong?” I had to have an open heart and an open mind and just listen. I think that’s really been indicative for me of the stance that I personally take as an individual, as a mom, as a professor, as someone who engages across the country is, “Let me show up and let me listen.” 

[00:03:36] Eboo Patel: Yes. We’ve been friends for 15 years and open heart, open mind, someone who creates the space for lots of people to come to the table and to have positive and beautiful connections, that is precisely how I view you. That’s why we’re doing this podcast, because I want you to shine that light for lots of listeners here. A few days after this most recent chapter of the conflict starts in the Middle East or really heats up, a few days after October 7th, you speak at a synagogue in the Twin Cities and you said something in that talk that I just found so moving, and I want to quote you directly and get into it. 

You say, “I stand here to let you know that in our country right now, we know that antisemitism is on the rise, and I want you to know that you are safe with me. I want you to know that if your synagogue is ever targeted, my home and my heart are open to you. Some days it may get impossible to be able to share space, but I want you to know that if ever there was a moment when we can witness each other’s pain, that is in fact a sacred witness.” 

Just pause and breathe and say a prayer because I just think that those are sacred words. I want to ask, you’re a Muslim American and a professor of Islamic Studies at Augsburg University. You hold a chair. How is it that a week or two after October 7th, you, a Muslim professor, and a chair at Augsburg University are speaking at a synagogue? How does that come to be? 

[00:05:24] Najeeba Syeed: I think the question for me that’s even bigger is how is it as a Muslim who’s a professor at a university, how is it that I couldn’t say those words? That to me is really the question behind your question is this was planned months ago. 

[00:05:42] Eboo Patel: Your visit to the synagogue was planned months before that. 

[00:05:45] Najeeba Syeed: Exactly. Part of what I think is important to know is that, for me, being in relationship with other faith communities was a practice that predated this most recent crisis. I share that because what that means is showing up isn’t just an act of recognition when there has been harm. I should be showing up then anyways, but it should be a way of life for me and that’s part of being Muslim. At the very core, part of being Muslim is to, as the Quran tells us, [foreign language], to get to know people of diverse backgrounds. 

It’s mentioned more than once in the Quran that the diversity of humankind is a sign of God’s creation. The Quran also says God could have made us all one people. God could have made us all Muslim. God could have made us all whatever, Jewish, all of one language and culture. To me, it’s a spiritual discipline, a spiritual practice to know other communities. Then at the heart of that, showing up in that moment, a commitment I had already made prior, months before. It was this other saying of Prophet Muhammad that from a Muslim, you should feel safe from their hand, from– essentially summarizing that saying that I should be, as a Muslim, other people should feel safe with me. 

I stood there witnessing and utilizing. I mentioned in my comments at the synagogue multiple times that I’m doing this because it’s based on how I interpret my relationship with God. That if a community is in pain, if a community is scared, that it’s my sacred obligation first to be there to witness the harm that they’ve gone through, and then to make sure that if they need a place of safety, that I and my family would be there. I think I did it. I did it as a matter of course. 

[00:07:52] Eboo Patel: Look, you and I have known each other for 15 years. I know that about you. I was not surprised by this at all. I just thought the beauty of the language was particularly moving. It’s a combination of, Najeeba, your own manifestation, “You will be safe with me,” and the Muslim theological heritage, which is the Prophet Muhammad, may the peace and blessings of God be upon him, says that a Muslim is someone from whose hand you shall feel safe. 

There’s that combination of what is in the tradition and then your particular interpretation and centering of it. I want to actually ask a question about that. Religious traditions are like Aristotle, that you can find what you want in them. There are lots of Jews who say right now is the time for Jews to focus on antisemitism. Lots of Muslims who say right now is the time for Muslims to focus on Islamophobia. You can find lots of things in one’s own religious tradition that says focus on your own community during times of duress. 

By the way, this is a time of duress for Muslims in America. We all agree on that. You are saying we should do that and more. Tell me how this particular interpretation of Islam, what we at Interfaith America would call a Muslim theology of interfaith cooperation, which is to say my commitment to protect you is rooted in my particular theology. How does that become central to your understanding of Islam? 

[00:09:24] Najeeba Syeed: There’s a really important time of Prophet Muhammad’s life where in many ways I’ve given some sermons on this, where he experienced what was a Muslim ban, where he experienced tribal leaders that said, “We don’t want to have trade with you because if you continue preaching this message, in many ways, we will ban you physically. We will not do commerce with you.” This was one of the most difficult times in his life. It’s called, by some scholars, the year of sorrow. 

I’ve preached on it, and one of the things that really struck me that was really beautiful. I was reading a scholar who said, “You know the way that that ban was broken was by righteous people who were not Muslim who broke that embargo, whether it was around feeding this community, whether it was a very small, at this time, nascent community of people who were very much at the margins of society. Early Muslims, like early Christians, early Buddhists, people who came to these faith communities were not always people of power. They were people at the very margins and edges of society that were really touched by the messages of justice and the messages of solidarity. 

I think about that again and again, that, in many ways, the survival of Muslims early on depended on righteous people who are not of Muslim origin or didn’t accept the Muslim faith, but supported this very small community. Prophet Muhammad’s own mission in his 20-year-plus mission, it was non-Muslims in his family that also supported him despite not believing in what he preached. 

[00:11:09] Eboo Patel: Abu Talib. 

[00:11:10] Najeeba Syeed: I think that’s, to me, that’s like a really important lesson is that this faith, and I’m deeply embedded in it, not just from my own perspective, but from my lineage, from my family, from– I have behind me, you can’t see it, but I have a family shajra tree that’s more than 15 generations long, in which each generation, we were Muslim teachers and keepers of the tradition in Kashmir and starting in Arabia and moving all the way into South Asia generations. 

I say that because it’s sort of like, to me, the survival of my community, my family is tied to people who stepped out of their own self-interest. I think about all those moments, and I think about Prophet Muhammad in these times of these years of sorrow, and thinking about my community has survived, not just because of us, but because of others who extended themselves. How can I not do the same? 

[00:12:15] Eboo Patel: Yes, that’s so beautiful. I want to get to your life story in a moment here, but just to stick for a moment on the story of the early Muslims. The first people who recognize the prophethood of Muhammad are Christian monks. Bahira, who sees the mark on the back of the prophet when he’s a young boy, a Waraqah, who’s a Christian monk, who after the prophet receives his first revelation in the year 610, is the one who says, “Verily, the prophet of your people has arrived.” 

One of my favorite is when the prophet makes the Hijrah to Medina, the person who first greets him is a rabbi, Rabbi Mukhayriq. Actually, the constitution of Medina is written in the home of that rabbi. Without the presence of these righteous Christians and Jews and pagans, there might not have been a Muslim community. These are the people who not just protected, but actually proactively supported the emergence of a religious civilization that was not their own. I’m with you. I see this as being at the heart of the Muslim story, that interfaith cooperation is woven into our tradition. 

When I speak with Christians, and they say, “Well, why as a Christian should I be doing interfaith work?” I talk about the Good Samaritan story. Jesus is literally saying, follow someone whose beliefs are different than yours, but whose ethics are superior. One could say the same that it’s woven into our tradition in the same way. I appreciate you highlighting that. The year of sorrow, of course, I’ve heard about it, but it’s not been central to my understanding of Islam. Part of the beauty of conversations like this is the ability to say, “Oh, yes, I should go back and read about that time.” 

Who were the groups who said, we don’t agree with your doctrine, but we appreciate your personhood, and we admire your ethics, and we will support your community. I think that’s powerful. Najeeba, I want to get an understanding of how in your own personal life story. Because of our friendship, we know a lot about each other. I know that you were educated at a Quaker University. I know that you have taught at Methodist schools, like the Claremont School of Theology. 

The school where you currently have a chair, the El-Hibri chair, is an ELCA Lutheran school. I’m just curious, how has your life journey in the United States, with all of this religious diversity, how has that helped shape your understanding as a Muslim of your commitment to others? 

[00:14:45] Najeeba Syeed: Yes, it’s so funny. I was telling– I think I was telling my kids, they’re now 17 and 15. I think when you and I met there, I was probably just having one of them and the other was about to be born. I was telling them, “I look forward to the day where I’m hired and I’m not– there isn’t an article written about me saying the first Muslim to blah, blah, blah,” which has been an incredible honor. 

When I went to college, I went to a Quaker college, and I remember I think the school newspaper– I was the only Muslim in my incoming class, and the school paper said something about “Islam comes to Guilford College,” and that’s been the trajectory of my life. My story of coming to Guilford, ended up in Diana Eck’s first book about religious pluralism in the United States. 

[00:15:31] Eboo Patel: Yes, encountering God. 

[00:15:32] Najeeba Syeed: Yes. Apparently, my father was sharing stories about his 18-year-old daughter with scholars who I, of course, later came to respect and love personally as friends, and that story is about my first Ramadan where I was away, and as you know, Ramadan is such a communal practice. I was already away at college. I was by myself. I didn’t have other Muslims around, and it was fascinating because our campus minister made sure that I had himself as well as a group of students that broke fast with me and got up and did the pre-dawn meal with me, and it was a really beautiful experience. 

Besides ending up as a subject in a book on pluralism, the lesson for me was that the gesture of supporting me in my fast was a part of their Quaker ethic, that here’s a Muslim woman, at that time, really, a girl, on her own. We’ve opened up the door for her, and it’s not really about all of the articles that have been written about me. I’ve been a historic hire, the first Muslim professor at Claremont School of Theology, now the first Muslim woman at a Lutheran institution where I’m at right now that has tenure that’s now a full professor. There’s a lot of firsts that have happened in my life. 

Behind the fanfare of being the first is, obviously, there’s a lot that we carry that can be difficult when you’re the only one, but it’s also the courageous stance that institutions and individuals in those institutions have taken because not every hire was met with a lot of support in the beginning or understanding or there are risks that were taken. When I was in one denominational institution, every four years when there was an assembly of that denomination, there was a worry about whether the interfaith part of their mission would come under attack. 

My hiring at Claremont School of Theology meant that we could incubate an institution that’s now one of the first graduate Muslim seminaries in the country that’s accredited. 

[00:17:35] Eboo Patel: Bayan, right? 

[00:17:36] Najeeba Syeed: Right. My physical presence there meant the first four students of Bayan were my advisees that I helped develop that curriculum. The work that I’m doing now at Augsburg means that we can engage our students in a way that couldn’t happen before. We are, as an independent college, we have probably the largest percentage of Muslim students in the state of Minnesota. We’re the most ethnically diverse institution in the Midwest of our size and the region. 

I think about, as we’re talking about this journey, it’s not the story of Najeeba. I don’t ever see it as a story of myself. I see it as the story of institutions that make a decision around inclusion. I happen to be a part of that story. I think that it means it’s also about the Muslim American community and our story. When you’re, as I am an immigrant, moving into these spaces, again, the possibility of it happening, there weren’t the resources to just put together a Muslim graduate school. There aren’t the resources, per se, to start off many institutions. 

I think about the incubation of so many projects that have come out of my presence now at multiple institutions. I worked for an elected official, Muslim woman in hijab walking around the halls of Los Angeles City Council chambers. These are things that are beautiful, not because of who I am, but because it means that we’re living up to, and often not in the most perfect way, living up to this idea of a kind of diversity that is built on the idea that we’re better when we move in that direction. 

[00:19:35] Eboo Patel: Yes, we’re better together. It used to be a campaign at Interfaith America. We called it the Better Together campaign. Part of what I’m hearing you say, Najeeba, is you have been a beneficiary of the theologies of interfaith cooperation of other institutions. 

[00:19:49] Najeeba Syeed: Absolutely. 

[00:19:49] Eboo Patel: There’s a Quaker theology of interfaith cooperation that welcomed you into Guilford College 20, 25 years ago. There’s a Methodist theology of interfaith cooperation that welcomes you into Claremont. In effect, I hear you saying, “Look, we, Muslims, have a theology of interfaith cooperation, and I am going to both give it back, if you will, square the karmic circle. As a beneficiary of your theology, I’m going to make sure that other people benefit from my own theology of better faith cooperation.” When somebody hands you something, you are grateful. Then when you have something to hand somebody else, you should do it. That’s the way human beings should work. That’s the way God works. 

[00:20:32] Najeeba Syeed: I think that’s one modality of looking at it as transactional. 

[00:20:36] Eboo Patel: I don’t think of it as transactional. I think of it as– 

[00:20:37] Najeeba Syeed: No, no. I wasn’t saying you’re saying that, but I meant there’s a lot of language, not you, per se, but there’s a lot of language around rights that’s very transactional. I have a law background, it’s a very familiar rhetoric. What I think really has been profoundly important in this moment in the world and in my history of migrating to the US when I was 3, is that it’s not only are we better together, but that ultimately our destinies are intertwined in such a way that we’re interdependent. 

I think for many years I thought of success as independence, and really more and more– and I think because I’ve been doing conflict intervention work since I was 18, I’m the person that was called into multiple sites around the country after– whether it was officer-involved shootings or stabbings. I’ve done intervention in real-life conflicts. There’s been something really– having done that for 30 years. I wish it was only 20 years [chuckles] since I went to college, and I think it’s been about 30 that I started. 

There’s something so profound to walk into a room where people have just hurt each other and to say, “Oh wait, some of us are deeply traumatized and we still have to live together.” I’ve been in that moment so often and so many times that a question that I ask when I intervene in conflicts now is, “Are you in each other’s futures? Do you see each other in each other’s futures?” Or ask them to ask each other, “Am I in your future?” 

The reason I ask that question when I intervene is our present actions determine the future. I think [unintelligible 00:22:28], Jewish ethicist, really, talks about this, like the bridge to the future is the other. What we do in this moment and the choices we make create the future. You’re father, too. I really feel like having children has brought that to light. However I feel about an issue, whatever I think in this moment that, really, they’re the inheritors of the world. If I’m not making it better, not just for my kids, but for all children, what are they going to inherit? 


[00:23:01] Eboo Patel: After a short break, Najeeba helps us learn how we can have more productive conversations, even during times of heightened conflict. “Are you in each other’s futures?” I feel like that was the kind of prescient that a king had and a Mandela had. They taught the country, they taught their own community, Black South Africans, African Americans, and they taught other people too. White folks. Like, “We are not leaving and the other people are not leaving.” You know what that means? You got to live together. 

The way they did their work is the way you do your work, which is, I might want to defeat a certain part of who you are. I might want to defeat Jim Crow. I might want to defeat apartheid, but I am not going to treat you as an enemy or as a permanent enemy because the day after tomorrow, I’m going to have to live with you, and I’m going to treat you as a future neighbor. That’s what I’m hearing from you. 

[00:24:09] Najeeba Syeed: Guess where that example for me comes from? It actually comes from Prophet Muhammad upon MVPs that after we talked about his early mission and amount of suffering, he went through physical suffering. He left Mecca in the night, escaped to a cave. Imagine the fear that he had for his life. It wasn’t just him, but many as we call them ṣaḥābah, or companions. What happens when he gains victory and goes back to Mecca with a very different situation, a situation of power, a situation of resources in the transformation of his mission by the end, with the number of people that came into the fold of Islam? 

He had a choice. He could have gone back, written a list, figured out each person’s violation, and come up with appropriate, as we call it, retributive justice approaches. Instead of retributive justice, he chose restorative justice and gave asylum. Again, he didn’t have to, but I think the larger scope of what he was doing was building for the future and thinking about this idea that really in many ways is that, are we in each other’s futures? Because if the answer is no, then it means you’re going to eliminate. If you literally, if I don’t see you in my future, then the only other option is elimination. 

I’ve really come to understand that that example of asylum and giving people this capacity and the importance of understanding that sometimes, not every time, but sometimes when it’s appropriate and there’s a capacity, that the intervention of spiritual ethics in conflict is that ability to believe that people may redeem themselves. That I forgive, not because I’m just Najeeba as a human, but God is helping me forgive. It’s a power I could not maybe have on my own, but because of my spiritual interpretation of the world, I have a tool of understanding that says there is, as many times in the Quran we hear that if people choose peace, you should choose peace. 

[00:26:24] Eboo Patel: Right. 

[00:26:25] Najeeba Syeed: If people bother you, you speak to them with a good word. The same teachings, unfortunately, I tell people often what we bring to the text is the hermeneutic, that you take out of the text what you’re already bringing in your mind. If you don’t see other people in your future or you see a future in which the only way victory is manifested is by the elimination of whomever the other may be, then that’s what you may pull out, whether the text is a religious one or a secular one or an ideology. 

We have to work against that human instinct and that social pressure that says victory is when I myself transactionally have power over others. What does it mean when we share power? What does it mean when we say it’s when everyone flourishes that if you flourish, I flourish? Maybe it’s, as one of my mentors said, it’s called irrational optimism. He said, “Najeeba, you have it.” He said he has it. 

[00:27:32] Eboo Patel: Yes, I have it. Yes. 

[00:27:35] Najeeba Syeed: We have it. I know when people tell me, “Oh, you’re such an optimist.” I used to take it as an indictment of my intellectual capabilities. Then I realized something, that the elimination of the other and the resorting to a domination over the other as the only option is probably the least creative one. 

[00:27:54] Eboo Patel: Yes, I love that. I feel like I constantly like charge my own car’s battery. Actually, that’s not true. My cord is connected to something and it’s connected to Islam. That’s what it’s connected to. As you talked about this concept that Khaled Abou El Fadl, the great Muslim legal theorist at UCLA, he says, what you read in the Quran is what your heart brings to the Quran, but God has put in your heart his rule, his breath. God has put in your heart taqwa, an inner torch. You actually have a leaning, a fitra towards goodness, and you are meant to extract from the Quran its goodness, its generosity. 

In some ways, like I think that being an irrational optimist is just another word for being a Muslim for me. Of course, I’m oriented this way because I believe that God made me his [unintelligible 00:28:51] Khalifah, me and 8 billion other people. His [unintelligible 00:28:55] Khalifah. We’re supposed to steward creation in a manner that is consistent with the beauty and celebration of diversity. That’s the gift that we have that God doesn’t give to the angels. I love that our friendship nurtures that. I find that nurtured in my conversations with you. Thank you for that. 

[00:29:16] Najeeba Syeed: We’ve definitely challenged each other. I don’t know if the listeners should know that there have been points in which we’ve definitely challenged one another- 

[00:29:22] Eboo Patel: Yes. 

[00:29:23] Najeeba Syeed: -to grow, to have perspectives. It’s not like I’ve always been like, “Eboo, everything you’re doing is great.” I’ve never held back from saying, “You know, well, maybe that might not work out so well.” I share that because I think that’s an example of, well, how do you sustain a friendship where you challenge each other to grow? I wanted to share that with the listeners because I definitely have had times where I’m like, “Oh my God, did we just have that conversation? Let me call him.” 

I think when controversies have emerged nationally, we’ve talked to each other. Something that I wanted to point out here that has really struck me, particularly as a mother, and I wanted to bring this because I do think a lot of times when I work in very violent conflicts, whether it’s been abroad or in many years of Los Angeles and Pasadena gang intervention work, you know the people that first crossed the line to say, “We are going to work with each other,” have been mothers who’ve lost their children. It is such a profoundly important message for me. Here I don’t mean you have to be a mother to be a peacemaker, but it’s people who lost the most. 

Sometimes I think about, wait, if someone in that situation, whether it’s here in LA, or in other conflicts that I’ve traveled to, if they’re willing to say, “Look, we’re going to put down our arms, or we’re going to put down our ability and this cycle and interrupt the cycle,” been really striking to me. The lessons that I’ve learned from those mothers, if they’re willing to do that, how can I who’s very proximate or maybe removed or I haven’t had those kinds of losses, what do I learn from this? I just wanted to share that too, that I think there are many examples. Spirituality and religion have played a role in those decisions for many of those mothers, but not for everyone. 

Some of them will come to the table without religious interpretation of the world. I think that’s a lesson to see how people who are actually engaged in or suffering tremendous losses to listen to those voices, and I’ve heard often far more compassion, and interest in mutuality of a future than I hear from people who are on the edges who may not actually be losing anything or agents in the reality of a particular scenario or crisis. I just want to encourage us whatever the situation is, listen to people and hear what’s behind the words and the future that they want to manifest. 

[00:31:57] Eboo Patel: Yes, that’s beautiful. That’s profound. I want to talk about the future and your beautiful line, “Do we see each other in the future together?” So much of what we do as teachers is about the future. We work with college students, 18, 19, 20-year-olds in part because of who they are now, and in part because who they’re going to be in 10, 20, 30, 40 years. In our exchanges over the past six weeks or so, Najeeba, you’ve shared with me that your classes have actually gone well over the last six weeks. 

I feel like you can count on one hand the number of professors who teach in any area related to Jews, Muslims, or anything even tangentially related to the Middle East who can say, “My classes have gone well.” Tell me about those classes. How is it in classes with Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, agnostics, talking about Islam and Judaism, talking about the Middle East, there has been constructive conversation? 

[00:32:53] Najeeba Syeed: I think one thing that’s really important as a professor is that I based my work on three concepts that actually have solidified and crystallized in the last eight weeks. One of them is, what is the role of the university? To me, it’s fostering critical thinking. That’s one way that I look at how I’m engaging with my students. Are we fostering critical thinking from their perspective? 

The second is to think about the communities present in my classroom and on my campus and to understand that there are moments, particularly in the last two months where there has been so much trauma that when, for instance, one of our student groups wanted to engage in some activity or event that was a statement of their belief on a particular situation that we offered another student group that may not feel safe, a space of sanctuary. To understand that there are moments, and I talk about this as trauma-informed interfaith work, whether it’s this situation or others, sometimes in interfaith spaces, we need to be able to recognize that we are a community of communities. 

That there may be stages in which communities need self-expression. They need to do rituals of grief. We don’t all have the same rituals of grief. How do we create the capacity to understand that? When do we make an informed decision of joining together, and then also making sure that we’re giving people places for care? I think we’ve done a lot of that in the last– we’ve made decisions about that in the last couple of months. I think that’s been important to understand that we’re doing that for all of the communities that are present on campus. 

I think that’s really important to understand around this idea of being a community of communities, and then really maximizing our expression of compassion. In this moment, I think it’s not just about taking positions and articulating, it’s about compassion, and understanding that there are moments of trauma where all we can say or do is maybe just be there for someone in silence and sit next to them. Maybe that’s all that person needs, but it means making sure that our mental health services for our universities are culturally competent, as I mentioned, for all communities. 

To tie this all back together to my class, one of the things that I think was really profound, we had our final class of the semester, but it was really beautiful, as you said, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish students. One of the students said something that was really beautiful and it really struck me, was that they’re going to be a rabbi. They’re inspired to be a rabbi, and I thought, “Oh, that’s really beautiful.” What they said was that their hope is if they were to have to go through a similar situation that they would want to bring someone in their congregation that was from a community that was impacted and to have that conversation. 

We’re thinking about this class where people are talking to each other and that as a result of it, someone is thinking about their future as a clergy person of their own tradition and saying, “I don’t want to just talk about other communities, I want to hear from them and engage and have a conversation.” I thought that was really beautiful, and another student talked about really this idea of humility and humbleness. That part of what they brought to this space was an understanding that, I think they called it humble listening, and I thought that was so beautiful and it was a very spiritual interpretation. 

I actually don’t remember their religious background because in some ways it doesn’t matter. They could have been from any background, but they said, “I learned how to do humble listening.” We opened up the class with a conversation about how hard these conversations are and the risks that everyone takes by having these conversations. I’ve done work in places in the world where if you show up as someone from a different religious tradition, on your way home, you don’t know if you’ll make it home. Right? 

[00:37:06] Eboo Patel: Right. That’s Kashmir. Right. 

[00:37:09] Najeeba Syeed: I mean anywhere all over the world. I think one of the other students said something to the effect of how the understanding in class helped me recognize the importance of an inclusive environment like we did. One of their ideas was we talked about, like for instance, when you don’t drink alcohol, we have a lot of very observant Muslims on campus. One student said, “You know what, instead of having happy hour where I feel left out, let’s have dialogue hour, let’s all meet after work and have a dialogue hour about religious diversity because happy hour.” 

It was so fascinating because I thought it could have been like, “Let’s play baseball, let’s get to know each other.” They were like, “Yes, let’s just replace happy hour at work with dialogue hour.” That was really beautiful to me, that was a Muslim student. I just wanted to share some of these closing reflections that the students have because I feel like at 17 and 18 or 19, they’re modeling a learning that I wish so many of us could engage in. 

[00:38:08] Eboo Patel: You created an educational space where that dimension of who they were emerged. There’s a beautiful line by Michelangelo, “The angel already exists in the stone, the job of the sculpture is to release it.” The better self already exists in the young person. The job of the educator is to create an environment where that better self can emerge and then be nurtured, be educated. 

[00:38:35] Najeeba Syeed: Yes. There was a couple of really other beautiful things that struck me in the class, and this has been, I think a theme, whether you and I have been in conversation with each other is, when you are confident in your own tradition– you asked me how I showed up at a synagogue without whatever is happening, even that’s a question of how do we do that work? One of the things that the students said in this class, at the end of it, she’s a Christian student. She said, part of the outcome is she’s much more involved in her church. [laughs] 

I thought that was a really fun outcome, and she said, “I’m a manager at a local coffee shop, and I realized we didn’t have halal options for Muslim students.” It was this journey of self-discovery. To me, the confidence that I have in being Muslim and the teachings and the capacity is not impinged upon by being present for people of other faiths. I can walk into a space and I have a deep belief that I’m there because of the calling of being a Muslim. It isn’t a threat to me to show up and exhibit rahma or which is compassion. It comes from the root word Rahmah, the same in Hebrew around the idea of the womb to express compassion for others because it isn’t a threat to my own interpretation of who I am. It’s a position of strength. 

[00:40:02] Eboo Patel: Right. Totally. Generosity. 

[00:40:04] Najeeba Syeed: It’s a position of strength and not a position of deficiency. That to me is a spiritual lesson that interfaith can bring to so many of the dialogues that we’re trying to have on our campus, is that maybe the position of strength is actually doing this humble listening. The position of strength doesn’t mean that we move to a diluted, common understanding of the world where we all accept one interpretation, a universal theology, or one diluted version. 

Maybe the strength is that we listen to each other. In doing so, it doesn’t just reconnect us with our own origins, but it allows us to display the confidence that comes out of questioning yourself, questioning each other. One of the things that was fascinating to me about teaching at a Christian institution is that it was often, it was evangelical Christians that came to me and would want to speak to me. After a while, I was like, “What’s going on here, guys?” They said, “Well, the fact that you are– we love that you’d publicly display your faith. You walk into a room with hijab and you don’t apologize about it.” 

People have told me so many times that I wouldn’t get a job after 9/11. I was told after law school, remove the hijab so you’ll get a job. I was able to find positions, but evangelical students learned from that. I learned from evangelical students, they were like very comfortable talking about God. They were like, “And today we’re going to be talking about God, blah, blah, blah.” 

[00:41:35] Eboo Patel: It’s like Muslims. It’s their version of everything is, mashallah and inshallah. You can’t talk to a Muslim for five minutes without hearing that. There’s an evangelical version of that. 

[00:41:45] Najeeba Syeed: Exactly. 

[00:41:46] Eboo Patel: Hi, Najeeba, last question. 

[00:41:48] Najeeba Syeed: Yes. 

[00:41:48] Eboo Patel: I feel like a very important conversation approach or quality is to be able to have a disagreement on politics without insulting somebody else’s identity. In fact, holding somebody else’s identity in reverence and yet disagreeing on what a government is doing or how a government should be shaped, et cetera. How do we do that? 

[00:42:18] Najeeba Syeed: Is that not the foundation of democracy? 

[00:42:20] Najeeba Syeed: I think it is. I totally think it is. 

[00:42:23] Eboo Patel: I was like, wait, why would I want to be in a society where everyone– as we talked about, God could have made us all the same. First of all, it would be really boring if we all had the same political view. It’s also politics in many ways is a manifestation of our ethics and how we want to see the world. That practical articulation of our ethics, if it doesn’t make room for dissent from it, then it becomes in many ways an authoritarian perspective. I’m really concerned about the fragility of democracy, whether it’s in our country or across the world, in which there isn’t an ability to functionally operate. 

Here’s the law background that we have to be able to operate in a way that there is space for a multiplicity of views. That to me is a functional democracy, but it also means that we are able to not have a crisis of my own identity when I meet someone who has a different viewpoint to my own. I share that because if one maintains their identity only in opposition to someone else– in the work that I’ve done in conflicts around the world, sometimes I meet people and their identities. I’ll ask them, “Well, who are you?” They can tell me who they are not in opposition to a list of [unintelligible 00:43:51]. Right? 

[00:43:53] Eboo Patel: Yes. 

[00:43:53] Najeeba Syeed: Understandably, I’ve gone into situations where people talk about a conflict that– something that happened hundreds of years ago, and they’re deeply embedded in that identity. I understand the histories that come with that. I’m just concerned that there have to be modalities in which we think about identity that are not just in opposition to a set of phenomenon or whatever surrounds us. 

I often think about it when I work with my students. “What do you stand for? What are you working towards? What is your role? What is the role of people around you as well?” We talk about it a lot in our work as procedural justice, not outcome justice, meaning the outcome of it. If you try to achieve justice with procedures that are not open to multiplicity of ideas, two things people want in most processes, they want to be heard and they want to participate. They actually don’t care much about the outcome. 

I emphasize this again and again, with whatever conflict that I’m working on is, “What are the procedures of justice here? What are the ways in which we are building voices and space for voices that agree and space for voices that dissent? What are the costs for the dissenting voices?” If the cost is non-existence, then that really concerns me because that means then the outcome of that process is not going to be one that’s sustainable or durable. 

[00:45:28] Eboo Patel: Najeeba Syeed, wise Muslim Mama, legal theorist, theologian, treasured American. Thank you. Thank you for your friendship. Thank you for this time of this podcast. 

[00:45:40] Najeeba Syeed: Thank you. 

[00:45:40] Eboo Patel: I will look forward to our continued conversation for days, months, years, decades to come. Inshallah. As I reflect upon this conversation with Najeeba, there are so many places that my own mind and heart are going. There are questions that I’m asking myself that I want to ask you, what is your theology or ethic of interfaith cooperation or peacebuilding? What is it from your own tradition, whether that’s the Zoroastrian tradition or whether that’s being a secular humanist? What is it that would inspire, indeed, call and command you to extend welcome and safety to a community that is not your own and that yet is suffering? 

What would it look like if you were in conflict with certain elements of that community? Could you still extend warmth and welcome and safety? What gives Najeeba the courage and strength to do that? Do you have that courage and strength in your own life? In your own tradition? If you were a teacher or a mediator, what lessons could you take from Najeeba in creating a classroom environment in which students felt like they could break the norms of conflict and begin new norms of welcome and inclusivity? 

If you were a mediator, how would you ask the question to two sides in conflict? Are you in each other’s future? If so, let’s begin building a better future for all of us today. Thank you for listening to the Interfaith America with Eboo Patel podcast. Let us know your thoughts in the comments or wherever you live on social media. You can always find us on Twitter @InterfaithUSA and Instagram @InterfaithAmerica. To read more about this conversation and to find resources and stories about bridge building and our religiously diverse nation, visit our website, I’m Eboo Patel.  

Intro/outro music provided by Mysterylab Music and composed by Mott Jordan.

Credit music provided by Die Hard Productions.

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