Building resilient communities through dialogue, analysis, and outreach

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Addressing divides between American-Muslim communities and society at large through public dialogues, panel discussions, and outreach.
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Strengthening Muslim communities in the U.S. and internationally by addressing critical gaps through lectures, workshops and intra-communal dialogues
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Bringing together elementary school-age children of all backgrounds to engage in joint community service projects
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A conversation on the doctrine of jihad with Dr. Sohail Hashmi, leading expert on Islamic political ethics at Mount Holyoke College. To watch the most recent episode of our show, 'Window to Islam', please click the image above to access the interview produced by Ludlow Community Television.
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Diaspora Communities and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Jewish, Muslim, and Christian activism in the U.S. plays a critical role in shaping public opinion and U.S. policy with respect to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Israel’s military campaign in Gaza this past summer highlighted the increasingly important role of diaspora communities in influencing the narrative and hence the trajectory of the conflict. To analyze the diasporas’ leverage and influence, examine shifting trends within these communities with respect to the conflict, and to discuss U.S. policy implications, Critical Connections and Karuna Peacebuilding Center organized a panel discussion with Dr. Dov Waxman (Director, Middle East Studies, Northeastern University), Dr. Saud Anwar (mayor of South Windsor, CT and founder of the Jewish-Muslim Alliance) and Professor Emily Cury (Faculty, Emerson College) in Amherst on September 28, 2014.


Jihad vs. Just War: Understanding Armed Struggle in Islam

Written by Mariam Awaisi 

Pick up the latest New York Times, skim through the top entries on The Huffington Post, or tune into the latest headlines on CNN, and you can be sure to read or hear about how various Muslim groups are perpetrating violence in the name of Islam. And it so follows that for many of these groups – from ISIS to Boko Haram – jihad is the spiritual and ideological vehicle that legitimates these violent demonstrations.

So what exactly does the oft-misunderstood jihad mean, and how does it relate to the Judeo-Christian concept of just war?

These questions formed the crux of our September 18th discussion entitled “Jihad vs. Just War: Understanding Armed Struggled in Islam.” With a turnout of over 50 people, this was the fourth event in Critical Connections’ and Karuna Center for Peacebuilding’s Bridging Muslim-Non-Muslim Divide series.

The featured speaker was Dr. Sohail Hashmi, a Professor of International Relations and the Alumnae Foundation Chair in the Social Sciences at Mount Holyoke College, where he teaches ethics, international relations, and Middle East politics, among other subjects. In 2012, Dr. Hashmi edited an anthology entitled Just Wars, Holy Wars, and Jihads: Christian, Jewish and Muslim Encounters and Exchange: ideas and terms that were at the forefront of the evening’s discussion.

Following introductions from the directors of the Karuna Center and Critical Connections, Bernie Pelletier – Director of Critical Connections’ Addressing Muslim/non-Muslim Divide Initiative – assumed the role of moderator with a series of questions for Dr. Hashmi aimed at addressing both the historical and present-day realities of jihad and just war.

Dr. Hashmi began the conversation by sharing an anecdote that illustrated how jihad is commonly misunderstood to imply violence, when in actuality its true meaning carries a far less bellicose connotation. As Dr. Hashmi explained, the term jihad stems from the Arabic root jahada, meaning to struggle, make an effort, and give one’s utmost towards something.

In its earliest conception, jihad was closely tied to the notion of personal struggle and striving, an idea that still holds weight for many Muslims. It was not until the year 622 – when the Prophet Muhammad migrated from his birthplace of Mecca to the city of Medina – when jihad began to be referred to something more practical as Muslims struggled to defend their nascent community from hostile elements opposed to the Prophet’s message. Nonetheless, while Muslims began conceptualizing jihad as the struggle to defend their community and later as a driving force for territorial expansion beyond the Arabian Peninsula, it was seldom understood as a means for proselytization. Forcible conversions, Dr. Hashmi clarified, are explicitly disallowed in Islam, according to Qur’anic scripture.

From jihad the conversation moved to just war as Dr. Hashmi outlined the two main tenets of the theory. The first of these – jus ad bellum – refers to whether the war in question is permissible and holds just cause. The second concept – jus in bello – concerns conduct in and of war. For example, war must be fought with restraint, meaning that combatants cannot pointedly targeted civilians (discrimination), and must strive to limit civilian casualties (proportionality). Taken together, these two ideas put theory into practice and delineate how war should ideally be waged: in line with the principles of justice and ethics.

Just war, however, is dissimilar from the glorified notion of holy war. As Dr. Hashmi described, when individuals feel that they are acting on God’s commandment – as was the case for the Israelites and the Crusaders – jus in bello is often left by the wayside. Holy war often becomes synonymous with total, unrestrained aggression.

Here the conversation turned directly to the key verses of the Qur’an that address jihad and violence towards non-Muslims. Verse 9:5 in particular – popularly known as the “Verse of the Sword” – has long been upheld as emblematic of the supposedly inherently violent nature of Islam, not to mention a boon for jihadists aiming to advance violent extremism. Yet, as Dr. Hashmi indicated, the verses preceding 9:5 referred specifically to the pagan Arabs who were relentless in their persecution of the early Muslim community. In other words, the Verse of the Sword is not a blanket incitement to fight, but rather, an injunction rooted in a specific time and place.

With new information and insights to ponder, the audience members organized themselves into small groups to consider the similarities and differences between jihad and just war and their historical and modern-day applications. Several group discussions revolved around the actions of ISIS and whether the United States was poised to embark upon its own “just war” in response to these militaristic manifestations.

Among the key takeaways from the evening was the idea that jihad is a multifaceted and complex term that must be understood in its profound theological, juridical, social, and historical context. And so it is the job of all consumers of the media to strive to maintain a critical eye and work to correct statements made about Islam and the Qur’an that lack proper historical and textual context.

Shariah: What is it? A conversation with renowned scholar, Dr. Muqtedar Khan

A conversation with renowned scholar, Dr. Muqtedar Khan, on the meaning of shariah, its evolution over the centuries and contemporary misconceptions surrounding the term.  To access the the interview produced by Ludlow Community Television, please click here



Diversity is Divine Design

Written by Mariam Awaisi 


Difference, plurality, and diversity of opinion were the central themes of the Critical Connections event “Dealing with Difference and Diversity: An Islamic Perspective.” Held at the Islamic Society of Western Massachusetts (ISWM) in West Springfield, Massachusetts, the event brought together over forty local Muslims for a community dialogue to discuss intra- and inter-religious pluralism and strategies for effectively dealing with difference both inside and outside the mosque.

First to speak was Dr. Ali Hazratji, a neurologist by training, former president of the ISWM for over fifteen years, and a regular speaker at various panels on Islam and Muslims in the Pioneer Valley. Dr. Hazratji emphasized that differences in religious thought and practice are bound to exist within the Muslim community but should not be cause for division or sectarianism. In distinguishing between legitimate and non-legitimate sources of diversity, he explained that legitimate theological differences within the community arise due to the linguistic ambiguity of the Arabic language (a single word might have multiple meanings) and because methodologies used to interpret the sacred text and prophetic traditions might vary. Dr. Hazratji maintained that “destructive diversity” emerges when the Qur’an and Sunnah are approached with diseased hearts and arrogance, or when they are intentionally misquoted to advance certain agendas. Dr. Hazratji emphasized that while differences are inevitable, it is critical to understand that there can be more than one accepted opinion in matters of theology and jurisprudence – this approach necessarily engenders tolerance and advances communal harmony.

The second speaker, Professor Celene Ayat Lizzio – a Faculty Associate of the Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations at Merrimack College, a lecturer in Islamic studies at Episcopal Divinity School, and Director of the Center for Inter-Religious and Communal Leadership Education at Andover Newton Theological School and Hebrew College – brought an introspective approach to the idea of difference. Rahma – the Arabic word for mercy – formed the cornerstone of her approach to tangibly dealing with difference. “When you feel tension arise, ask for rahma,” Professor Lizzio said. In a difficult or hostile situation, for example, calling upon the divine can work wonders for tempering one’s state of being. And it is in this calmer state that both the person being confronted and the one doing the confronting can have a conversation that is governed less by seething emotions and more by honest dialogue. While Professor Lizzio acknowledged that this is often easier said than done, the goal is to seek mercy, listen deeply to one another, and derive some wisdom from the interaction.

Dr. Muqtedar Khan, Associate Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Delaware – where he founded the university’s Islamic Studies Program – was the evening’s final speaker. His opening remarks, in which he explicated the difference between tolerance and pluralism, set the tone for the remainder of his presentation. While tolerance, Dr. Khan explained, implies mere acceptance of the existence of another’s point of view, pluralism necessarily supports open-mindedness: “I think I’m right, but you could be right too. Let Allah (God) decide the differences amongst us.” Dr. Khan maintained that the Qur’an is perhaps the only divinely-revealed book that advances inter-religious pluralism, and focused his remarks on the Qur’an’s approach to the People of the Book. He supported his assertion by analyzing a series of Qur’anic verses in their historical context but also explained how Muslim jurists over the centuries have interpreted these to reach divergent conclusions: while some believe the Qur’an advances inter-religious pluralism, others do not. This process highlighted the complex nature of jurisprudence concerning divine revelation as well as the substantial range of opinions that exist with respect to Qur’anic interpretation.

Following the speakers’ presentation was a lively and heated question and answer session, where in addition to asking specific questions of panelists, several community members voiced reservations about comments made during the presentations. By the end of the evening, it was clear that this candor on the part of both speakers and audience members was helping foster real and critical reflection.

Afghanistan at a Crossroads

Written by Bernie Pelletier

As the crow flies, South Windsor, Connecticut is 6,622 miles from Afghanistan. But on May 29, a group of people in South Windsor had a window directly into this small and troubled nation. Three experts – each of whom had direct experience in Afghanistan – spoke to a group people drawn together by Critical Connections and the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding.

Mayor M. Saud Anwar of South Windsor proudly introduced the panel of speakers. First to speak was Matt Waldman, who has recently returned from Afghanistan, where he is conducting research on conflict resolution in Afghanistan. He describes the new found pride of the Afghans who have recently completed a successful election. Intermixed with this pride is concern that the violence exacted against local officials may set back the progress that has been made since coalition intervention. Mr. Waldman candidly described the shortcoming of the coalition intervention – excessive reliance on military force, excessive faith that money and resources were the cure for Afghanistan’s issues, and most significantly a failure to empathize with the Afghan perception of these events. But even in light of these shortcomings Mr. Waldman argued forcefully for continued international support of the newly forming Afghan government in the form of an internationally supported peace process that is local, small in it’s scale, and learns from the past 13 years.

Scott Smith, director of United States Institute for Peace’s Afghanistan & Central Asia program spoke next via Skypee. He affirmed many of Matt’s points and also noted that 7 million Afghans voted in this recent election – an incredible number given the risk associated with voting. He argued forcefully that leaving prematurely – as the international community did after the fall of the Soviet invasion – would risk a return to the chaos that we’ve sought to dispel and forego the returns that are only now emerging from the investments the world has made in Afghanistan. Don’t leave as though this was a divorce was his plea.

Omar Samad was the last speaker. He is an Afghan and has been Ambassador to France and Canada from that country. He spoke personally of growing up in Afghanistan. The picture that he painted of this nation was unique in that he remembered back to a time when Afghanistan was neither violent nor radicalized. He recounted this history to provide a foundation upon which to build and envision a future for this country. He described an Afghanistan that was torn apart by the Soviet intervention and the crossfire between the superpowers of the cold war. Even today he said it continues to be buffeted by Iranian and Pakistani influences. Key in his remarks though was the idea that Afghanistan is NOT intrinsically radical or tribal, and was forced into this by the devastation of the Soviet occupation.

At one point Samad noted about half the population of Afghanistan was driven into refugee status in either Iran or Pakistan. Agreeing with the previous speakers he argued for a continued support and relationship with the US and the coalition partners. His remarks detailed the descent into radicalism and tribalism that beset Afghanistan when all support was withdrawn following the fall of the Soviets. He urged the US and others to learn this lesson from history. The overall perspective from these three hands on – knowledgeable – analyst was that Afghanistan has made dramatic progress over the last 13 years. But this progress is at risk if the world abandons Afghanistan. As military intervention declines – and perhaps even ends in 2016 there is a tremendous need to replace it with a supportive Peace Process that protects against the violence of the Taliban, provides economic support to the frail economy, and creates an international stage to reconcile the factions now fighting in Afghanistan.