FAITH AND COMMUNITY, 2007-2009
ITD conducted two projects under this theme, one for the Balkans and one for the Philippines, with the goal to develop sustained, international, and inter-institutional dialogues on the practice of Islam in open and diverse democratic societies. The projects introduced foreign and American participants to the practice of Islam in one another's countries, fostered friendships and mutual understanding between Muslims and peoples of other faiths, and resulted in projects that promote peace among different peoples.
Groups of twelve Muslim participants were selected from each foreign region. The Balkan delegation was drawn from Kosovo and Macedonia. The Philippines project focused on the southern island of Mindanao, where the Filipino Muslim population is concentrated. Participants included religious and community leaders, men and women. The groups took part in three-week US programs in 2008. Programs offered a diversity of sessions, from classroom lectures on the separation of church and state, to meeting Muslim, Christian, and Jewish congregations, to taking part in training in interfaith dialogue, to visiting prestigious US university museum collections and archives. The groups developed a substantial understanding of how Muslims live and practice Islam in the United States, and how members of different religions come together to support and befriend one another with no attempt at conversion.
The programs were based in Amherst, Massachusetts, with study tour components bringing them to New York City, Chicago, and Washington, DC. Program high points were the hands-on training sessions in Amherst and Chicago, stories of interfaith cooperation, hearing Muslim-Americans attest to their freedom to practice Islam, the serious and accomplished study of Islam at institutions of higher education, and the warm reception by Americans that they received everywhere they went.
While in the US, Filipino and Balkan participants also began developing action plans aimed at improving interfaith relations in their communities. These plans were completed and then implemented on their return home.
Two-week exchange programs were conducted several months after each US program. US delegations were comprised of scholars, imams and chaplains, a rabbi, an Islamic archivist, a Christian interfaith dialogue expert, a representative of the Islamic Society of North America, and a peace development trainer. These delegations visited relevant sites in the host countries, took leading roles in conferences planned and implemented by alumni of the US ITD programs, and took part in ITD Alumni Action Plan Workshops.
Funding for these projects was provided by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State. ITD's excellent foreign partner organizations were the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Kosovo, Mr. Qani Nesimi in Macedonia, and the University of Southern Mindanao in the Philippines.
These projects provided an experience of life-long significance for many of the foreign and American participants, as can be seen by the following quotes, taken from evaluations or participant reports.
Balkan participant: “This project made it possible to see how Islam functions in the USA. Before visiting we had not imagined that a country such as USA could have those religious freedoms, but we found that America is a place of immigrants and if there is no tolerance between people, there will be no life. In particular we found that knowledge on real Islam is broadening every day among the American people.”
Balkan participant: “An excellent program. I will not forget it all my life.”
Balkan participant: “We saw [in the US] a very organized religious life of Muslims and without any political interference in the religious life of any religions. We learned to love and how to respect all regardless the religion or ethnicity which separate people. We learned how to get together and work together, so we got interesting experiences from which we learned how we can all contribute something in society and that we are all part of society regardless the race differences or our beliefs. To have understanding for all of us and to respect anyone we meet, we learned this best by seeing how everybody greeted us everywhere we went even though we were different in a lot of things, and it was being human what united us. We learned about a tolerance which exists in USA which is not seen elsewhere.”
Filipino participant: "Meeting many Muslims in the US helped us to deal with the fear we have with our Muslim identity. We learned how different communities - Muslims, Christians and Jews - are maintaining a harmonious relationship.
We visit first time in our life a synagogue, we were allowed to see the holy Torah… just to see how it look like was important. I never entered a church in my life in Mindanao. In the US I visited churches, they are welcoming. We also made linkages with other organizations. Now we can send email to them. This is a good program."
Filipino participant: "As an imam from the Philippines it was very good for me to learn about the good dynamics that exist among different religious faiths in America. I met people from Christian and Jewish communities and I learned that they are good people and I learned to respect them."
Filipino participant: I was very happy to see a madrasah-like school in America for Muslim children. They are allowed to study Islam. They are allowed to learn Salah, Odhu and other things Muslims need to learn. In the Muslim school they accept pupils from other religions. I saw these good things, brought back good memories, then I shared them with my community.
Filipino participant: "In America I noticed that people are not hiding their religious identity. That tells us that they have religious freedom. In Hartford Seminary I noticed that Muslim and Christian students are living in harmony. Their library resources are amazingly rich. There are a lot of resources about Islam. I did not see anyone afraid of their Muslim identity."
U.S. participant to the Balkans: “There is no doubt, my recent travel to the Balkans as part of the US state department's “Faith and Community Project” has been one of the most intellectually and spiritually rewarding and enriching trips that I have ever had so far…
I will definitely use what I have learned through this trip in my classes at Hartford Seminary and my lectures and teachings at various other educational institutions in the US. I will encourage my students and colleagues to pay more attention to the rich history of Islam and Muslims in Balkans.”
U.S. participant to the Balkans: “When I met the ITD alumni at the workshop, I followed their comments, and understood that the goal of this project was successfully achieved. Everybody at the workshop gave very positive impressions. It was good that they were able to observe the American situation of Muslims in the USA. They learned about the freedom of religion in the US. Also, they became aware of the way communities with different backgrounds are co-existing peacefully. ITD alumni were impressed by the way Muslim women behave and have freedom in the US. Especially, ITD female alumni appear to become very confident, and now they are raising their voices. I think there will be changes of their behaviors in long run. They are very much used to live in a family with a male as a family head. Now, they observed the different patterns of Muslim women's lives in the US. I think these women will now take part in public activities.
In my jamat I will give a speech. I will invite people from my community and others who are interested. So that they could learn about the diversity exist among Muslims in the Balkans. I will talk about how to maintain traditional identity and accept modernity at the same time. My message is: be a mainstream Muslim but be also aware of the diversity around you.”
U.S. participant to the Philippines: "When I was first asked to meet the delegation of Muslims from the Philippines who came to the United States last November, it did not occur to me that I might actually travel to the other side of the world to visit the Philippines and have an opportunity to meet and interact with some of their professors, scholars, community leaders and politicians. I met the delegation during their visit to New York and expounded on some of the challenges and opportunities faced by Muslims in the American legal system. I was instantly struck by how attentive they were to my presentation, taking notes and asking poignant questions. After that meeting, I hoped I would be given the opportunity to meet with them again. I had not imagined that not only would I have the opportunity to visit the Philippines, but that I would be honored to speak at the International Interfaith Conference at the University of Southern Mindanao. I was asked to speak about the Muslim experience in the United States, including the history, challenges and opportunities that they face as a minority community."
U.S. participant to the Philippines: "When I was initially approached to be a part of ITD's seven-person delegation to the Philippines I internally leaped at the idea. A trip half way around the world to enter into meaningful dialogue about humanity, life and faith seemed to be much too good to be true. But it proved to be what it indeed was, a wonderful gift to me: a unique opportunity that showed itself to be extremely meaningful, satisfying and enjoyable. I was most grateful for this privilege to represent my country and my congregation, Grace Evangelical Covenant Church, on this journey of a lifetime. As I look back on the trip, there are two major arenas that I think about and share with others. One was the makeup and nature of the delegation itself, and the other being the contexts and conversations we had while in the Philippines, and most particularly in Mindanao."