The 44th Annual Convocation of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) meeting at Chicago over the Labor Day weekend, honored me with the Interfaith Unity Award at the Interfaith Unity reception on Sunday, September 2. As she presented the award, Dr. Ingrid Mattson, president of ISNA spoke of NCC's commitment to stand in partnership and solidarity with the Muslim community through some of the most difficult times of discrimination and prejudice they've faced, particularly since 9/11. Click here for the NCC press release
Dr. Ingrid Mattson, President of ISNA presenting the Interfaith Unity Award
The citation on the glass plaque reads:
"Islamic Society of North America presents Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana, a fellow activist for peace, justice and reconciliation, a "Christian believer" as described in Qur'an (3:113) in recognition of his tireless contribution to advancing inter-religious dialogue and partnership, with our prayers for a continued demonstration of energy, understanding and commitment."
The keynote speaker at the event was the Hon. Ibrahim Rasool, Provincial Premier or Western Cape in South Africa. Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus, Vice President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and I responded. Here are my remarks:
ISNA Unity Reception – September 2, 2007
My sisters and brothers of faith – greetings of peace, assalamu aleikum.
As I noted earlier in this convention, these are the same words my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ used to greet his disciples shortly after his resurrection – peace be upon you. You didn’t know it, did you? Lots of Christians don’t know it either. Indeed there is much that Christians and Muslims don’t know about each other. Fact is, we have a great deal more in common in our religious traditions than our differences. No, we don’t need to hide our differences. They are real and we must honestly deal with them. But we have more in common.
When I greet you as sisters and brothers of faith, I must tell you, there are some Christians who object. How can I speak of non-Christians as sisters and brothers, they ask. For one very simple reason, I say. Jesus called them sisters and brothers. Its in the book! See, Jesus was out teaching and preaching, forgiving and healing, restoring people to God and to relationships with each other. His mother and brothers got so worried about him that they came looking for him. Some of his people came to Jesus and said, Rabbi (he was a rabbi, you know!) your mother and brothers are looking for you. And Jesus said something very incredulous. Pointing the people around him, he said, “Here are my mother and brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother, sister and mother.”
Whoever does the will of God? My reading of the Bible makes it clear that the will of God that he is talking about is the restoring of creation into right relationship. This what the early Jewish tradition established as the Jubilee, which Jesus said he came to proclaim. Everywhere you look in the Bible, its talking about restoring relationships: of human beings with God, human beings with each other and human beings with the world. You in this room, whatever your religious tradition, are working very hard to restore these relationships. You are doing the will of God. You are the ones upholding faith and serving humanity. You are my sisters and brothers.
There are others who try to do the very opposite. They try to create the sharpest of divisions among human beings. I want to draw your attention to two situations.
In April of this year, the far right wing advocacy organization Institute of Religion and Democracy, IRD sent a book, Islamic Imperialism, by Efraim Karsh as a gift to 100,000 churches around the country. They probably spent at least $ 1.7 million on that project. An anonymous donor wanted them to educate the churches, they said.
I read that book as soon as I could get my hands on a copy. Despite it being published by Yale University Press, the book has only a thin veneer of academic scholarship. Its purpose is not to educate but to persuade towards a right-wing ideology. It does not seek to restore relationships as the Bible teaches, but to destroy relationships by fear-mongering. It tries to portray Islam as unique among religions in supporting imperial ambitions. This distorted view of history dismisses Christian support of imperialism in one sentence. It is an unfortunate truth: all our religious traditions have legitimized imperialism and supported military adventures. In this Islam is not unique.
Those who promote fear mongering ideologies that strengthen divisions in human relationships, I am convinced, are not doing the will of God. Some of them bear the name Christian. But I must tell you, I have a hard time even thinking them as sisters and brothers. But you, who are Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and others who work so hard to create and restore human relationships, are doing the will of God. You are my sisters and brothers.
One more example. In February this year, I was a member of a Christian delegation that visited Iran. We met with many religious leaders, among them several senior Ayatollahs, both in Tehran and in the sacred city of Qom, and we met with president Ahmadinejad. We came away with three insights. 1. An assuarance that the nuclear program is only for energy purposes and not for weapons, since nuclear weapons are prohibited by fatwa by the supreme leader as being against Islamic teaching. 2. an affirmation that the only viable option in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a political one, and not a military one. 3. an eagerness to engage the United States government and the people in dialogue. Following our return, we shared this information with key Senators and congresspersons as well as with officials at the State Department.
I believe that the time has come and indeed past, when religious leaders must take very seriously what we have begun to call Faith based diplomacy. These conflicts are too serious to be left to politicians. Many conflicts around the world today have some basis in religion. Many, perhaps most religious leaders today are skilled enough in the methods of dialogue that we can stay at the table, even when the times get tough. Religious leaders have three things going for them that many political leaders do not: 1. a moral high-ground, 2. a large following, 3. the ability to speak with divine authority.
This is particularly important today regarding Iran. Last week the State department refused to grant visas to four out of fourteen Iranian religious leaders who were due to arrive in a return delegation to the US next week, forcing the cancellation of that visit. No reason was given other than “security,” although I believe the reasons are “political.” If diplomatic avenues for avoiding conflict are important, not granting visas to religious and academic leaders shows unusual ineptitude. If avoiding conflict are not important then it makes all the more sense. I have begun to worry that the latter is the case for this reason.
At about the same time that the visas were being denied, our president, speaking to a American Legion National Convention in Reno, on August 28th, had this to say.
The other strain of radicalism in the Middle East is Shia extremism, supported and embodied by the regime that sits in Tehran. Iran has long been a source of trouble in the region. It is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism….
And Iran’s active pursuit of technology that could lead to nuclear weapons threatens to put a region already known for instability and violence under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust. Iran’s actions threaten the security of nations everywhere. And that is why the United States is rallying friends and allies around the world to isolate the regime, to impose economic sanctions. We will confront this danger before it is too late.
We will do well to remember the rhetoric that came out of this White House prior to the attack on Iraq. Remember Colin Powell’s weapon’s laboratories in semi-trailor trucks, and Condaleeza Rice’s smoking gun “mushroom cloud!” And the president says, again, “We will confront this danger before it is too late.” These are fighting words, folks. Does anyone believe that Bush will leave office without a confrontation with Iran? It is time for people of faith to stand up together.
There are many ways to do that, but I don’t have the time to tell you. But here’s one opportunity. On October 8th, you my Muslim brothers and sisters will observe the most sacred night of Ramadan, the night of power. On that day you will not fast alone. Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhist and people of other religious traditions have agreed to fast with you. Under the theme from Conquest to Community, from violence to reverence, and interfaith fast to end the war in Iraq, religious people in small villages and large cities will fast together, hold vigils, teach-ins and other public actions together and come together after sundown to have Iftar with you and break the fast. I want to ask that you help initiate these events in your community, that you open your mosques to interfaith iftar celebrations and welcome your guests. We will instruct them to leave you to your particular prayer that will go late in to the night. But it will be a good beginning for your own observance. Please go to http://www.interfaithfast.org/
Someone said the powers that be have a vested interest in keeping us divided. The more we work together, stand in solidarity together, serve humanity together, the stronger we will be to restore human beings to God, to each other and to creation. That’s God’s will. And those who do it together are indeed my sisters and brothers.
Praise be to God! Hamdulillah!