Old Lyme forum promotes interfaith dialogue and addresses Muslim misperceptions

Nada Safadi Awwa, left, a long-time Old Lyme resident original from Syria, laughs with Colleen Keyes during a conversation on Sunday, March 11, 2018 at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme. The event, 'Honest Conversations with Muslim Neighbors,' was cosponsored by the Connecticut Council for Interreligious Understanding, Hartford Seminary, and the Muslim Coalition of Connecticut. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Nada Safadi Awwa, left, a long-time Old Lyme resident original from Syria, laughs with Colleen Keyes during a conversation on Sunday, March 11, 2018 at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme. The event, "Honest Conversations with Muslim Neighbors," was cosponsored by the Connecticut Council for Interreligious Understanding, Hartford Seminary, and the Muslim Coalition of Connecticut. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

Old Lyme — With reports of fear and animosity directed at Muslims increasing in recent years, dozens of residents attempted to learn more about their Muslim neighbors on Sunday.

More than 50 people gathered Sunday at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme for an interfaith dialogue dubbed "Honest Conversations with Muslim Neighbors." The event, sponsored by Connecticut Council for Interreligious Understanding, Hartford Seminary and the Muslim Coalition of Connecticut allowed residents to ask questions about an often-misunderstood religion.

Panelists included several people from throughout the state with deep ties to the Muslim community, including Nada Safadi Awwa, who is involved in efforts to support Syrian refugees and has taught Arabic at Connecticut College and Yale University; Colleen Keyes, who serves on the boards of directors of CAIR-CT, Muslim Coalition of CT, and Institute for Muslim Mental Health; and Reza Mansoor, a cardiologist at Hartford Hospital and president of the Islamic Association of Greater Hartford.

"Anything we do like this to encourage civil discourse is good," said Mansoor during the forum.

The discussion was just one of dozens of such forums that have occurred throughout the state, but residents came prepared Sunday with a variety of questions, and often nuanced ones at that.

Among the topics discussed were the Muslim perspective on other religions, gender equality and need to update laws, and terrorism.

“The vast majority of the Muslim world are just people trying to live their lives like you and I are,” said Keyes when addressing a question regarding the relationship of Islam to terrorism.

She added that of the 1.6 billion to 1.7 billion Muslims in the world a very, very small number are engaged in terrorist acts.

She also added that dozens of Muslim organizations such as ISNA, ICNA, and every major Muslim scholar publicly decry those terrorist acts, the statements rarely get much coverage because “blood and violence sells.”

Mansoor also added that another misconception is the way the term  ‘jihad’ has been misappropriated. He said that a jihad is a moral, ethical struggle to be the best you can be as an individual and as a society, and that is not what a terrorist act represents.

“I hate the word jihadists because it almost gives the terrorists the notion that this is a jihad,” said Mansoor. “We shouldn’t be giving them any legitimacy in that quest.”

This misappropriation and misrepresentation of jihad also tied to another recurring theme that came up during the discussion: the frequent mischaracterization of Islam as a violent religion and the misrepresentation of several conflicts that have occurred in the Middle East as being ones that are by nature about religion.

“Most of the violence is because of political conflicts and it is important to differentiate politics from religion,” said Mansoor. “Conflicts that are happening in the Middle East are political conflicts based on land, power, oil, all of those.”

The discussion closed with an open question directed at all the panelists and audience members focusing on what other things people would like to see going forward as groups try to come together for interfaith dialogue.

One audience member stressed the importance of trying to find a way to bring people to the dialogues who may have harsher views of Muslims and the importance of creating an environment for those people where discussion would not seem like an ambush.

Another important thing that Awwa suggested would be important was making efforts to make Muslims feel more accepted in society as a whole as well.

“I think showing more acceptance of Muslims in society, visible acceptance, will make Muslims feel like they belong,” said Awwa, who is also a long-time Old Lyme resident and Syrian immigrant. “I don’t know how everyone can find a way, but the more you alienate people the more you push them against the wall, the less they are likely to feel this is their country.”

c.clark@theday.com

Reza Manor, a cardiologist at Hartford Hospital, speaks during a conversation on Sunday, March 11, 2018 at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme. The event, 'Honest Conversations with Muslim Neighbors,' was cosponsored by the Connecticut Council for Interreligious Understanding, Hartford Seminary, and the Muslim Coalition of Connecticut. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Reza Manor, a cardiologist at Hartford Hospital, speaks during a conversation on Sunday, March 11, 2018 at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme. The event, "Honest Conversations with Muslim Neighbors," was cosponsored by the Connecticut Council for Interreligious Understanding, Hartford Seminary, and the Muslim Coalition of Connecticut. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
A crowd listens during a conversation on Sunday, March 11, 2018 at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme. The event, 'Honest Conversations with Muslim Neighbors,' was cosponsored by the Connecticut Council for Interreligious Understanding, Hartford Seminary, and the Muslim Coalition of Connecticut. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
A crowd listens during a conversation on Sunday, March 11, 2018 at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme. The event, "Honest Conversations with Muslim Neighbors," was cosponsored by the Connecticut Council for Interreligious Understanding, Hartford Seminary, and the Muslim Coalition of Connecticut. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

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