The Faith to Change Beliefs
January 6, 2021
Our perceptions are shaped by social consciousness, but it takes a personal decision to shift our perspective. In the past four years, I’ve had a growing concern about the lack of tolerance, and above that understanding, of ‘the other’ that has become increasingly apparent in our country. I’ve watched as religion is weaponized more and more, and seen less and less of the principles of love and learning central to my religious tradition, Judaism, as well as Islam and many other faiths. And yet, before I was a part of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, an organization that aims to “build trust, respect, and relationships between Muslim and Jewish women and teenage girls”, discussion of Islam as a concept and Muslims as people was a tentative experience for me. I spend a lot of my time in pretty progressive circles, where a desire not to offend can cloud the opportunity for growth. In these settings, the words “Islam” and “Muslim” began to feel like slurs in and of themselves, taboo words that, if said at all, were meant to be murmured, swallowed. Despite my textbook democratic verbal crusades praising diversity and equality, when I saw women wearing head scarfs, or men speaking in Arabic, I heard the nagging voice of xenophobia and fear that has plagued the American psyche since September 11, 2001. I was ashamed of these thoughts, but in my ignorance, I had no alternative to trepidation, no personal connection to dispel the myths.
I first came across the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom online, and was immediately drawn to its guiding practices; dialogue to cultivate trust, shared experiences to foster relationships, and collective action to nurture change. I reached out to the youth director of the organization, excited to join the nearest teen chapter of the Sisterhood, and soon learned that there wasn’t one. I could start a chapter, though, she offered. While that seemed a somewhat daunting task, the process of building the chapter, and the conversations that I’ve had along the way, have been truly meaningful. Early in the building of our chapter, my Muslim co-leader Biruni and I, joined by our mothers, visited a masjid to present our organization to a youth group of high school girls. I’d had the opportunity to visit Muslim houses of worship a couple of times before, one of which included an awkward incident where I sat on the male side of the prayer hall, but my mother had never been to a masjid. After our presentation, the Sister leading the youth group invited us to stay and sit at the back of the women’s section for the isha prayer. As women filed out of the mosque following prayer, little girls running playfully together and their mothers waving good-byes, my mother and I, along with Biruni and her mother, sat with a couple of Muslim sisters and traded values, stories, and practices from our faiths. The conversation was careful, but beneath it ran a growing connection and awe that both my mother and the Muslim women had never been to each others’s houses of worship, and how there were differences, but also such noticeable similarities, in our faiths. It was a powerful way to begin our chapter, and such dialogues have only deepened and continued as we began our meetings with Jewish and Muslim teen girls.
As we go into 2021, we enter an era in which our nation’s leadership has promised to spur connection instead of division. While I’m grateful for this shift, I’m wary of the tactile fear and hatred towards ‘the other’ that remains in our society. Between the Muslim and Jewish communities, there is an age-old divide made of mutual distrust. It shows up as violence on an international stage and pointed avoidance within closer communities. As we looked for Jewish and Muslim sisters to join our chapter, my faith partner and I reached out to various masjids and synagogues; Islamic schools and Jewish day schools; youth groups, and other interfaith organizations. We received messages from both faiths that welcomed our cause, erupting in praise for the project, and sharing personal interfaith experiences. Equally, though, we sent many flyers and emails that went unrecognized and ignored, or were earnestly declined with notes such as “our board members feel this may be offensive to parents and are not comfortable with sharing this flyer.” What I’ve learned from these exchanges, and what the Sisterhood has to teach as we go into this new year, is that the willingness to feel and share the discomfort and awkwardness of ignorance can lead to a deeper connection. The Sisterhood teaches that while it takes courage to confidently speak about and use the vernacular of a community other than one’s own, it is gravely important to push past the fear of being offensive and instead dive into dialogue.
As a result of my work with the Sisterhood, and my growing familiarity with the Muslim community, my personal connection, and perception of Islam has certainly shifted. Today when I see hijabis, I am filled with warmth, connection, and an overwhelming desire to protect. Seeing a small group of hijabi women laughing together the other day, I wanted to say, I see you! I am not afraid of you; I see your beautiful tradition, I honor you, and I want to stand with you against those that don’t see the beauty in your faith and your bravery in upholding it so visibly. Perhaps most poignantly as we move into this new year, the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom shows that there is strength in having the vulnerability to share our preconceived notions and humility in being willing to have our perception shifted.
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