I must admit that it is unusual for a Muslim woman to speak at a synagogue; hence no wonder that many people would want to know more about such a story. But for me, the invitation by Congregation Beth El earlier this month to speak to one of their groups about women in Islam came as no surprise.
I have met many members of Congregation Beth El in Fort Worth, Texas over the past few years, mainly through my participation in interfaith dialogue events. For many Jews, it was their first time meeting a Muslim woman and hearing her speak! Through our dialogues, I have expressed my opinions and beliefs in the Muslim tradition, and I must have attracted some attention whenever I addressed the issue of women in Islam.
When the congregation announced in one of its newsletters that a Muslim woman was going to be the guest speaker during their monthly meeting, I received a call from a journalist who requested a radio interview. He asked, “why would a synagogue invite a Muslim woman to speak?” I responded, “why not?”
Those who are engaged in interfaith dialogue are used to opening channels of communication with other faith traditions. It becomes second nature to them. Interfaith dialogue erases the obstacles to human communications and puts a human face on the members of the other faith. One sees the humanity of the other when engaged in such dialogues. Even though there are many differences between faith traditions, the commonalities unite us around the dialogue table and build a bridge of understanding and compassion.
I wish there were more Muslims engaged in interfaith relations. It seems to me that many American Muslims choose to remain in their own bubbles rather that unite with members of other traditions. They may do that because of fear of losing their tradition. Yet, by overprotecting one’s heritage, one risks living in isolation from the larger community. The larger community of the American public has a lot of potential for healthy social relations. All we, as American Muslims, need to do, is reach out. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to start a channel of communication: it starts with joining an interfaith group, or voicing opinions during lectures and meetings or on radio shows. It starts by initiating open houses inside our mosques, inviting non-Muslims to meet us and get to know us. It takes some courage, but it gets easier with practice.
It took me many years to be comfortable sharing my stories. But I never lied about anything, even the things that embarrass me about my faith tradition. I guess this is why people want to hear my narrative. I told Congregation Beth El, as I told the Broadway Church congregation a month earlier, that Islam is a feminist religion that liberates women. Despite the shocked and rolled up eyes, I continued my presentation with a historical analysis of how Islam gave women rights in the seventh century when other communities and cultures deprived them of every essential right. I reminded my audience that we need to put things into a historical context and not judge women in Islam according to our 21st century lenses. Even with this historical context, I had an argument favoring the liberal character of Islam that liberated women and gave them voting rights for example, many centuries before the American woman was granted the same right. I also reminded them that religion and culture are two different things, and many times culture overrides religion. This is exactly why women are being oppressed in lands where Muslims live. It is not because Islam oppresses women; it is because men in those cultures do.
After I delivered my presentation, a newspaper reported on it. The journalist brought up the fact that the audience was larger than usual and that I had interesting ideas to share. However, she said that despite this rhetoric Muslim women in many places are still oppressed. I never denied this fact! But it is my hope that through dialogs and discussions, more people will come to realize that Islam the faith is just a victim of representation and interpretation. And that is what interfaith is all about: to be honest about our beliefs and to admit that something is wrong within our own traditions. Perhaps the practices of those of the other faith can guide us to rescue our own religion from the misinterpretations our people had covered it with.