Suheir Hammad, a Brooklyn-based poet & a feminist wrote a heartfelt reflection as a New Yorker Muslimah post the incidents of 9/11. In her poem titled First Writing Since (Poem on Crisis of Terror) published in Motion Magazine Suheir wrote:
Fire in the city air and I feared for my sister's life in a way never before and then, and now, I fear for the rest of us.
First, please god, let it be a mistake, the pilot's heart failed, the plane's engine died.
Then please god, let it be a nightmare, wake me now.
Please god, after the second plane, please, don't let it be anyone who looks like my brothers.
Every time a similar incident happens, a piece of my heart gets shattered, I find myself clueless on how to explain to people around me who are constantly attacking me why still Islam is an underpin in my life. Those are your people? This is the religion you believe in, right? Continuing with Suheir’s poem:
If there are any people on earth who understand how New York is feeling right now, they are in the West Bank and the Gaza strip.
Normally it’s us who end up paying, we become more alienated, more sanctioned and much more marginalized. But how can we ever blame the other? Whose knowledge about my faith comes from retweeted hate and blame speech? With the existence of different religions and cultures within our blended and globalized world, we will not have anything but conflict and violence unless we seriously promote interreligious and intercultural dialogue to reach some level of harmony and understanding.
Set up in a cozy and friendly atmosphere at the University of Cologne campus lounge, Café Abraham initially started in Erlangen, Germany as a brain seed of the trio Benjamin Moscovici, Fabian Schmidmeier and El Hadi Khelladi. The simple Idea of bringing people together and letting them experience and communicate first hand with people from different religions, so that they can create their own ideas instead of following the general public resentments or the media. The idea spread nationwide within student networks and currently has a franchise in Cologne. Café Abraham Cologne is run and operated by the Islamic University Group (IHV) with the support of the Kölner Studentenwerk (Cologne student service organization).
Today we meet A.K Hochhausen on behalf of IHV Cologne to tell us more about this initiative.
What is the purpose and target group of Café Abraham?
Our purpose is to create a better atmosphere not only within the university but the city as a whole and to create some empathy among people on several topics. It’s also a place to get to know different states of minds and religious practices that can lead to a better understanding which will be a benefit for the upcoming “Room of Silence”, a place at the University for praying, meditating or just resting. We think that we need such a platform for discourse and questioning so that we can avoid intolerance and fear of different thoughts and beliefs. Many studies proof that most of these fears and resentments grow at grounds–and in individuals- that have limited contact with people from different religions, so we want to give students and any interested people a space to get to know each other and a chance to see things from a different point of view.
From your understanding, what is the foundation of interfaith dialogue?
I think that the first pillar is respect. We see many discussions and talks that are not on an “eye level”. Furthermore, I think that many people address topics like religion (especially when it’s a minority) from a Eurocentric perspective, which means that they believe that everything the old “Home”, or Europe did, has moved the world to where it is today. An idea that is historically wrong. We have to accept that people think differently and have their own perspective on their reality. However, this phenomenon- from my own observation- is not just one sided.
The second pillar is empathy. Everyone has his own approach to beliefs. I think that a person who is incapable of tolerating other people’s ideas, even when he/she disagrees with them, will leave the status of humility to enter an egoistic position. It is natural that everybody thinks that his own way of life is the right way, but to insist on forcing someone, is the wrong form of dialogue, in my opinion.
The third pillar is looking for similarities. It doesn’t make sense to focus on differences and moreover think that differences are bad. For us to get to know each other and our beliefs, it makes more sense that we start with the topics we have in common so that we can get a better understanding of each other’s arguments and thoughts. Later on, we can shift to the differences, but in a way that we do understand that differences are not a handicap but rather are an enrichment to society and culture.
What is Islam’s view on interfaith dialogue?
From my personal point of view –if you mean by Islam, what Islam says about dialogue, it is an essential part for a believer. Many Verses in the Quran have parts which say: say to them…wasn´t it like this…or didn’t you think about that” and this was often mentioned in conditions where people with different points of view or faiths confronted the Prophet (peace and blessings upon him) with several things. To me that also means, that we are open to answering questions of people who have no knowledge about our religion.
If dialogue would have no place in Islam, how would religion spread? How can we talk about it? By force? There is no force in belief! That is what Allah mentioned in the Quran. When Allah leaves it to our decision and if there is no force in Islam, how could Islam spread, when we make good examples and talk to people about our religion? Many Hadith also mention, that the Prophet (peace and blessings upon him) always talked to people in a good way, even with his enemies. He had a relationship with his neighbor, who was a Jew and even when his neighbor didn’t respect him, he always took care, was friendly and talked to him. If this is not dialogue, what is?
Some people may claim that because many Muslims think of other religions as false or corrupted, Muslims see little point in dialogue. What is your response to this?
I’d like to say to them, thank Allah that there were people who talked to me before I found my way to him, again! Many people think, that dialogue is an attempt to make other people think like you. But, in reality, it is an attempt to create empathy and a better understanding of somebody’s truth. I think this is also an essential part of relationships between humans. If we are not able to explain how we think, why we think like that, and how we feel, we become frustrated and depressed.
I believe, that it’s not enough to be a good example –whatever that might mean, I think if I do not explain how I came to a conclusion, or why I think in such a way, many people won’t be able to expand their horizons.
Further, Dialogue is also necessary to live together in a good and harmonic way. If the people who are in charge –such as leaders in a governing system or managers in an administration - didn’t know anything about your needs (time for praying or whatever), how can they consider making it comfortable for you? If we don’t talk to people in a good way and just accept, respect and help people who define themselves as Muslims then we are oppressors.
What do you think is meant when we talk about the need to respect other religions? Does it mean respecting these religions (their beliefs, practices etc.), or respecting the right of their adherents to follow them?
In my opinion, we mostly don’t recognize that there is a big difference between respecting something and accepting it as a truth. Respect means that we accept, that Allah leaves everybody to his free will and also that there will be people who will never believe in a way that a Muslim would. We always have to respect a human for his decision, no matter if we personally think it’s right or wrong. Respect also means to me, that we are mentally and faithfully strong enough to handle that person in the best way we can. We also have to guarantee, that nobody will be traced because of his/her personal decision. When it comes to belief to me that doesn’t mean, that I have to accept, or allow things in my personal space, or at the places that I am in charge of. But I have to respect, that people might do things in their personal space or places which they are in charge of.
Why is it that relatively few interfaith dialogues have been initiated by Muslims?
Hmm, I would not state your question in such a way. I would rather ask “why are there just a few people who care about society as a whole?” From my perspective - in Germany- I see many religious organizations – regardless of which monotheistic group they belong to - carry a huge weight when it comes to charity work. When people are members of the majority, sometimes they see no reason for any actions, but there are sometimes people who think about every member and dimension of the society and create some space for dialogue. Many of these spaces were first organized by Christian groups. Here in Cologne, this kind of dialogue and empathy has a long tradition. In the past, when there were not many Mosques, or praying places for Muslims, the Bishop of Cologne opened the second biggest cathedral in Europe, the “Kölner Dom”, for Friday Prayers. Also, many Events like the “intercultural Iftar”, which the Islamic University Group of Cologne (IHV) arranges every year in cooperation with the Studentenwerk and the University’s International Office, was first initiated by the Christian Evangelical University Group.
With that in Mind, I would say, that we are sometimes aware of things that are on our horizon of interest we hear about events within our circles and fail to recognize that there are many people out there who are very encouraged when it comes to dialogue and support.
On the other side, I think young Muslims have a different kind of understanding when it comes to responsibility. Maybe it’s also because our religion is not institutionalized. Young Muslims who want to live in a country like Germany, are very encouraged to create empathy and a harmonic societal life.
What are your reflections on the experience of interfaith dialogue? How do you feel about the outcome of such experiences?
In total, I can say that interfaith dialogue has opened a lot of doors in the heart of many people I have met. When we finally leave the stage of “why do some people do that?”, or “your religion is like this or like that”, every participant reaches a state of mind where it is not necessary to be right or wrong. It becomes a spot where you can ask questions and where people have the opportunity to reflect on their own views, because normally we choose topics for such meetings like “Ibrahim” and we reflect on the Quranic verses about him, in advance, so we can have everything accurate in mind. It’s also a chance for people, to get a deeper knowledge of their own religion and maybe understand some logical chains in a better way because there are people who might be questioning them.
When we value the outcome of such an experience, I would say that such a platform has made a lot of our work at the university much easier because we have given people an opportunity to get to know us and our beliefs. A neutral Spot is also sometimes easier to visit and participate in then an invitation to an “Islamic” event might be.
We were also able to rebuild connections with other religious groups at the university, which was a huge benefit when we talked with the university about the needs in the “Room of Silence”.
If I break it down in one sentence, Dialogue has enabled us to make it easier for Muslim students to practice their beliefs in the conditions of the university and gave us more value in the eyes of the majority of people who belong to other beliefs.
Do you think inter-faith dialogue in a university setting will have an effect on youth, education, and friendship?
I really do from the depth of my heart! We can say that it’s much easier to hate someone you don’t know and in fact if you have the opportunity to represent your beliefs and your good behavior in a setup of respect and on an eye to eye level it will impact your influence on society as a whole. Specifically, a setup at a university gives you the opportunity to discuss things on a more rational level. Most of the time we observe the notion that a public setup is more emotional. In discussion or dialogue, emotional aspects will always be stronger than rational ones. For that reason, it makes sense to me, to create spaces in a setup that is used for rational discussions and different arguments.
For too many years, we were separating ourselves (from a German perspective, I guess) from the society we live in. Even if we don´t reach a visible impact in one generation we should do our best to build up an infrastructure for a better understanding of Islam and our traditions, So that our children are in a better position in the future, and so that they can be an active part of the society. We should encourage ourselves to jump in that spotlight to show and to prove our willingness to share our knowledge and our energy for a better world. We can only reach that target with dialogue and respect, because the other option we have is hate and that often promises a “war of cultures” that nobody will benefit from.
We are very thankful to A.K Hochhausen for providing us with an insight into Café Abraham Cologne. Rumi once said:
Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right doing, there is a field. I'll meet you there.
In case you happen to be within Cologne’s environs and are interested in such an event check out the IHV Cologne website at www.ihv.koeln for more information. And if you happen to be somewhere within Germany take a look at this website www.cafeabraham.com
Author: Marwa Hamid