“Jews endured the Holocaust, so we understand what it means to be oppressed because of our religion,” said Cheryl Qamar of the Hudson Valley chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). When group members contacted local mosques to ask how they could help address Islamophobia, the response was “Educate yourselves about Islam and the Muslim experience in the US.”
The result is a panel discussion by four Muslim women at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Catskills in Kingston on Saturday, May 4, 1:30 p.m.-4 p.m. The panelists are all New York State residents working on social justice issues, providing a unique opportunity to learn about Muslim experiences through a female lens.
JVP is a national organization founded in 1996 to “change US policy and shift US discourse…to create the political conditions that will allow Israelis and Palestinians to achieve a just and lasting peace,” according to the group’s website. This goal includes opposing anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim, and anti-Arab bigotry and oppression.
The panel will be moderated by Susan Smith, a long-time member of JVP who is a Muslim. She said JVP members of various faith traditions draw on core values they hold in common. “They all teach practices of compassion, love, mercy, charity, and good will toward others.”
When asked about the hostility of Jews in Israel toward Palestinian Arabs, Smith replied, “Many of us see that as a part of the politics, which do not represent Judaism as practiced by the prophets, a beautiful, peaceful religion of God. The panel will give the public the opportunity to see we are people just like them, with basic human needs — to have a roof over our heads, feed our kids, send them to school, improve our lives, live in society in peace and happiness, and do good work. The vision of peace is also something we share, contrary to politics.”
Qamar, an Arab-American, said, “I feel it’s important that we come together to fight for justice and dignity and peace.”
“If you count the number of times Islam or Muslims are mentioned in the media,” said Smith, “almost 99 percent of the time, it’s in association with a negative story. The media is influenced by politics. It sends the message that Muslims are violent. In fact, most of us are peaceful, law-abiding people, who work hard and contribute to the welfare of society.”
Smith believes a big part of the problem is that weapons manufacturers require war to provide a market for their trillions of dollars of armaments. “The war economy and the oil economy are two things that guide our politicians to demonize the Muslim community so we can make war on Muslim countries and have it be acceptable to Americans.”
Bringing together a panel of women provides an opportunity to counter the common perception of Islam as inherently anti-female, or that Muslim women are oppressed. Qamar described the panelists as “strong, vibrant, eloquent women.”
Ramatu Ahmed came to the U.S. as a refugee from Ghana in the 1990s, arriving with only the clothes on her back. “As a single black Muslim woman,” explained Smith, “she did so much work putting together programs for women’s literacy, setting up support networks, confronting domestic violence.” Ahmed is now the Executive Director for the African Life Center in the Bronx. As a leader in New York City’s Ghanaian community, she is passionate about promoting the need for higher education for girls and adult women.
Ahed Festuk, an asylum seeker from Syria, lived in war-torn Aleppo for five years, confronting abuses of the regime, having brushes with Al Qaeda, serving as a medic, and operating a truck distribution system to deliver food and supplies in areas devastated by combat. She currently works for the Multi-Faith Alliance for Syrian Refugees in New York City. A consultant to the State Department, she has spoken at the United Nations on issues including women’s rights.
Jabin Ahmed is a young Bengali woman who grew up in the Hudson Valley and speaks vividly about the challenges she has faced from Islamophobia while growing up in the post-911 world. She has also struggled within her own community while trying to push back and educate against sexism, with people who are more rigid in the application of their faith. Now based in Hudson, she is a writer, artist, activist, and creator who uses her life experiences as a brown Muslim, second-generation American woman, to create change through media and movements.
Smith converted to Islam 30 years ago, after studying at Tel Aviv University on a junior year abroad program. She wanted to be a journalist and cover the Middle East, hoping to contribute to the peace process. “I was a Christian at the time, and many of the students in my dorm were Palestinians. I quickly found friends, and as six months unfolded, I came to see Jerusalem was a holy place for all three faiths, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. In this holy place, I felt God was so close and could be tapped into.” As a spiritual person, she saw Islam as adding to and complementing her Christian faith. With the Virgin Mary recognized as a role model in Islam, she found inspiration to wear the head covering as symbol of modesty and piety.
Formerly employed at the UN, Smith now directs operations for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, serves as Community Liaison for the Muslim Peace Fellowship, and is a member of the Community of Living Traditions, Stony Point Center, an interfaith residential community.
“Twenty-four percent of the world’s population is Muslim,” said Qamar. “It’s the second largest religion in the world, and the most maligned and misunderstood major religion. Islamophobia is having far-ranging effects on interpersonal and international relations. We have to take steps toward understanding. Otherwise peace is not possible.”
Jewish Voice for Peace presents “We All Belong Here: Hearing the Voices of Muslim Women” on Saturday, May 4, 1:30-4:00 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Catskills, 320 Sawkill Road, Kingston. Admission is free. For more information on JVP, see https://jewishvoiceforpeace.org.