“Cultural Thursday” with Israa Safieddine
A glimpse of Muslim religion and culture. The importance of interreligious dialogue.
Thursday evenings are special at Sophia. Dedicated to the expression and celebration of richness of cultural diversity and uniqueness of tradition and thought, these evenings are a testimony to unity and fraternity. The “Cultural Thursday” of 9th November was no different. Israa Safieddine, a young Muslim (Shia) scholar, offered a glimpse of her religion and culture. Born and raised in the United States of America to a Lebanese family, Israa is engaged in various projects related to interfaith dialogue.
She is one of the key figures of ‘Wings of Unity’, an initiative on interfaith dialogue, research, and formation between Sophia and the Islamic Center of London, which is one of the many reasons that inspired her to spend a few months in Sophia. As the evening unfolded, she responded to questions regarding her experience at Sophia and her life as a young Muslim woman. Below are a few extracts from the presentation.
Israa, so far, how has it been living in Sophia?
It has been a very smooth process for me. I consider my roommates to be like my real sisters. I’ve done some interfaith dialogue in the past, but it’s usually more formal. When you meet short-term, everyone tries to give a good impression, everyone is on their best behavior, and they all feel inspired and positive. But here at Sophia it’s a very different experience because there are numerous exchanges and you’re dealing with the day-to-day, regular, mundane matters and there’s a point where you have to be yourself. Maybe in the past I would have thought that if I were to room with a Muslim then of course there would be a much stronger connection than there might be with a Christian, just by virtue of having that in common. And I found that not to be the case. I think that when people come together with devotion to God, God’s presence is more strongly felt; He brings the hearts together and magnifies our commonalities. When I say that I’ve met new brothers and sisters, it’s not that I have to struggle and do a lot of contemplation to come to this realization. In fact, it’s the opposite; it would be a challenge not to make room in my heart for others with whom I’ve shared a special connection in God.
What do you think about people who carry out acts of terrorism in the name of Islam?
There are many things that have been misused time and time again throughout the course of history, whether it’s the misuse of something sacred, religion, science, technology, etc. There have been studies done on terrorist acts that are instructive. As an example, Dr. Robert Pape of the University of Chicago, who is a leading expert on terrorism, studied hundreds of cases of suicide attacks that were carried out within a certain timeframe. He concluded that the vast majority of these attacks had no connection with any of the world’s major religions. Many of these violent acts are very much motivated by politics and power, and we see that historically as well. If we think about terrorism in general, there are some people who are very quick to attack Islam and to say that Islam is actually the root cause of these terrorist attacks. But if Islam or even Islamic scripture was promoting this kind of behavior, then it’s strange that the vast majority of us are not doing it. And I think one of the things that we tend to forget is that the vast majority of the victims of ISIS are Muslim. According to a report by the United States National Counter-terrorism Center in 2011, 82% to 95% of the victims of these kinds of attacks within a span of five years were Muslim. When I go to Lebanon I have to worry about being the victim, and then when I go back to the United States, I have to worry about somehow apologizing or somehow condemning an act that has nothing to do with Islam whatsoever. According to their (ISIS) understanding, if a person kills a Shia, they get to go straight to Heaven. I don’t think you can think of one group in the world that has really been safe from these people, whether it’s children or adults, females or males, Muslims or non-Muslims, even in Ramadan. Even mosques were bombed. Priests, scholars, imams–you name it. Everyone has been victimized by these people. So I think it’s very much a human problem as opposed to being a problem of the Islamic faith.
How do you see the importance of interreligious dialogue?
I think that we’ve reached a point where we cannot afford to remain secluded in our own faith communities. It’s necessary to seek God’s guidance together and to collaborate together. In this way, we can better reflect God’s glory and light. We’ve wasted too much energy on trying to falsify one another’s traditions and not enough time planning together and deepening our unity in God. We are on the same team and we need to work together to promote God and to promote divine values. A place like Sophia has a very important role to play in spreading this message. I think that because of the reality of the world today, many people are finally beginning to realize what Chiara was trying to say decades ago. She was far ahead of her time.
As the evening came to an end, Israa thanked everyone and prayed that the bond between Muslims and Christians continues to grow. She will be staying in Sophia until the end of December and we hope that this experience will open the door for many more Muslim students and scholars to visit and experience the life of Sophia and build reciprocal relationships.