Interfaith at the White House

The president of the United States hosted a number of academics and faith leaders recently, with an emphasis on addressing global conflicts through interfaith dialogue. Dr. Amineh Hoti describes the proceedings at the White House

Interfaith at the White House
As I entered the White House what struck me about perhaps one of the most important residences in the world is its modest scale - despite the wealth of America as a country. Rulers of poorer countries like ours would do better if they spent on the development of the country and education of its people and not on themselves. Perhaps they ought to remember Kennedy’s famous words, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

As an educationist, I was one of four people invited from Pakistan to the US President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. In total, 500 other people were invited. This was an exciting time to be in Washington DC as two more exemplary world leaders were also scheduled to visit the White House and meet with President Obama: the dynamic Chinese president Xi Jinping and the popular Pope Francis. Both leaders came with important but different messages of peace between civilisations.
One male attendee seemed focused on enforcing his version of female modesty amongst his co-religionists

Against this background there was also the big challenge of events in the Muslim world. Clandestine foreign interference, wars and violence forced even well-off people to become homeless migrants. With their own countries in turmoil, the migrants are dashing desperately into Europe. Some are accepted empathetically, others rejected violently. The scenes of mothers and fathers on TV with little children being torn apart by inhuman laws were heart-breaking. One European camerawoman was shockingly caught on video kicking a child from Syria as she entered the borders of Hungary with her father. On American television, shallow candidates such as Donald Trump (with a lot of money but little intellect) stand for election as president. They have openly and ignorantly talked about Islam as “the enemy”. Muslims were the subject of an unsavoury variety of Islamophobic attacks. The media, loving the sensationalism, inflamed the problem. As a result, there were also many reports of mosques vandalised and women in hijab being increasingly attacked and assaulted. I thought to myself: there will be a lot of challenges ahead of us and we will need to find answers within our own traditions. And as a global citizen, I thought that it is vital for us as a world civilisation to find multilateral solutions to our common problems.

The conference I was attending at the White House also reflected a desire to create a more peaceful world. After a long journey from Pakistan, I joined an impressive number of religious scholars from various faiths – as well as leaders and heads of universities from around the world. The three-day event in September 2015 was mainly organised with an excellent team of government and university partners, including Melody Fox Ahmed (an American married to a Pakistani Muslim) who works as Assistant Director at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University – one of the top universities of America. The other key organisers and partners were President Obama’s team at the White House, the Department of Education, the International Shinto Foundation and Howard University. the oldest African-American University.

At Georgetown University in the historic Riggs library - with Father Frazer from India and Professor Akinade from Georgetown University in Doha - Ken Bedell of the Department of Education asked me to start the panel discussion. I emphasised that the world is in flames, the problem is global, and we need to work hard to put out the flames through sustained, effortful and united work in inter- and intra-faith education. We must do this by learning about our own rich history of coexistence and emphasising this as opposed to differences.

Scholars and heads of universities from all over the world attended the event
Scholars and heads of universities from all over the world attended the event

Two other functions were held at the White House. The excitement of entering the White House for us participants was dulled by its high level of security: the long line of participants from different countries with their various national clothes looked like, as one observer pointed out, “a rainbow of diversity”. People were mingling together: some in Pakistani shalwar kameez, others in orange Buddhist and Hindu religious garb; and yet others in formal Western clothes. Each participant had to show their identity twice, moving from iron doors to entrance points where, alone, each one of us was made to stand still. Behind low shutters a few inches away was a fierce-looking Alsatian dog to clear us. In front of me, a very large security guard stood with his gaze fixed. It was a tense moment. Disgruntled participants were charmed by small, smart packets on their seats, containing welcoming Hershey’s Kiss chocolates that bore the seal and signature of the President of the United States of America. At night a lavish sumptuous dinner for the conference participants at the Turkish embassy in Washington DC reflected Eastern warmth and hospitality.

Some of the key ideas that were conveyed during the three days were that ‘interfaith’ is a concept in which people of each faith or community begin to learn to respect “the Other” – the religious other, the ethnic other and the gendered other. We accept difference and see diversity as a strength and not an adversity. We respectfully allow for expressions of faith, see the ethnic other as a brother or sister and understand that women are complete individuals in their own right. Speakers at the conference mentioned how important not just interfaith dialogue is (i.e. dialogue between people of different faiths and cultures) but also intra-faith dialogue (which refers to people amongst our own faith community who hold different perspectives).

Although we all outwardly agreed that interfaith dialogue is an ideal and a norm we should all hold to, even some “experts” displayed biases and prejudices.  One panelist on a diverse interfaith panel argued that his persecuted minority community shoulders all the responsibility for dialogue and improving relations with the majority faith community – an opinion others disagreed with. There are many in all communities who work hard to build peace and also those who destroy it within seconds. In another incident, I heard that one male attendee seemed to be only focused on enforcing his version of female modesty amongst his co-religionists. Even those who agree to participate in dialogue conferences have much to learn about how to see and interact with “the Other”.

After the conference, I was invited to teach two university classes at the American University in DC. One was on women in Islam at Professor Akbar Ahmed’s World of Islam class, with the Pakistani ambassador’s wife, Begum Shaista Jilani. And the other class was with Professor Brams on Eid day - covering inter-cultural communication - in which we showed our film, Journey into Europe. The film ends with a message from the Pope of reaching out to Muslims in an embrace, as Muslims do during Eid. Articulating one’s own perspective while embracing “the Other” is the message of hope in times of desperation. Despite the challenges that lie ahead, the lesson we took away is of showing the courage to understand, reach out and help the other in order to build the foundations of a more cohesive, peaceful world.

Dr. Amineh Hoti is the Executive Director at Markaz-e-Ilm, Centre for Dialogue and Action. She is based in Islamabad