Carnage on Easter Sunday and the Crisis Within

Source:  Turkish Minute

by Mehlaqa Samdani

The carnage that took place during Easter Sunday celebrations in Sri Lanka was a terrible reminder of the havoc violent extremism can wreak in communities around the world. While details are still emerging and nobody has yet claimed responsibility, Sri Lankan authorities blamed the attack on a local extremist group, National Thowheed Jamath, with possible international links that made the coordinated attacks possible. 

This attack on the Christian community by a group of Muslim terrorists should serve as a reminder to Muslim religious and political leaders around the world that more vigilance is needed around the activities of preachers who incite violence against religious minorities, who propagate archaic and insidious interpretations of scripture, and who radicalize vulnerable minds to commit the kinds of atrocities that took at least 310 innocent lives over the weekend. 

We know that local Muslim leaders in Sri Lanka were aware that National Thowheed Jamath espoused violence towards non-Muslims and had even turned over documents about the group to local law-enforcement three years ago—while intelligence officials failed to act on this information, this is exactly the kind of proactive efforts needed from Muslim leaders and governments around the world. 

As Mehdi Hasan points out in The Intercept, here in the U.S. it is difficult to talk about the persecution of Christians by Muslims as it feeds into growing Islamophobia. However, as Hasan emphasizes, we cannot overlook the fact that of the top 10 countries where Christian communities are most persecuted, 7 are Muslim-majority. It is time we in the Muslim community reckon with this intolerance, violent and otherwise, and find ways to address it.

In January 2016, more than 300 religious scholars from around the Muslim world gathered in Morocco to sign the Marrakesh Declaration as a response to growing violence against religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries. This was a document based on the Charter of Medina promulgated by Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) that promoted equal citizenship for all and upheld the rights of religious minorities in 7th century Medina. Just as Muslim immigrant communities in Europe and the United States advocate for the preservation of their civil rights and liberties, they must call on their countries of origin to implement the Marrakesh Declaration, and ensure that religious minorities are protected from societal, legal, and political discrimination. The Quran has a clear message for Muslims: 

“Believers! Be upholders of justice and bearers of witness to truth for the sake of Allah, even though it may either be against yourselves or against your parents and kinsmen, or the rich or the poor: for Allah is more concerned with their well-being than you are. Do not, then, follow your own desires lest you keep away from justice. If you twist or turn away from (the truth), know that Allah is well aware of all that you do” (4:135)

We Muslims would do well to follow our own scripture, and begin to address the injustice those among us commit. 






Photo Credit: Ray Dehn | by Tony Webster

Photo Credit: Ray Dehn | by Tony Webster

February 13, 2019

Mehlaqa Samdani

A brief note on how one tweet gave rise to multiple opportunities:

1.    The opportunity to recognize that there will always be anti-Semites around us and among us who use Israel to spew their hatred of Jews. Similarly, there will always be those around us and among us who use every legitimate and justified criticism of the Israeli Occupation, Israeli policies, and of AIPAC as a way to label people as anti-Semites. It is up to us to find the peacemakers in our respective communities who are interested in making real progress—in this case, it would be the “Jewish allies and colleagues” that Ilhan Omar referred to in her apology for educating her on anti-Semitic tropes, and the Jewish leaders AOC admired for the way they “brought her (Omar) in, not push her out, to heal." These are the kinds of people we should be seeking out within our own communities for wisdom and guidance. 

2.    The opportunity to recognize that a true leader demonstrates that there is no shame in an apology, there is no shame in accepting we have room to grow—it is possible to call out the corrupting influence of lobbyists in ways that are constructive, effective, and sensitive

3.    The opportunity to recognize that many of us do not know enough about anti-Semitic tropes and would do well to learn more about them by reaching out to our Jewish friends. This is especially important when attacks against the Jewish community have dramatically increased and the Jewish community feels increasingly vulnerable. 

4.    The opportunity for all of us to stand up to bullying in whatever shape or form it occurs, whether it is attempts to criminalize/penalize BDS or the incessant attacks on Congresswomen Omar and Tlaib for their pro-BDS stance. 

5.    Finally, this is an opportunity to recognize that if seized effectively, such moments can result in greater engagement, greater learning, and ultimately transformation among well-intentioned people.



January 10, 2019

By Mehlaqa Samdani

What is it with female Muslim politicians these days? Why can’t they use appropriate vocabulary? Whether it’s Rashida Tlaib using profanity to call for Donald Trump’s impeachment, or Ilhan Omar using Islamic references in her victory speech last year, they can’t seem to say the right thing.

What’s wrong with them? Or, should we ask, what’s wrong with us?

Neither Omar nor Tlaib used language that incited violence or broke any laws, and yet both made Americans cringe. Rather than focus on what’s wrong with what they are saying, we would do well to examine what it is about us that makes us uncomfortable with their words.

In her election victory speech, Ilhan Omar used several Islamic references such as Assalamualaikum (peace be upon you) Inshallah (God willing), Alhamdulillah (Praise be to God or Thank God)—words that Muslims use in common parlance and without which our sentences often feel incomplete. For instance, when sending my kids to school, I’ll say, ‘See you later, inshallah’ or if a Muslim friend asks me how I’m doing, I’ll respond with, ‘I’m doing well, Alhamdulillah.’ Other than having religious connotations, these Arabic phrases are also cultural references and are sometimes even colloquially used by non-Muslim Arabs.

And yet, there were many (Muslim and non-Muslim, liberals and conservatives) who felt uncomfortable at Ilhan Omar’s use of these words. Let’s consider why.

One Muslim woman published an article in the Haaretz in which she expressed reasons for her discomfort—she described how Omar’s use of Islamic terminology reminded her of the persecution she had experienced as a woman in the Muslim country she had fled. While I couldn’t relate to her, I admired the writer for tracing her discomfort with Omar’s words back to her own experiences. To other Muslims who were uncomfortable with Omar’s speech, I would urge a similar introspection—why are we offended by something that was so non-offensive? Have we so internalized our oppression that we are embarrassed by our co-religionist’s expression of our faith when she was neither pontificating nor proselytizing?

Some non-Muslim friends argued that it blurred the line between church and state and that Ilhan Omar should keep her religion out of the public sphere. I would say that her hijab is a more overt expression of her faith and that if it’s okay for her to wear the hijab, she should not need to censor herself in her speech. In this context, there is no difference between speech and appearance, and it doesn’t make sense to make that distinction. I would contend that the discomfort that Omar’s words generated reflects the ongoing unease that American society continues to have with Muslims and Islam. Even the more progressive among us are okay with Muslims as long as they are not ‘too Muslim’ in public, as long as they are not too open about their identities, in ways that would make the general public uncomfortable.

And then we have Rashida Tlaib, another outspoken Muslim woman who also managed to make plenty of people angry with her recent choice of words. For those who are generally offended by the expletive she used and find it inappropriate whether uttered by man, woman, Muslim, non-Muslim, it makes sense to be uncomfortable with Tlaib’s usage of it.

But then there are others who feel that there are right ways and wrong ways for minority communities to express their grievances. Amani Al-Khatahtbeh said it best in her piece:

“The outrage over Tlaib’s comments is nothing new: It belongs to a long-standing American tradition of punishing people of color for their anger against their own oppression. In the eyes of her critics, Tlaib is an outsider. She should treat her new political power as an honor for which she should be grateful, rather than as a right that she earned to represent her people. History teaches us that there has never been an acceptable way for people of color to express dissent, no matter how peacefully or cuss-free. Even taking a knee can cost an athlete his career.”

As an increasing number of Muslims move from the margins to the mainstream, they will evoke a societal response that will not always be positive. Conflicting political agendas and offense over expletives notwithstanding, it is critical to locate our personal outrage. There are those who are threatened by seeing these women emboldened and empowered and moving forward with their political agendas unapologetically. Whether we admit it or not, we know which camp we belong to.

The Hate Among Us

Photo credit: The Los Angeles Times (

Photo credit: The Los Angeles Times (

Last weekend a rabid anti-Semite entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and killed eleven Jewish congregants, and injured six others. He targeted the worshippers not just for who they were but because of their support for refugees and immigrants. In the days leading up to the synagogue shooting, a man killed two African-Americans at a grocery store in Kentucky upon failing to enter an all-black church, and law-enforcement arrested a man in Florida for allegedly sending explosive devices to prominent democrats and media outlets. All three perpetrators were hate-filled white supremacists and part of a growing threat in the current socio-political climate.  
As we continue to mourn and honor those we lost, we must do more to collectively dismantle the causes and manifestations of white supremacy in our communities. According to an FBI report published last year, white supremacists had carried out more attacks over the 2000-2016 period than any other domestic extremist group. And yet under the Trump administration, more than 85% of the Countering Violent Extremism budget is focused on Muslims, Black Lives Matter activists, the LGBTQ community, immigrants and refugees – groups that have in fact been targeted by white supremacists. Groups such as Life After Hate that work to deradicalize neo-Nazis were deprived of funding under the current administration. 
At a time when our president has become the Inciter-in-Chief, it is up to us to strengthen our communities against hate in all its forms and shapes. We must call for greater anti-bias trainings that address racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia in our schools, congregations, public institutions and communities. We must call for greater state and local resources to be allocated to anti-hate initiatives and encourage the reporting of bias-related incidents within our respective communities. In addition, we must vote in droves in the upcoming election and drive out hate. We owe nothing less to Daniel Stein, Joyce Feinberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, brothers Cecil Rosenthal, and David Rosenthal, husband and wife Bernice Simon and Sylvan Simon, Melvin Wax, Irving Younger, Vicki Jones, and Maurice Stallard. 

Muslim Students and the 9/11 Anniversary

Source: Washington State University

Source: Washington State University

Mehlaqa Samdani

As I send my children to school today on the 17th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, I, like many other Muslim parents can’t help but wonder how the day will go for them. Every year for the past few years, I have friends who share their children’s experiences of being mortified, embarrassed, and downright ashamed of being Muslim when the horrific events of 9/11 are discussed in their classrooms. 

At a time when the Trump administration is openly hostile towards Muslim communities, and Muslim children are being bullied and dehumanized at increasing levels, it is important for school administrators and educators to be vigilant about how 9/11 is taught in the classroom. Research by social psychologists, Emile Bruneau and Nour Kteily, demonstrates that communities that are dehumanized often dehumanize in turn and ‘this starts a vicious cycle of retribution and hostility'. Given that much of our socialization and worldviews are shaped in schools, the teaching of 9/11 has direct implications for the future of intercommunal relations in our country. 

Currently, there are 20 states (Massachusetts is one of them) that include September 11 as part of their state standards. However, while each state determines the overall approach towards teaching 9/11, it is up to individual schools and teachers on how this will be implemented. 

According to research conducted by Cheryl Duckworth (Author, 9/11 and Collective Memory in US Classrooms), teachers often feel ill-equipped to grapple with the subject in any great depth and are uncomfortable talking about terrorism in ways that might be considered controversial. One middle school social studies teacher I spoke with mentioned that while he and his peers know how to teach subjects such as World War II or race in the classroom, they do not have a clear sense of how to approach 9/11. He mentioned that a training workshop around this subject could make educators much more confident and comfortable about how to teach it in a nuanced manner. 

While it would be ideal to have middle school teachers be able to go over the Treaty of Versailles, western colonization, Muslim fundamentalist movements, U.S. foreign policy and military interventions, governance gaps in some parts of the ‘Muslim world’ etc. while explaining the context of 9/11, it is almost impossible to do so within a 45-minute class period. 

However, there are simpler ways in which educators can be sensitive about how they discuss 9/11 in class: 

Allow parents and students time to prepare: School districts often provide educators with resources such as video clips and documentaries about 9/11 to share with their students. It would make sense for administrators to share these links in advance with parents across the school district. This would allow Muslim parents the opportunity to prepare their children for what will be discussed in class and how to respond to it. Often, Muslim students feel blindsided by what they watch and are unsure of how to react in the moment when questions about Islam or Muslims arise in the context of 9/11. 

Use appropriate terminology: While discussing the September 11th attacks, it would help to avoid terms like ‘Islamic extremists’ and ‘radical Islam’—instead, while mentioning Al-Qaida, it would be more appropriate to refer to it as a terrorist organization. Adding ‘Islamic’ denotes that there is something inherently Islamic about terrorism or extremism. 

It has also become commonplace for journalists, pundits, scholars, analysts (Muslim and non-Muslim alike) to use the term ‘jihadist’ to refer to terrorists. For many Muslim children, this can be deeply confusing and distressing. Jihad is a critical concept in Islam that means striving in the way of God, resisting oppression, promoting social justice, speaking truth to power, etc. and is something that is constantly referred to in Muslim households as something to aspire to. There is, of course, an ‘armed struggle’ component of jihad (see below), but the general consensus in Islamic jurisprudence today is that this is strictly in self-defense and can never include the killing of innocent civilians. By calling terrorists ‘jihadists’, we end up ascribing legitimacy to their hijacking of this word and reinforce the notion that cold-blooded terrorists get to decide how a sacred concept is used in common parlance. It also ends up confusing Muslim children who are taught that this is a central tenet of their faith.

Describe the many faces of terrorism: When explaining terrorism, educators would also do well to include examples such as the Oklahoma City Bombing and the killing of black worshippers in Charleston by Dylan Roof, both of which involved the murder of innocent civilians to further a political agenda. This would underscore the point that perpetrators of terrorism are not confined to any one race or religion. 

The responsibility to educate our children about 9/11 does not exclusively lie with our schools and educators. It is essential for Muslim parents and community leaders to be pro-active and have age-appropriate conversations about 9/11 in their homes and places of worship—we must emphasize to our children that while the perpetrators were indeed Muslim, they were also terrorists who distorted their religion to advance political agendas.  This makes neither them nor their faith culpable for the terrible events of September 11. Finally, we must elicit the help of organizations such as Islamic Networks Group who convene workshops that empower children with religious literacy skills so they are able to respond to difficult questions around jihad, shariah, hijab, etc.

9/11 was a national tragedy of catastrophic proportions, which left death and devastation in its wake--turning its anniversary in to a teachable moment that fosters community, resilience, and strength is an apt way to avenge it. 

Additional resources for educators, parents and community leaders:

Unity Productions Foundation

‘UPF produces films that tell compelling stories for television, online viewing, and theatrical release. These films are part of long-term educational campaigns aimed at increasing religious and cultural pluralism, especially among Muslims and other faiths’

Islamic Networks

‘Supplementing cultural diversity programming, ING provides training seminars to help law enforcement agencies, businesses, healthcare facilities, and school district offices and school staff relate appropriately and effectively to Muslim communities, employees, clients, students, and parents’ ING also provides religious literacy programming for American-Muslim youth. 


‘From film kits and lesson plans to the building blocks of a customized Learning Plan—texts, student tasks and teaching strategies—our resources will help you bring relevance, rigor and social emotional learning into your classroom—all for FREE. Not sure where to begin? Get to know our Social Justice Standards, anchor standards and age-appropriate learning outcomes divided into four domains—Identity, Diversity, Justice and Action. The Standards provide a common language and a road map for anti-bias education at every grade level.’

Jihad - The Concept of Armed Struggle in Islam

A Conversation with Dr. Sohail Hashmi, Mount Holyoke College

SCOTUS Travel Ban Ruling

The Supreme Court ruling that upheld the Trump administration’s travel ban is distressing at many levels—for approximately 130 million people from Iran, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Venezuela, and North Korea, it means traveling to the U.S. on immigrant and non-immigrant visas is no longer possible. For legal permanent residents (green card holders) hailing from these countries, it means their future in the U.S. is no longer certain. For the 3.4 million American Muslims, it means that as they continue to be the targets of this administration’s bigoted policies, they can no longer expect the Supreme Court to afford them protections. 

While the Trump administration insists people from the above-mentioned countries can apply for waivers when attempting to visit close relatives in the United States or for medical reasons, in reality it has accepted very few applications over the past six months—last week, two immigration rights groups filed a lawsuit in an attempt to pressure the Trump administration to explain their ‘comprehensive’ waiver process. 
In the midst of all this uncertainty and despondency, the continued solidarity of civil society groups across the U.S. has been unrelenting and inspiring.  Emblematic of this support is the letter sent to Muslim communities from rabbis across western MA in response to the SCOTUS ruling--these incredible allies truly make America great.
At a time when this administration is pursuing draconian and inhumane immigration policies, undermining the rights of women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community, we at Critical Connections remain committed to convening events that we hope will inform the activism and engagement of communities across western MA and beyond. 

We thank you for your support and hope you will join us this fall for continued dialogue and analysis. 

Warm regards,
Mehlaqa Samdani

Letter of Support from Jewish Community Leaders


In wake of the Supreme Court's decision to uphold the Trump Administration's travel ban, several rabbis from across western MA wrote this moving letter of support to the Muslim community

Dear Friends,

Salaam Aleikum!

As a Jewish community, we wanted to convey our deep dismay over the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the travel ban affecting people from predominantly Muslim countries, while at the same time affirming the solidarity and deeply meaningful relationships we have built between our communities.  As Jews, many of our ancestors came to this country as refugees, and even several generations later, we carry this historical memory that informs our sense of justice in this current moment.  And beyond our particular set of experiences, we deplore the discrimination now given legal legitimacy as people who believe in fundamental dignity and the assurances of the US Constitution.

Ultimately, though, we believe in the power of relationships to create change in our society and to add untold richness to people’s lives.  In this vein, we are grateful for and proud of the opportunities for connection we have sought out in recent years.  The opportunities for dialogue through presentations and classes, shared celebrations, solidarity rallies, and the ongoing Shalom-Salaam sisterhood have created an enduring bond between our communities.  The recent interfaith Iftar and the Islamic Society and the celebration in the Fall hosted by the Hampshire Mosqueboth felt like family gatherings, and we were immensely honored to be invited and participate.

While dispiriting, perhaps this decision can be another opportunity to draw closer so as to set an example of mutual understanding and respect.  We are proud of the relationships we have built, and look forward to the ways in which we will work, learn, and celebrate together in the year ahead, standing with you in friendship and solidarity.

In a spirit of peace and love we send our warmest wishes for the health and well being of your entire communities.

B’shalom, In Peace and Friendship,

Rabbi Justin David, Congregation B’nai Israel , Northampton

Rabbi Riqi Kosovske, Beit Ahavah, Florence

Rabbi Benjamin Weiner, Jewish Community of Amherst

Rabbi Devorah Jacobson, Jewish Geriatric Services

Rabbi Amy Katz, Temple Beth El of Springfield 

Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener, Temple Israel of Greenfield

Rabbi Howard Kosovske, Interim Rabbi at Sinai Temple in Springfield

Rabbi Jeremy Master, Sinai Temple in Springfield


More and More Civilians Are Being Killed In Our Name: Where Is The Outrage? - HuffPost Op-ed

This article was originally published in the Huffington Post on February 15, 2018

By Mehlaqa Samdani

Earlier this month, two U.S.-led airstrikes, including one that targeted a makeshift hospital in Al-Bahra village in Syria, reportedly killed dozens of innocent civilians including women and children. These bombings were the latest in over 10,000 coalition airstrikes in Syria and Iraq over the past year, where civilian casualties have increased by 215 percent. In Somalia, there has been a similar, dramatic increase in aerial bombings in America’s counterterrorism campaign that have resulted in numerous civilian deaths.

President Donald Trump’s racist remarks about people from “shithole countries” outraged Americans across the country. And yet, when innocent civilians are killed by U.S. drone strikes and aerial bombing campaigns in far-flung countries, nobody seems to notice. We as a nation, it seems, are more offended by racist rhetoric than we are by racist policies.

Read more here




January 19, 2017

From L to R: Reverend Corey J. Sanderson, Rabbi Justin David, Ms. Tahirah Amatul Wadud

From L to R: Reverend Corey J. Sanderson, Rabbi Justin David, Ms. Tahirah Amatul Wadud


Summary and Key Takeaways

On December 8, 2017, Critical Connections and Karuna Center for Peacebuilding organized the ‘Building Inclusive Communities: The Role of Faith Leaders’ symposium at Holyoke Community College in Holyoke, MA. The symposium explored the critical role of faith leaders in building inclusion both within their respective faith constituencies and in the broader community. It was the first in a series of conferences our two organizations shall convene in the coming months to explore the role various public sectors officials and civil society groups can play to promote diversity, pluralism and resilience.

Part I: Striving For Inclusion – Looking Inward

The Challenge: Most communities of faith strive to be welcoming places. But there are many who feel excluded from their faith communities due to experiences with or fears of encountering racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, differences in political ideology, or other forms of alienation.

Guiding Question:

How do we overcome barriers to building inclusion and diversity within faith communities?


Rabbi Amy Katz - Temple Beth El, Springfield/Longmeadow

Imam Rasul Seifullah - Al-Baqi Mosque, Springfield

Father Warren Savage - Diocese of Springfield


Rev. Marisa Brown Ludwig


The overarching themes that emerged in Part 1 were importance for faith leaders to model welcoming behaviors, actively reach out to newcomers and members of marginalized groups, and use their roles as educators to help others create welcoming spaces. Clergy have a very significant role in setting the tone for their communities: as Imam Seifullah pointed out, communities take on the character of the pastor, imam, or rabbi. So if the leader is not all-embracing, others will not be, either. When someone shows up, be welcoming. Smile, introduce yourselves, be engaging. Faith leaders need to condition their followers to do this. They can start by emphasizing how much we all have in common, while also pointing out that the diversity in the world that we do see is created by God – we are not meant to all be the same, and we all have something of value to give to the benefit of humanity. Father Savage concurred, adding that inclusivity begins with saying good morning to everyone you pass, whether or not they respond. He reiterated the need to “model a lifestyle that is compassionate, welcoming, nonjudgmental, and affirming of others.” He also emphasized the need to encourage people to firmly believe in their hearts that everyone has intrinsic dignity.

Rabbi Katz noted that most members of her congregation would say that they are an inclusive community and would say that they of course they want all people to feel comfortable in the synagogue, but she pointed out that there is sometimes a discrepancy between theory and practice. She recalled an incident in which a gay couple felt uncomfortable in a class she taught even though it did not seem like anyone was being outwardly rude. But members of marginalized communities may need more than just the absence of hostility in order to feel truly included, she stressed. This is where education can come in. As all three panelists suggested, it is important to take concrete steps to make sure that people feel welcome. The leaders cannot do it all themselves; they must educate others in their communities and convince them to join these efforts.

In small group discussions, the term “radical hospitality” was brought up to describe what must happen to make people feel included[1]. Another group brought up how much joy there can be in finding that you are an “insider” when you step into a new faith community. Making this happen, as several other groups discussed, requires strong leadership and a lot of work, as well as explicit conversations. We need to ask questions to challenge our usual ways of thinking and working.

Part 1: Key questions that emerged from small group discussions/Q & A session:

●      Who is being given the “microphone?” I.e., whose voices do we hear? Do we let marginalized people in our communities speak for themselves, or do the more privileged try to speak for them?

●      When a community is resistant to being inclusive, what is the nature of that resistance?

●      How can we help people to feel part of a tradition if they are not literate in that tradition? It is important for people to have a solid core sense of who they are. How do we educate people about their own faiths as well as others?

●      How do we balance the needs of a few against the needs of many? For example, if there is a congregant whose needs are taking up a lot of time, how do we make that person feel welcome while also establishing healthy boundaries?

●      How can we embrace a diversity of political beliefs?

●      How can we embrace neurodiversity[2]? Is that a different type of inclusivity? What about ableism? (tip: always use a microphone to include people with hearing difficulties).

●      Where are the opportunities to break out of a “one size fits all” approach to religious practices? For example, can Bar Mitzvah rituals be adjusted to meet specific needs of individuals or their families? Or can a more liberal and inclusive Muslim space be created outside the mosque to embrace LGBTQ Muslims without coming into conflict with religious laws?

Part II: Striving For Inclusion – Looking Outward

The Challenge: Prejudice due to racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia and transphobia is pervasive and exists within faith communities and also in the broader community.

Guiding Question

What is the responsibility of faith leaders in reducing intolerance and bigotry, whether that means addressing hateful views held by members of your own faith community or responding to bias-related incidents and troubling trends in the broader community?


Rabbi Justin David - Congregation B’nai Israel, Northampton

Rev. Corey Sanderson - Second Congregational Church, Greenfield

Tahirah Amatul Wadud - Muslim activist and attorney *and now also a candidate for Congress!

Moderator: Rev. Melissa Carver Zeimer


In both the panel and small group discussions, everyone agreed that faith leaders – and ordinary citizens – have a responsibility to respond to intolerance and bigotry. The question, then, is how to do it successfully in an increasingly divided environment.

Rev. Sanderson began the panel discussion by acknowledging the importance of this topic. He noted that we all must be critical in thinking about what we have been taught. In the absence of meaningful interactions with people from different traditions, media and Facebook memes fill the gaps between us with ignorance, stereotypes, and fear. We need to pull together, interact with each other. We should not minimize differences – as noted in the first part of the day, differences are not necessarily bad. We need to increase religious literacy and familiarity with different traditions. He recalled a story about MLK Jr, who went to hear a speech about “Christian love” that turned out to be about Gandhi. Understanding that a non-Christian such as Gandhi could nevertheless be an  example of Christian love popped him out of his Baptist bubble. We need to do the same.

Rabbi David echoed the importance of not minimizing differences. He recalled seeing a commercial as a child, in which a grandfather teaches his grandson that he was prejudiced for referring to a child as his “Jewish friend” rather than just his “friend.” The predominant liberal world view at the time was to ignore differences. But that has changed (for the better). He shared some of his personal stories on the path toward understanding his own place in the power structure as a privileged white male. In his first year as a rabbi, he gave a carefully worded sermon about peace in the Middle East and was complimented on being “deft.” But by now he feels that it is important to be passionate and principled, not just deft. He can use religion and his role as a leader and educator to look outward and make the world a better place.

Ms. Amatul-Wadud brought a different perspective to the conversation, because she does not have a congregation, but she, too, repeated the call to address issues head-on rather than ignoring or minimizing differences. For her, social justice and interfaith work was born out of necessity, in response to anti-Muslim sentiment and issues regarding racism within Muslim community. She did not grow up with conversations about race, or any other uncomfortable topics, but she believes that it is very important to have those conversations. With her own children, she decided to start early and often. She and her daughter developed a way to speak with Muslim communities about the universality of the African American Muslim Community. This includes teaching all Muslims about the story of Bilal (a friend of Mohammed and a great muezzin, who was born into slavery and experienced racism), and including in American history classes the fact that 20% of people brought from Africa into slavery were Muslim, so that Muslim Americans know they have a legacy here.

With regard to accountability and risk taking, the general consensus emerged that faith leaders have an obligation to the texts and traditions of their faith–and also to social justice. Rev. Sanderson spoke of the triangular covenant between individual, God, and community. We are at a place where it is good to have values, faith, and spirituality, but we also have to do real work to live out those values. He noted that religious communities often have a mindset of needing to be cared for by leaders, so they may be hesitant to have clergy speaking on issues of justice in the larger community. But he believes that it is important to speak out anyway (and if you are fired, it probably meant that it was not a good fit anyway). The others agreed that there may sometimes be risks (including, as Ms. Amatul-Wadud pointed out, emotional vulnerability), but if you believe in justice, there should not be anything holding you back. Rabbi David claimed that the greatest risk is inaction. Faith leaders can tap into people’s spiritual curiosity and use their roles as educators to encourage greater action.

In terms of how to reconcile theological beliefs and secular laws, people often assume that theological beliefs will be more conservative than secular laws. But this is not always the case. As Rev. Sanderson pointed out, liberal Protestants (as well as other faith communities) have long had an open stance toward LGBTQ people; in this case, their religious belief in same-sex marriage was held back by secular laws for a while. Often religious ideals rise above secular laws, and in these cases we can try to influence local policies to be more rooted in compassion and forgiveness. As a positive example, there is a noteworthy restorative justice program in Greenfield that is grounded in the values of forgiveness and reconciliation, rather than just punishment.

Below are some of the questions, thoughts, and suggestions that came out in the small group and plenary discussion [note–several of these points were brought up in the first part of the symposium (looking inward) but thematically fit with the second (looking outward) and are therefore added here]:

Part 2: Key questions that emerged from small group discussions/Q and A session

●      Religions often get weaponized–how can this be prevented?

○      We need more religious literacy – not only of what our own traditions say, but also others. For example, even within the Evangelical world, there is a progressive movement – not all are fundamentalists like Westboro Baptists. Although the “old guard” is still present, one of the most exciting things happening in American religion now is a rising awareness that texts are not supposed to be used as weapons.

○      In addition: organizing and standing up and showing up are great counterpoints to how religious beliefs are exploited.

●      Many people spoke about the importance of forming interfaith relationships. But how can we welcome people of other faiths – especially religious minorities such as Hindus – without making them feel that we are trying to convert them? Several suggestions included:

○      We need to stick by people we invite to our communities, to shepherd them and introduce them around and defend them if necessary.

○      We must be welcoming while not neglecting differences. When visitors come into our communities, we also need to ask them about theirs.

○      College campuses can expand multi-faith components of their programming. For example, Mt. Holyoke has a Hindu prayer room. They also have frequent interfaith luncheons and other opportunities for students to learn about other faiths in non-threatening ways.

○      Faith leaders need to make sure that they are teaching children in their congregations to have a solid core identity, especially if they are in a religious minority. If they grow up knowing who they are, and have a strong connection to their own faith, being surrounded by more “mainstream” religious practices or symbols will not feel as threatening.

○      When we invite people into our communities for interfaith events, the focus can be on the common experience, eating food together, sharing traditions, feeling loved.

●      With interfaith relationship building: how do we dig deep, beyond one action or one event? What opens us up?

○      One suggestion was to work together on something ongoing and meaningful. For example, in Northampton the Beit Ahava Synagogue and the Florence Congregational Church are now collecting water filters for Puerto Rico (they have raised $47,000 so far). The two share a building, but in the past they did very little together. Now the minister and rabbi are working together with a new level of engagement. Relationship building has shifted, and feels deeper because it is based in caring and worrying about others. In a sense it is political work, not just religious work, because it is filling a gap left by government. That might be scary to some faith communities, but it is important.

○      Rev. Sanderson pointed out that especially with the younger generation, we are seeing a shift from beliefs to values. We can build upon shared values, across religious differences, for long-term engagement.

Key Takeaways from the Symposium:

●      It is our responsibility, both as members of faith communities and ordinary citizens, to step up in whatever way we can in the face of injustice, prejudice, and bigotry. Where can we leverage the organizing power of faith communities to rally around advocacy? In the past, some religious communities have been docile, but this past year has been a wake up call to become more engaged.

●      Remember that choosing to act or not act is a sign of privilege. Some do not have that choice: they could literally be killed or deported if they act. A related note that is important to address within communities is that we might still be gaining privilege from an injustice even when we act against that injustice.

●      To do this work effectively, we must examine and actively respond to internalized biases in our communities. There is a balance between looking inward and looking outward, different layers of work that we have to do together. Education is key, but so is action. We cannot let guilt lead to paralysis.

●      When we reach out to others: who are we leaving out, and why? The answer might vary for different communities, but we can all try to expand our reach as we embrace inclusivity. For example, anti-Semitism is often ignored or quickly dismissed. And some people who loudly protested the travel bans – defending the rights of non-Americans – have ignored the injustices to their fellow black Americans. Even at this symposium, there was almost no inclusion people of faith with a queer or trans identity. No one should feel invisible. How can we do better?

●      Radical love has to come into our theology. Reach out, form unlikely relationships, do not get caught up in a good/bad duality.

●      We must commit to interfaith relationship building for the long haul, and go deeper than scattered, disconnected events.

●      Never underestimate the importance of community. Many people believe that evil grows out of organized religion, but in general, community building makes us stronger. We need to build communities beyond Abrahamic faith and have more programming that creates opportunities for community.

●      We must learn about and learn from history – and our complicities – and apply those learnings to the present. For example, Central American immigrants working in our area are being deported by ICE. Our own government is doing divisive things to our society now that have parallels in the past. We must remember what happens when we do not speak up. At the same time, we also need to plan for what happens “after the revolution.” As people of faith, and as humans, we need to make sure the oppressed do not become oppressors. Remember that it has happened before.

●      We must connect the safety of ourselves and our own groups to the safety of others.

●      It is important to structure conversations in ways that do not provoke defensiveness. How do you move people with more privilege to a place of being allies, rather than backing them into a position of being the oppressor?

●      In dialogues with others, always ask “is there more?” Instead of sealing off knowledge bases, we need to extend our understanding that we are all in a web. We need to embrace the next level of conversation. Our hearts must be ready to hear.

●      We might not always agree on how to move forward. But even though violence is bad, conflict is not necessarily bad. There is a lot of work to do, both within our faith communities and across wider divides. The time to start is now.

This report was prepared by Rachel Mason. She is the Program Manager at Karuna Center for Peacebuilding. 



[1] “Radical hospitality” has been defined differently by different faith leaders and congregations, but generally implies going beyond just greeting newcomers. Many sources are available online with suggestions and examples.

[2] “Neurodiversity” refers to the idea that neurological differences expressed as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, etc, should be recognized and respected as much as other forms of diversity. “Ableism” refers to discrimination in favor of able-bodied people. It is often due to lack of awareness of the needs of others.

The Future of the Iran Nuclear Deal - A Backgrounder

January 11, 2017


1. What could happen to the Iran nuclear deal on Friday?

The Iran nuclear Deal remains in peril as it is unclear how President Trump will respond to two key questions that have looming deadlines this week. Will the U.S. waive sanctions against Iran? And will the U.S. certify the agreement? Also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed between Iran, the U.S. and five other countries (UK, France, Germany, China, Russia), the Iran nuclear deal requires sanctions relief in exchange for Iran limiting its nuclear program. U.S. sanctions against Iran have remained in place since 1979—however, since the agreement was signed in 2015, successive U.S. presidents have waived sanctions every 120 days to keep the deal alive. If President Trump decides at the end of the week not to waive sanctions against Iran, he will violate America’s end of the agreement and trigger the unraveling of the Iran nuclear deal. The second question regards the deal’s certification, which is congressionally mandated and not part of the agreement itself. When the U.S. signed off on the JCPOA in 2015, Congress required that the U.S. president certify every 90 days that Iran met its obligations under the deal. The International Atomic Agency (IAEA) and the U.S. government have consistently certified Iran’s compliance over the past two years. However, in October 2017, the president decertified the deal saying it was not in American’s national security interest.  He left it to Congress to either ‘fix’ the agreement (by making restrictions on Iran’s nuclear capacity permanent) or re-impose sanctions on Iran. The deadline for Congress to re-impose sanctions on Iran lapsed in December and the ball is back in President Trump’s court.

2. What efforts are underway to preserve the Iran nuclear deal?

While nothing is for certain until an announcement is made on Friday, the AP is reporting that efforts by Secretary of State Tillerson, Defense Secretary Mattis, and National Security Advisor McMaster to keep the U.S. in the deal might bear fruit. They have for months tried to convince the president to keep the core agreement in place, while they work to ‘fix’ the nuclear agreement. Secretary Tillerson has engaged with congressional leaders to formulate legislation that would “punish Iran’s ballistic missile testing, alleged terrorism support and human rights violations.” According to the AP, as the Friday deadline approaches, Tillerson has tried to convince President Trump that there is enough activity in Congress to amend the agreement, and that if he keeps the deal alive for the next three months by signing the sanctions waiver on Friday, Congress could strengthen the deal by May. Meanwhile, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Corker (D-MD) and Senator Cardin (R-TN) have tried to come up with legislation that would make the review process associated with the Iran deal more palatable to the president—for instance, by adding a provision that prevents the need for presidential certification every 90 days. They recognize this is a constant irritant to the president, who has maintained that this is the “worst deal ever” and does not want to be the one to certify Iran’s compliance.

3. How might European signatories to the nuclear deal react if America reneges?

Since Trump’s decertification of the Iran nuclear deal last October, European governments have been less concerned with lobbying the U.S. and have instead reaffirmed their commitment to the deal directly to Iran. They have further indicated that if the U.S. decides to scrap the deal, they will rely on a European Union statute from the 1990’s that would allow European companies to continue to trade with Iran despite the potential re-imposition of sanctions by the United States.

For some, there is an even larger issue at stake—as one Iranian analyst put it:

“But this time around, the survival of the nuclear deal is no longer just about Iran’s centrifuges and sunset clauses. It’s about whether the EU will see the U.S. as a pillar of the liberal international order or as a fifth column seeking its demise. The nuclear deal has become the latest, and perhaps most consequential, international agreement or norm that the EU seeks to uphold and Trump seeks to tear down: from the Paris agreement, to the future of NATO, to the unity of the EU, to the funding of the United Nations, to the status of Jerusalem”.