Unity in Diversity

By Aysha Jamali

This is the second prize winner in the TMO Foundation 2011 Essay Contest.


I often look back at my childhood and note the split in my life, as well as in the lives of so many, made distinct after September 11, 2001. Ever since, I’ve had to answer for what I believe or prove who I was to people who had never focused so intensely on the terms “Muslim” or “Islam.” It was tiring knowing that people were looking at me with preconceived notions, and it was tiring always approaching people with the attitude of clearing misconceptions.

But I accepted it. I accepted that if I wanted people to know my Islam, then I would have to be comfortable answering the endless stream of questions – many bizarre and ignorant, but always important.

Then the American people, both Muslims and others, discovered something. While I was explaining what Islam meant to me, someone else was explaining what Islam meant to them. We began to discuss with each other about what we believed, why we believed and how we applied those beliefs to our lives. Our stories were born.

We were forced to compare our Muslim identities to those who claimed to destroy lives in the name of Islam. I was not like those people. My family was not like those people. My community was not like those people. I knew that. So what were we like?

We were diverse. We were diverse in age, in heritage, in interests; but always unified in faith. At first, this vast and intangible diversity I discovered confused me. I thought it would be easier if all Muslims were the same – one religion meaning one type of follower.

Then I uncovered the deception in that statement. I heard different narrations from Muslims, even those who looked just like me, about what Islam meant to them. The true meaning of diversity came out. It wasn’t limited to speaking global languages or swapping samosa recipes for falafels. It was deeper. It was diversity in experiences; diversity in thought.

So Muslims cannot be seen as one programmed, unchanging group – whether we’re from Indonesia or Palestine, the East Coast or the West Coast. Nor was it ever our purpose to be so. As God says in verse 13 of chapter 49 in the Quran, “Oh mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another …” We were created as different groups not for quarreling but for knowing each other.

I’m only beginning to understand diversity in Islam. We’re all only beginning to understand that. But it’s evident in our discussions that this understanding has begun. Just in January, the Islamic Society of North America held its first Diversity Forum in Michigan. It featured sessions on Shi’a-Sunni relations, immigrant versus indigenous experiences and encouraging an appreciation for diversity under the theme of “Realizing The Dream: Finding Strength Through Diversity.”

This forum seemed to have come ten years too late. I thought about how much discussions like that would have benefited me back in 2001. But it’s important to realize that those struggles my community and I faced then, we are still facing now. We’ve almost been thrust back in time with the recent death of United States “Enemy Number One,” having to answer those same decisive and identity-hinged questions again.

However, it’s not a matter of redefining yourself but of defining yourself. We discover our stories and our paths to this one, unified appreciation and understanding we have of God and His message. It is under this unity that when defining ourselves, we also discover our diversity.


Unity in Diversity

By Aqeela Naqvi

TMO Editor’s Note:  This is the first-place essay, by Aqeela Naqvi.

COLOR Aqeela NaqviThe date is December 5, 2000, my birthday. I walk through the hallways to my third grade classroom, trying not to notice the butterflies in my stomach. People turn to say “Hi” and do a double-take. I walk into my classroom; even my teacher gives me a funny look. “Aqeela?” I look up at her and try to control the nervousness in my voice as I say “Good morning.” Throughout the day, some of my classmates shoot indiscreet glances in my direction, while others stare shamelessly. Today is the first day I began wearing the Hijab, a head-covering that is required to be worn in my religion for all girls at the age of nine. Today, I walked into school with palms sweating, ears burning, and a heartbeat so loud it could be heard a mile away.

It has been nearly nine years since that day – nine years in which I have received stares for looking different, been called “towel-head” and “terrorist,” been judged based on first impressions, and was once, after September 11th, a ten-year old scared to walk out her front door simply because of a cloth on her head. Throughout my life, I had always assumed that prejudice against people of other backgrounds was something that existed in the past: something that had been buried long ago by the dreams of people such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who believed in a day where all people would be judged solely on the content of their character. It was not until I began to wear a hijab, however, and began to experience blatant discrimination, that I realized that the works of past human rights activists had not completely healed the defects in society–they had simply covered its wounds with bandages that were slowly beginning to peel away.

From the day I wrapped a scarf around my head, “diverse” became my middle name. The more I was told that I couldn’t participate in certain activities, the more involved in them I became. I strove to prove that no matter how different I looked, I was still the same as everyone else. I could still participate in athletic activities; I could still be involved in public speaking; I could still perform community service activities; I could still be me. I began to understand that Society was a machine that attempted to create perfect porcelain dolls: the chipped, the flawed, the ones that were the wrong shade or the wrong size, the ones that were different, were all regarded as useless and thrown aside. I understood that I was seen as one of those throwaway dolls, but I refused to let society’s definition of me as such rule my life.

When I first began wearing a hijab, that cold December day in third grade, I did not fully understand its symbolism. I took it simply as something I had to do for my religion. As the years passed, I slowly became involved in my local community, donating my time and energy to volunteer at places such as my local soup kitchen, and getting involved in interfaith dialogue and charitable opportunities, and I began to realize that the hijab I wore on my head was not just a cloth; it was a mark of my strength.

It forced the people I encountered to get to know and understand me on a mental level before they judged me on a physical level. To me, everything that the hijab entails, the long sleeves and pants, the piece of cloth I wrap around my head, the aura of modesty – is all a sign of inner beauty. I have come to believe that all of us, regardless of our race or religion, have our own “hijabs” that set us apart from the crowd. All of us come from different backgrounds and have different experiences that cause the canvas of our lives to hold colors unique from everyone else. We all have a hijab that allows each and every one of us, down to the most fragile and faded porcelain doll, to have something that makes us absolutely and irreplaceably beautiful.


Terrorists Have No Religion: Indian President

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS) India Correspondent

NEW DELHI: The two-day International Conference of Jurists on Terrorism and Rule of Law held in the capital city (November 21-22) strongly indicates that concern of the Indian government about terrorism is certainly not confined to only apprehensions about Pakistan-based elements planning and supporting militant elements here. The conference was inaugurated by President Pratibha Devisingh Patil and the valedictory address was made by Vice-President Hamid Ansari. A brief analysis of the speeches made by Patil and Ansari suggests that the Indian government is concerned about challenges posed by terrorism to peace within the country and the lapses in the system, which have failed to check the threat posed by militant elements. While Patil focused on the former aspect, Ansari emphasized the latter.  Interestingly, neither Patil nor Ansari mentioned Pakistan or linked terrorist attacks the country has faced with any particular religious and/regional group. During her inaugural address, Patil stated: “Ours is a pluralist society. As a vibrant democracy of more than one billion people, India takes pride in its multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious milieu. A democratic ethos infuses the life of the Indian people and the nation. Through respect for plurality and democracy, India celebrates its unity in diversity. We remain firmly committed to democratic governance, the rule of law, respect for human rights and religious freedom.” “As a responsible member of the international community, the conduct of our foreign relations since independence has been to promote peace and development and create a better world, free of terror. We have pledged ourselves to a policy of zero-tolerance towards terrorism, from whatever source it originates, wherever it strikes and whosoever it chooses as target,” Patil emphasized.

Patil asserted that “no idea, no cause whatsoever, can justify terrorism.” “Terrorists belong to no religion for they are not apostles of peace but messengers of death and destruction. We have to be overwhelmingly careful that terrorists do not succeed in their evil designs of sowing seeds of misunderstandings and causing fractures between cultures in the international community,” she said. “Instead, we must steadfastly work towards building bridges of understanding between the different cultures of our planet based on respect for rule of law, the protection of democratic values and strengthening of common institutions,” she pointed out.

Describing terrorism as a “perverse global phenomenon,” Patil said that “the struggle against it must be carried to the world stage.” “Terrorism easily transcends borders and thus becomes a transnational crime. Being a crime against humanity, it ought to be recognized as a common enemy of all nations. A terror threat against one, is a threat against all,” she stated. “It is incumbent on the international community to ensure that there is an effective legal framework for the prevention and elimination of terrorism and to bring to justice the sponsors, abettors and perpetrators of terrorism,” Patil pointed out. Acknowledging that “differing theories and ongoing debates have impeded an internationally acceptable definition of terrorism,” Patil said: “We need fresh ideas and creative thinking to provide a strong edifice to international law and to maximize complementarities amongst nations.” She highlighted the need to “evolve a system of sharing best practices amongst criminal justice practitioners across regions and across legal systems, besides providing for country based capacity building assistance for rounded implementation of international legal instruments against terrorism.” “We must be pro-active, committed and persevering in our actions to combat the global threat of terrorism. We owe this to the people we serve and to our future generations,” she said.

During his address, Ansari voiced his concern on “lapses” in the Indian system leading to its “failure to deliver.”  Elaborating on the recent trends in study of the Rule of Law, Ansari pointed out: “Political scientists have argued that an organic development and entrenchment of Rule of Law in a developing country context requires three essential conditions: (i) certainty, meaning equality before law and absence of arbitrary abuse of authority; (ii) perpetuity, the ability to bind future regimes and officials of the state to today’s rules and institutions and (iii) certitude that resort to violence is legitimate and controlled.” Turning to India’s approach, he said: “We remain committed to democratic governance, transparency, inclusive development and the implementation of Rule of Law. Our practice, however, has been marred by lapses resulting in a failure to deliver it in sufficient measure. The supremacy of Rule of Law has been challenged by corruption and the malicious influence of money power; both are made possible by departure from norms of good governance.”

What is noteworthy and also commendable that both Patil and Ansari, respectively, gave emphasis to the role that Indian government has to play in combating the challenge posed by terrorism and lapses which have emerged as “a significant threat to national security.” It is rarely that the country’s leaders have acknowledged their role and responsibility in failure to effectively check the menace posed by terrorism. Against this backdrop, Patil and Ansari’s comments suggest that Indian government has acknowledged that threat posed by terrorism cannot be checked by only holding external elements responsible for the same.

Paradoxically, the two-day conference was also witness to a slight diplomatic tension, when remarks made by a speaker made an envoy walk out of the hall. Saudi Arabian ambassador to India Faisal-al-Trad walked out when former Union Law Minister Ram Jethmalani in his speech made comments against Saudi Arabia’s Wahabism and Osama bin Laden as responsible for terrorism. Union Law Minister M. Veerappa Moily, however, indulged in “damage-control” exercise by laying stress in his address that comments made by Jethamalini were his own, with which he totally disagrees, and not of the government. Subsequently, Trad returned to the conference hall.

“Terrorism cannot be attributed to any particular religion, as no religion teaches terrorism,” Moily said. Among other speakers, Justice Awn S. Al-Khasawneh, judge of the International Court of Justice asked Jethmalani not to make sweeping statements. He said: “The message from this conference must not be fear-mongering, but tackling terrorism within the framework of law. Combat it with methods such as combination of cooperation among countries by preaching the message of law and peace rather than fear mongering.”