FACING TOMORROW:
THE ISRAELI PRESIDENTIAL CONFERENCE 2009 JERUSALEM

By Raheel Raza
October 20 -22, 2009

When I received an invitation from President Shimon Peres to speak at Facing Tomorrow - The Israeli Presidential Conference 2009, I initially thought it was a joke. But I showed it to my Jewish friends who clarified that is indeed a genuine invitation for the second year of the conference.

Facing Tomorrow is the brainchild of President Shimon Peres whose inspiration behind this event is his quote which was on the invitation “My fate has placed me at the heart of historical tempests, peaks to chasms replete with sadness. I have learnt crises, fascinating opportunities can emerge. I have such opportunities are elusive, and are willing to those with a loving heart and an optimistic spirit”.

The conference, held in tandem with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was hosted keeping in mind that the world, its nations and specially Israel are in crisis. So bringing together almost 50 international visionaries and luminaries, thinkers and philosophers, movers and shakers, financial experts and scientists, authors and academics under one roof for dialogue and debate would perhaps be a doorway to ideas about change for facing tomorrow. About 3000 people attended the conference with 1000 participating from around the world.

Fact that the conference was impeccably designed and immaculately executed goes to the credit of the President and his team of organizers. The two day conference was divided into Plenary and Panel discussions, taking place at the Congress Center of the Jerusalem International Convention Center. The topics ranged from mundane issues like “What will we eat tomorrow?” to “Are we in the midst of a crisis of values?’ to “Jewish Peoplehood”, “Islam between moderation and extremism” and “Should the Jewish world be reorganized”.

I had been approached by media before I came here, for an interview regarding Muslim women. The two other Muslim woman at the conference were Nigerian Hauwa Ibrahim, International human rights lawyer; and Geneive Abdo, Author, “No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam”. The local journalist set us up in the hotel board room and soon we realized that she already had a preconceived notion of how Muslim women should be, so she just wanted us to validate her stereotype – that Muslim women are oppressed. Well she was in for a big surprise and it’s no wonder that we haven’t seen the article yet. It’s unfortunate that we spent 2 hours with her and couldn’t convince her about not generalizing and the diversity of our kind. We feel that she was very surprised to face three outspoken women who were happy to be Muslim!

Back to the conference. The plenary sessions were the most thought provoking and I was amazed at the fact that President Shimon Peres, in his eighties, attended nearly every session personally. Participants included U. S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, Croatian President Stjepan Mesic, Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov, Chinese Minister of Information Wong Chan, Canadian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, French Foreign Trade Minister Anne-Marie Idrac, Moroccan royal counselor Andre Azoulay, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, Skype President Josh Silverman, Indian guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Nir Barkat (Mayor of Jerusalem), and Jose Maria Aznar (former PM of Spain).

The opening plenary was addressed by the President, Tony Blair and Binyamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel setting the tone of the conference, and six plenary sessions that took place over two days, addressed both challenges and opportunities. There was stress on New Media Making Tomorrow and we heard about the prospect of computers in our brain and microchips under our skin. Other plenary topics ranged from turning crisis into opportunity, Middle East peace prospects, the Global Economic Crisis, the environment and energy.

In a conversation between leaders, Susan Rice spoke about peace in the Middle East stressing that it was necessary to "decide whether we are serious about peace or whether we will lend it only lip service." She went on to say "Being serious about peace means understanding that tomorrow need not look like yesterday," she said, "that Israel can find peace, security, and prosperity with not just its immediate neighbors but in the region as a whole, and that Israel can truly and fully take its rightful place among the nations, and that Palestinians can at last enjoy the dignity and blessings of freedom in an independent state of their own."

The panel discussions held simultaneously over two days, addressed a variety of critical issues giving participants a challenge of deciding what to attend. However all sessions were full, showing how enthusiastic all attendees were to dialogue with each other. I attended “Islam – between moderation and extremism” because of my special interest. In the brochure this is how it was advertised: “Countless Muslims object to the stigma that the West has of the Muslim world, contending that the Bin Ladens and the Ahmadinejads of the world do not represent genuine Muslim values. They further argue the paradox between Islam and democracy is antiquated. How then is the internal Islamic struggle between extremism and moderation being conducted? And should the West intervene in order to ensure that the moderates triumph? “ I wasn’t surprised that there was standing room only.

Raquel Ukeles, Islamic and Jewish studies professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and moderator of the panel began the discussion by stating that there is too much focus in Western society on extremist Muslims. ‘Moderate’ Muslims have yet to enter the political, social and cultural arenas as key players in today’s changing world due to the fact that they receive little attention from the West and fellow extremist Muslim groups. Ukeles went on to say that the lack of understanding of contemporary Islam has direct policy implications, and it is important to give voice to ‘non-radical contemporary Muslim movements.’

Geneive Abdo, Author, “No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam”; Feature Journalist, The New York Times, The Washington Post and the International Herald Tribune, BBC, NPR, CNN and PBS spoke about The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt which used to be radical, now functions between moderate and progressive Islam i.e. is religiously conservative but moderate, which she said is hard for western governments to accept and deal with.

Dr. Mohammed S. Dajani Daoudi, member of the Palestinian Authority, and founder of the Wasatia movement, began by saying “in times of extremism, being moderate is revolutionary.” The word ‘wasatia’ in Arabic means ‘a moderate way.’ He promotes his movement throughout Palestinian society with the goal of resisting the adoption of radical Islam, embracing the acknowledgement of other religions and peoples, and interpreting passages in the Quran to be peaceful. He ended by saying “nationalism separates us, religion separates us. Wasatia can bring us together.” His book WASATIA was available for all attendees. Approaching the issue of coexistence from another side, Andre Azoulay, Counselor to the King of Morocco, is a Moroccan Jew who said “the spirit of Jews is still alive in Morocco”. He has witnessed the coexistence of Jews and Arabs in his home country. He calls himself part Jewish, part Berber and part Arab Muslim. He said “Islam exists by itself, it does not need to be labeled as ‘moderate’ or ‘extremist’” he said. He called this a “trend that is unfortunately labeling Muslims and is polluting our minds and culture.” He said that “to resist and to fight anti-Semitism, means also that as Jews we have to fight and resist Islamophobia”. He called upon the audience to remember that the Holocaust was caused by a Christian group and that some of the only places that offered Jews refuge during that time were Arab nations.

Hauwa Ibrahim from Nigeria who is now a fellow at Harvard Law, spoke about the need to work with the fundamentalists. She told stories about how she has found ways in which to approach and deal with conservative elements of Islamic leadership especially in dealing with sharia law in parts of Africa. She also clarified that Africa is a huge continent with diverse communities, cultures and laws. Directly addressing the topic of radical Islam, Dr. Tawfik Hamid, Egyptian author and scholar of the subject claims that there are three main roots to the problem. Having been indoctrinated himself by a terrorist group, he said that the “lack of theologically based peaceful interpretations” is a main issue in the vision of these extremist groups. Furthermore, he noted the “oppression of critical thinking” notably in religious institutions. Finally, he criticized the literal interpretation of passages from the Quran, which extremists take as permission to act violently towards those who are different. He emphasized that it is important to introduce disciplines such as cognitive psychology in the education of interpreting the Quran so that students can rely also on their conscience as a human beings when making religious decisions. “Having governments involved in the process of implementing these educational systems” he said, “is an effective way” to change the thought process of young Muslims across the world. When looking towards the future, the panelists were asked whether the West should negotiate and engage with these Muslim movements, even supporting them. The responses were mixed. “Yes,” says Hamid, “Western governments should be involved simply because they are affected by it.” He concluded by saying “I believe the Egyptian government is interested in defeating radical Islam” as well as other countries in Northern Africa.

Although she agreed with Hamid, Geneive Abdo, author and journalist who specializes in Egypt and Islam, warned that Western governments are engaging with the wrong people. She said that activists around the world tend to speak on behalf of these groups to the West, but they have no connection with them. She believes that “the absence of engagement is leading us to a dangerous policy.” Daoudi concluded that although it is important to engage with these groups, Western governments must speak the language of the Arab world. “If the West can speak the language of Islam, then it can be able to reach the Arab world from that angle.” Later that day, I participated in my panel titled “Stop the World, I want to Get Off!”. Since it was end of the day and the title was vague, I thought we would have a very small attendance. To my pleasant surprise, the room was full and people standing. I was on an eclectic panel with Muslim, Christian, Hindu and Jewish speakers.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (who more than once was approached as the musician Ravi Shankar!) and runs the Art of Living Foundation, spoke about the increase in world mental illness and the need to deal with this problems especially for our youth. Andrés Isaac Roemer from Mexico Professor of Public Administration; Creator, Producer and Television Host currently working on: “Debate: Think Mexico"; “Between Public and Private" and the Festival “Dialogue: Ideas City" & author of a book on Generation Next did a hilarious power point with animation and graphics. A’Lelia Bundles, Former Executive, ABC News and NBC News; Author and Eva Illouz, Professor of Sociology and Anthropology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Author, "Cold Intimacies: Emotions and Late Capitalism" spoke about the importance of family and relationships. Closing speaker Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a psychosexual therapist and a pioneer in using the media to provide sexual literacy, brought the house down by starting with “I don’t like quickies” (referring to our limited speaking time) and then went on to charm the room with her quips and wisdom. Throughout the conference she was a favorite with all the young people for her humour and warmth, thanking people by saying “may you have better sex!”

Democracy was experienced at its best at the closing plenary “Israel 2020 – The Vision of our Leaders” at which Ehud Barak (Vice Prime Minister & Minister of Defence, Chairman of the Labour party) faced off with Eli Yishai (Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, Chairman Shas Party) and Tzipi Livni (Chairperson of the Opposition and Kadima Party). It was refreshing to hear that while they have a common vision for Israel, their methods of achieving that aim differ. More importantly they were able to debate and challenge each other with ease. Once the academic part of the conference was over, I was ready for the spiritual part of my trip. The conference ended Thursday night and on Friday I got dressed early and left for Al Aqsa.

The taxi driver dropped me off at the Dung gate which is closest to the Masjid and I just followed women in headscarves. At the entrance of the compound which encloses Al Aqsa and The Dome, I was stopped, questioned and my passport checked. The guard said “Rach-eel? You are Jewish”. It wasn’t a question. I said No. He said “you are convert from Jewish?” I said I’m Pakistani. He said “you married to Jewish?” I said I married to Pakistani. And so we went back and forth, until he called me a Taliban and let me go. Then I startled him and the other serious officers by laughing uncontrollably because I suddenly recalled that at departure from Toronto, I was specially called aside and questioned about my name because they thought I was Iranian! The security insisted “Raza” is an Iranian name and knew the meaning of it. I’m lucky my place of birth on the passport is Karachi! So between the Israelis thinking I’m Iranian and the Muslims insisting I’m Jewish, I eventually got in and prayed my Juma prayers inside the Dome of the Rock which was a treat because normally The Dome is not used as a masjid except on Fridays when there is an overflow of people in Al Aqsa so the women pray inside the Dome. My intellect stimulated and my spirituality satisfied, I returned home one contented soul.

Complete details of the conference are on:

http://www.presidentconf.org.il


 

JOURNEYS TO THE CENTER OF MY HEART: BEARING WITNESS TO TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION –
By Raheel Raza
Ottawa, October 15, 2009

When I received the invitation from the Governor General to attend a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa to listen and learn from the legacy of the Indian Residential Schools, I never thought this would be another poignant journey of the heart. Being an avid fan and admirer of GC, I went because of her.

When I arrived at One Sussex Drive, I was offered a stone or a piece of wood as a token. I was surprised to note that there were only about 100 people there, all seated in semi circles as is the tradition. There were survivors of the residential schools, their children, commissioners, people of faith and some invited guests all seated in a room with a huge mural across one wall painted by an Ojibway artist.

As luck has it, I was sitting next to the door from where Her Excellency The Right Honourable Michaelle Jean made her entrance and I was blown away when in making eye contact with me, she touched her hand to her heart in greeting. I knew then that I was not here due to any co-incidence but that this was another journey of the heart.

That it was. From start to finish it was heart to heart. An elder of the Algonquin Nation opened with a prayer that touched my soul, holding sweetgrass for honesty with calls to the Creator to open our ears so we can hear and our hearts so we can feel with compassion. As an introduction we were told about the power of racism and prejudice that overpowered the cries of children taken away from their homes. We were made aware that individuals and nations can only start a new beginning when an apology from the heart leads to the healing of hearts.

Then Michaelle Jean spoke and everyone was in awe. She presented her message in soft words; full of compassion and respect for the communities she was addressing that represented First Nations peoples from all over Canada. I understood why they’re called First Nations because they were the original inhabitants of this land thousands of years before the white man came. Her Excellency said that these are the civilizations that shaped our history, not in conflict but in harmony with the circle of life and in harmony with nature.

This description of the First Nations communities feeds into my fascination with this community which began many years ago when I met Ward Churchill and realized that we know very little about the people who lived in these lands long before us. Recently I visited Whistler BC, home of the Squamish and Lil’wat nations and learnt their history so I am hooked.

Her Excellency went on to say that Canada’s history is both glorious and dark. The chapter of the residential schools is a dark one. She explained how First Nations parents and grandparents were told that they had nothing to offer their children, so the children were forcefully place in residential schools and stripped of their language, culture and traditions. “We need to consider that all Canadians have lost” she said as tears ran down the faces of almost everyone in the room, “an opportunity to have learnt from the elders of the nation.” She said the time has come to travel the road of truth, to speak up and work together. Her next words struck a chord in my heart. “When the present doesn’t recognize the mistakes of the past, the future goes wrong.”

She stressed that in order to have reconciliation; there must be recognition that something went wrong. The next speaker was Murray Sinclair, a survivor and Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He explained that this commission was created because a few courageous survivors decided to speak out, despite their pain and trauma. He mentioned that the residential school movement had affected more than 80,000 Inuit, Metei and others – their spirits were stolen, their families taken away, their culture and traditions destroyed. Mr. Sinclair explained that there will be a series of national events over the next few years where truth will be told.

I heard what it means to “Bear Witness”. This is a very important spiritual tradition for First Nations. “To know the truth, we must start telling it. The listeners validate the truth.” A group of survivors along with Christian Priests stood up and spoke about the dark past with hope that the time has come to speak out, work together and travel the path of truth and reconciliation. Marie Wilson, the spouse of a survivor said that this chapter of Canada’s history belongs to everyone, that this is not about individuals but communal, as the events of the residential schools had far reaching implications.

Then we faced the heartrending portion of seeing and hearing stories of the survivors, many of them grandparents who brought their children and grandchildren with them. They spoke of the pain and humiliation, but with dignity and no hate. Following this, both aboriginal and non-aboriginal youth brought gifts of healing – for friendship, trust, hope, compassion, community for the past and future and we were invited to add our tokens to the baskets as well. I found the rituals very meaningful. Nothing was overdone or dramatized and I wept at their stories, moved and touched by their dignity and humbleness.

I came away with a pin of the logo of truth and reconciliation. A flame to illuminate, transform and purify. I came away with a deep respect for these communities who have so much to teach us and about whom we know so little. I came away with a resolve to be a witness and tell their stories to the world with the same wisdom and respect that they do. I came away with hope for the rest of the world that they too will learn that reconciliation and peace come with an honest recognition that some wrong has been done.


 

From Su-shi to Su-fi – our eid celebrations and explorations -
By Raheel Raza
October 2009

The heart's abode it purifies
The dervish into phoenix it transforms
To the Realm of the Divine it leads
'Tis the Remembrance of the Lord,

- Pir Nureddin al-Jerrahi
from the website of the Jerrahi sufis. www.jerrahi.ca

The su-shi part of my family i.e. my offspring of the sunni-shia variety plus my grandson the Mexi-Paki did some interesting explorations this eid. We were all inspired by Sheikh Tevfik Adoner of the Jerrahi Sufi order of Canada, who had come to our home on 15 Ramzan for zikr. Tevfik Baba is an incredible human being whose business card reads “faqir”(servant). When I invited him, he was fasting and hosting people that evening but he left the gathering to cook a meal for dozens of people (which was his job that night) and came all the way to be part of our family zikr for one hour. In this short time he managed to renew, refresh and uplift our souls in ways that will remain forever embedded in the hearts of some guests, consisting of Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Jews. It was a wholly organic experience, from the heart to the heart!

So on Eid day when we discovered that some masjids were still debating whether its eid or not, we decided to try The New Canadian Sufi Cultural Centre, the Dergah of the Jerrahi Sufis. It was a unique experience from the start. All families were in the same section upstairs where there are Turkish carpets and long cushions. Women are to one side on a raised platform and men a bit lower (quite the change from the norm!). Kids run around freely. It was delightful for once to experience eid namaz with my whole family. The namaz was led by Tevfik Baba with a short khutba in English, followed by everyone walking in a circle, wishing Eid Mubarak.

Following this ritual we were invited for Turkish breakfast in the basement. Interestingly there was a bazaar set up alongside, with community members selling pure honey, shoes, jewellry etc. at giveaway prices. It was very revealing to note that the market went hand in hand with the worship, neither taking away from the other. A reminder that we are living a world where we have to work, play, interact and incorporate our spirituality into the reality of this life. Next to Tevfik Baba sat a Church Minister invited from the neighborhood church, keen on making contacts and building bridges. These bridges I noted were being built one step at a time through love, warmth, hospitality, sharing of food, stories and music. Our Eid was complete and unique. The sons and grandson loved the freedom of moving around and sitting to eat with family. We absorbed the ambience and will come back for more – the soul remains hungry for more nurturing. The Jerrahis do this with knowledge, grace and compassion.


 

THE COLORS OF AUTUMN MERGE WITH THE COLOUR OF ISLAM
By Raheel Raza
September 2009

Fonthill United church is nestled on a hill in a small town called Fonthill, near Niagara Falls. It’s a long drive from Toronto, but how many people would be out on the road on a Sunday morning at 8 am? Just a couple of “eternal optimists” and flocks of birds enjoying the end of summer. So we found ourselves in for an easy drive. Me and my protégé Noman.

With the beginning of vibrant colours of autumn on the trees overlooking the church, there was a sign outside saying THE COLOURS OF ISLAM. Perhaps it was this unusual sign that attracted a large number of people to come out to church this Sunday in September – a leap of faith for the visionary Minister, Rev. Dr. Garry van Bruchem who had invited two Muslims to offer a Muslim service in a Christian church.

As the congregation settled, there was a call to worship from the pulpit of the church. This was no ordinary call. It was the azaan (Muslim call to prayer) recited with feeling and passion by Noman who has an extremely melodious and soulful voice. The vibration of the azaan could be felt up to the stained glass ceiling and I saw two women in the front row, wipe their eyes. After the call to prayer, there was pindrop silence as the congregation absorbed what had just happened. Perhaps one of many firsts in this part of the country where a Muslim call to prayer in a church, is not the norm. When I translated the azaan for the congregation, they were moved.

The entire service was a combination of readings from the Qur’an and the Bible, and sayings of Jesus and Mohammad. Noman played sufi soul music and the congregation who had thought that there is no music in Islam were thrilled to the core. We spoke about the united colours of Islam i.e diversity within Islam as well Islam’s relationship with other faith traditions. We expounded on the similarities between the two faiths and it was a message received with open hearts and minds. People came and hugged us and said they were so grateful for the message. There were also tough questions at the end, but when we begin with a call to worship, followed by a hymn from the United church hymn book, the path is already easy. We were refreshed, rejuvenated, revived and rejoiced at the opportunity to reiterate that while there are differences, it’s our commonalities as humans and as people of faith and spirit that bind us together.

Ever so often, in the far reaches of a small town, we re-discover that humanity is really one community.

SEE: Fonthill United Church



HERE ARE THE MODERATE MUSLIM VOICES – is anyone listening?
By Raheel Raza
September 2008

According to a news report from Canadian Press, the Taliban have sent an open letter to “the Canadian people”, threatening to kill more aid workers unless Ottawa pulls out of Afghanistan. Stephen Harper’s Government called this “a propaganda exercise”.

I’m not sure which of the two is more worrying – the Taliban threat or the Canadian Government’s blinkers and inability to see a looming crisis until it’s too late. If and when a disaster hits, there will be the usual rallying cry of where are the moderate Muslim voices. Hello, we are here.  But who’s listening?

Some of us including my family have lived in Canada for two decades now and seen the aftermath of 9/11 and more. There is a concern (which the Canadian government is aware of) that Muslim youth are being radicalized at various venues and through various means.

How is this being done? One method is through the internet where al-Qaeda messages are posted and then distributed widely. Secondly, hordes of Muslims are converging on Canada from all over the world. In their struggle to settle, many parents don’t have time to spend on their kids and hand over their religious education to people who have no credentials and are actually mercenaries preying on exactly such kind of vulnerable newcomers. That combined with the frustration of language, assimilation and anger towards events in Iraq and Afghanistan becomes a volatile combination for youth being sucked into an ideology of radicalization.


The overlying discourse continues to be one of hate for the “other’ – this ‘other’ could be USA, Israel, India or sadly any other Muslim who doesn’t tow the Wahhabi ideology.  While some of these activities have gone underground to be under the radar, radical youth are arrogant and confident enough to hold conferences and seminars were hatred of the West is alive and well. Canadian government agencies seem to be quite aware of this. Yet they continue to meet and work with the same leaders who are involved in the radicalization.

It seems to me that the Canadian government doesn’t wish to hear the voices of the so-called “moderate Muslims” or to work with them. So it’s frustrating when I hear the cries of “where are the moderate Muslim voices?”. Our voices are muffled by the loud denials of the conservative puritans who can’t stomach the simple fact that criticism of Muslims is not criticism of Islam.

Sadly this struggle for our survival as peace-loving, normal Muslims in Canada is no longer about religion. What we are facing is a political ideology gone mad and a battle for power and hegemony in the Muslim world which has found a niche and an audience in North America. This by the way is happening in other communities as well, where extremism has found a home in Canada because they know they can ‘get away with it’ and because the Canadian institutions seem unwilling and unable to take action.  If we don’t deal with this head-on, it will come back to haunt our future generations and this isn’t why we came to Canada.


As an example of government ineptness, why do we still have an Imam in Scarborough who has openly performed polygamous marriages in Toronto which is against Canadian Law. He has also been known to openly recruit youth to fight a Jihad in Afghanistan. Why is he allowed to continue his hate-filled propaganda?
Then we have the head of a Muslim organization who says he speaks for ALL Muslims (not for me!) when he claimed on public television that all Israelis over age 18 are potential targets. Why has no one accused him of human rights violations?  Perhaps it’s because Canadians want to continue being seen as “very nice, peace-loving people” who hide their heads in the sand until something serious happens.

Happen it will – if we continue with the current tunnel vision, it’s just a matter of time before we’ll be forced to wake up and smell the coffee. I’m not fear mongering. Anyone with a vision can read the writing on the wall. That writing gives a very dangerous message. As a peace-loving Canadian member of the Muslim community, it’s my ethical duty to decipher this message for those who are in denial. We have been pussy-footing around the issue for far too long and no one wants to bell the cat for fear of being labeled a “self-hating Muslim”. Well, my friends if an attack takes place on Canadian soil, we will ALL be hated by the mainstream so it’s better to face the truth now than later.


 

OFFICIATING A MARRIAGE IS ALLRIGHT AND A WOMAN’S RIGHT
By Raheel Raza
September 2008

A story in the news and doing rounds on the Internet is about a Muslim wedding in Lucknow, India last month, which was officiated by a woman and had female witnesses.  “Women-led Muslim wedding sparks debate in India” http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5j92

This unorthodox move is totally outside the norm, because Muslim marriages are traditionally officiated by a man, and also witnessed by males. Interestingly, the All India Muslim Personal law Board approved the ceremony led by a woman, much to the angst of Islamic seminaries. Women rights activists see this as a “symbolic step forward for Muslim women” but the story has sparked a fiery controversy being denounced by conservative Islamic institutions as an affront to Islam. There are also personal comments posted on websites carrying the story. One comment reads  “this sounds like an appropriate time to start a violent jihad..”

Well, I hate to inform the detractors and Jihadists that in order to grab all women activists, they’ll have to travel to North America. While I’m thoroughly impressed at this breakthrough in India, my sisters in the struggle need to know that there are others who are also working for dignity and equality for Muslim women as mandated by Islam and practiced by Prophet Mohammad. Sometimes a major step has to be taken outside the box, to break the status quo and smash the barriers of patriarchy.

Recently, I had the honour and privilege of performing my first  Muslim marriage in Toronto. The challenge wasn’t just officiating over the marriage but presiding over an interfaith union. The boy is Muslim and the girl, a Jewish feminist who wanted women in the forefront. They approached me because they had heard about my leading prayer and thought I might want to add another “bullet point” to my bio!

I asked my religious mentor whether this is valid in Islam. He said “of course” explaining that the Muslim Marriage ceremony (called Nikah) is actually a pre-Islamic tradition taken from the Jews by the pagans and later adapted by the Muslims. He also explained that as long as the conditions of the contract are met, any respected member of the community could perform the Nikah.

As a passionate interfaith advocate and someone who has prayed respectfully in churches, synagogues, mosques and temples, I wanted this marriage to have an integrated spirit. After all, I explained to the families, when the Quran refers to Jews as “people of the book”, we have more in common than differences. So why not make this a bridge-building exercise and learn from each other? To give them credit, the young couple trusted me implicitly and the families agreed.

It didn’t take me long to learn that Jewish and Muslim marriages have some similarities. The ketubeh, the mahr or marriage gift and the presence of witnesses are some commonalities.  The wedding was very well organized and attended by about 250 people; mostly families of the bride and groom but also guests of diverse cultures and faiths. Everything from the décor (a Chuppah on stage) to the dress (the bride wore a traditional red Pakistani outfit) and the music (an eclectic ensemble of East and West) was reflective of both traditions.
On stage was the bride’s uncle, the woman who would perform the legal service, the female ring bearer and I. The bride’s uncle explained the significance of the Chuppah as well as smashing a glass by the groom.
When it came time for me to perform the Nikah, I have to admit I was nervous. I started by reciting opening of the Quran, (Fatiha) and once I translated it, I felt totally humbled and uplifted. I knew I was doing this for God and He was witness to my intention. I explained the procedure including that in Islam the woman gives the offer of marriage (the shocked looks on faces showed many people were unaware of this). Then I quoted from the chapter 49 of the Quran where we read “.. We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other”. What better way to know one another, I said, than the union of two people, two faiths and two cultures? Instead of a long-drawn sermon, I read from Rumi and the Nikah was completed by going through all the steps and ending in the final contract, which is part of both Jewish and Muslim traditions.   It was a profound and moving experience.

Once the ceremony was over, there were the usual tears and congratulations. The family of the bride and groom hugged me and said they were very inspired by the ceremony, while sceptics patted me on the back. But my efforts were fully validated when some young people, thrilled at the revolutionary idea of a woman presiding over a marriage, invited me to New York and Los Angeles to perform weddings – both Jewish and Muslim! 


 

HOPE FOR PAKISTAN …. The new generation speaks out!
By Raheel Raza

Pakistan is in the news these days due to upcoming Independence Day celebrations alongside the political crisis brewing there.  We hear of violent demonstrations, random killings and bombings and just when we think that the future is dark, there is a ray of light. Hope comes in the form of a song and film I recently saw.

Yeh Hum Naheen (This is not us) has become an international hit as a music video, and is a passionate cry from the heart of the silent majority. I was touched to the core and moved by the lyrics.  Addressing the victims of terrorism, one line says “Your hurts are a deep sea - our wounds are also deep”. The song among other things, says that all Muslims are not terrorists and has become a powerful voice against violence and radicalization.  The global response to this song was so overwhelming that the creator of the video has set up a foundation to promote peace, tolerance and harmony.  

Yeh Hum Naheen Foundation
(www.yehhumnaheen.org) seeks to bring this message of tolerance, communication, and harmony to the world. The Foundation has plans to build upon the success of the song and develop further projects that will keep the anti-terrorism sentiment alive.

The composer of the song, Shuja Haider has also produced the soundtrack of a film called Khuda Kay Liye
(In the name of God
). Directed and produced by Shoaib Mansoor, this film has revived cinema in Pakistan and has been showing to full houses. The story is about a young Pakistani boy who is sucked into the ideology of violence and terrorism post 9/11 while his brother is trapped in the after shock in USA.   This is the first time I’ve seen a Pakistani film that clearly identifies the deepening chasm between fundamentalist and progressive Muslims, and identifies the causes for radicalization. The film is doing rounds in North America these days.
My ardent hope is that the creators of the video and film will also speak out about the present crisis in Pakistan.  In the current political merry-go-round, there aren’t too many choices. The same politicians who raped and looted our land earlier are in control once again. When the reins of a country are in the hands of well known thugs and hooligans, what can we expect from the masses?

The film and video give me hope that the youth, our new generation of Pakistanis will stand up and say NO to dictatorship, corruption and injustice as they have done to terrorism. Hopefully they realize that there are a few things needed for Pakistan to survive and thrive:

  • A free and independent judiciary plus media

  • Education for the masses so they can exchange weapons of mass destruction for weapons of mass instruction

  • Abolishing the feudal system

  • Giving women and minorities a voice and respect

For too long Pakistan has been ruled by self-serving dictators, so it seemed for a while that Pakistanis had become too apathetic to ask for change. The release of Yeh Hum Naheen and the film In the name of God, are signs that people are waking up to a reality that the enemy is within so change will also come from within.



JOURNEYS TO THE CENTER OF OUR SOUL - Helena’s Voyage and Paul’s journey.

Love expects no reward. Love knows no fear. Love Divine gives - does not demand.
Love thinks no evil; imputes no motive.
To Love is to share and serve.

~Sivananda


By Raheel Raza
July 2008


While I’ve always believed that nothing in life is a co-incidence, there are times when this feeling is so clearly reinforced that it’s like an awakening. Something like this happened to me a few weeks ago.

Last year I spoke on a panel at an event held by University of Toronto called ABRAHAM’S LIGHT. As with public events, I met many people and one of them was a man who said he would have a book out in 2008. I filed that information at the back of my head. Few weeks ago I got an email from Paul Harbridge reminding me where we had met and asking if I would review his book Helena’s Voyage. At this point neither Paul nor the book meant anything to me other than an author promoting a book. I had just had a new grandchild and was a bit selfishly involved in my own life and worries about how to make a living.  So I said we could meet later in the month when I had more time, but Paul called back and said he would drop off a copy.

On Sunday the doorbell rang and I was a bit irritated because I wasn’t expecting anyone and had my grandson in my arms. I opened the door and in an instant something flashed through the eyes of the man standing there and hit my heart. There was immense pain in Paul Harbridge’s eyes as he stood there holding his book. Later he told me that the sight of a baby in my arms made him weep on the way home. Only later I discovered that Paul’s 18 year old daughter Helena had died in her sleep and this book is dedicated to her. Although this is Paul and Helena’s story there is a deep personal connection. I realized when I saw Paul standing at my doorstep that my life was meant to be a bridge for others – the only tears I could weep would have to be for others and that my purpose in life was not me – but people like Paul crying out for spiritual aid! How foolish and petty are my worries compared to the enormous weight carried by people like Paul. I was humbled beyond belief and thrown into action.

I met Paul the following week to get details and this is his journey about Helena’s voyage. Paul Harbridge is a speech language pathologist living in Toronto. He had two children, a son named Daniel who is 25 and a daughter named Helena. Paul’s wife is from Spain so he says that he always felt his kids carried in them a dual heritage – their Spanish heritage which Paul associates with the grandeur of Spain when three traditions thrived there. Paul and his family often travelled to Spain.

Paul was raised as an evangelical Christian but later he became a devout Catholic. He says he was religious but never spiritual until Helena passed away. Helena was his love and joy.

“Helena had a special sparkle, she was full of life”. When Helena was a child she had asthma and would call herself “ a sick girl”. However she grew up to be strong and played in golf tournaments becoming a top golfer for the Canadian Junior Golf Association in 2004. Academically Helena was so bright that she got a scholarship to University of West Georgia and went to study there. Helena was always helpful with other kids and was known to have a warm and loving heart.

On Easter Saturday in 2006, Helena was getting ready to come home to her family in Toronto. She called in the morning and said she was going to take a nap and call later in the evening to give her flight details. She never woke up. The University found her the next day when she didn’t call home and the parents panicked. Doctors said it was some form of heart arrhythmia.

The family flew to Georgia and brought Helena’s body home. That night Helena’s brother Daniel stood in the porch of their home and cried so much that a mound of tears was frozen near the door. Paul says he remembers that night – he felt his heart would burst. He looked up to heaven and asked God “How am I going to get through this? What am I going to do with all the love I have for my daughter?”  He says he heard a response as though from Helena. The response was “Find a spiritual path and spread the love. Look after people and give them love.”

Paul and his wife started reading, mediation and contemplation. It wasn’t easy. “Pictures of Helena would flash in front of my eyes and if there had been a way to leave life to go and be with her, I would have done so”. At this point in life Paul heard Karen Armstrong on TV and she mentioned two books. One was The History of God and the other was The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain by Maria Rosa Menocal. Paul got both books and started to read them. He says “I was fascinated by the connectedness between the three Abrahamic  traditions”. 

Partway through the books, he and his wife went to Spain to see his in-laws and he read the rest of the books there. “Reading about Spain in Spain was more inspirational than I could have thought. Here is where an idea took seed in my mind to write a story about a Jewish girl whose grandfather was a physician in the court of Spain.” Paul is not an artist or a painter but he doodles. “One day I doodled a picture of a teddy bear in a boat entering a Jewish City – the teddy bear became a young girl and it took me exactly half a day to write Helena’s Voyage.”  What about the illustrations? “My wife encouraged me to try and draw but that was hard. I drew the last page first – it took me 12 hours for every illustration. But I did it and that was how Helena’s Voyage came about.” Paul’s son Daniel put the book on You Tube and made the DVD adding spiritual music.

For Paul this was also his spiritual awakening. “Every time I went to the computer to write, I used to light two candles. One for Helena and one for her Spanish grandfather”.

Paul says his other purpose for writing the book is “at the time I was reading Armstrong and Menocal I was also seeing images on TV of parents holding their dead children, killed by bombs, in the Middle East and because I had lost Helena, I knew their grief for the first time in my life. That too influenced my decision to write Helena's Voyage.”

I asked Paul what is his vision for Helena’s Voyage and he said “I think my real dream is to one day seeing Jews, Christians and Muslims united (not one religion but united in purpose) to bring the word of God to a broken secular materialistic numbers-focused world.  To tell others that there is a God that loves us all, that there are universal divine laws to guide us, that there is a Spirit to strengthen us and give us wisdom, that true happiness comes when we submit ourselves to doing God's will, and that love is the only true force in this universe for God is love. Wouldn't it be wonderful to see us, our differences set aside, our commonality assumed, all working side by side to do God's work? That is my dream.”
In some ways Paul Harbridge and Helena’s Voyage have reinforced that need for spreading God’s love and God’s word. I want to help get the word out because there are many different ways this is being done and I want to be a miniscule part of that labor of love.


For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.
~Rainer Maria Rilke

Helena’s Voyage will be released in July but is available on Amazon and at Chapters. Meanwhile here is information about the book. The book is simple yet profound and the best review is from the children for whom it was written although it’s a book that should be read by every adult as well.
www.helenasvoyage.com 

Paul welcomes this being posted on websites.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ywz5QZRHoC4
 
Paul did his first reading at the school where Helena studied as a child. The school has laid a brick in Helena’s name.

Helena’s Voyage Reviews by Children in a Grade 6 class in Toronto
I really liked this book. It is an important thing for everyone to read. It has a revolutionary idea and shows how we can all get along. It has a deep meaning with great artistic simplicity. Helena’s Voyage is about a girl who is visited by an angel and taken on a journey to three cities. They are greeted by a man and a boy at each city who will help teach her a special message. Heydon, Grade 6

I was truly inspired by Paul Harbridge’s story. His book was really interesting and I enjoyed reading it. The illustrations were so simple, but matched the story perfectly. I still can’t believe he did them on Paint! It shows how much he loved Helena by writing a book dedicated to her. I love the book and will definitely buy it! Danielle, Grade 6

I have to say that Paul Harbridge is the most impressive 1st time author ever! I enjoyed listening to his story and seeing how he could still write an amazing book. The pictures were simple but I thought they matched the book. To me the book was a big hit and I’m sure that every child that reads it would not only realize the message that is sent out but they would love it. Congratulations Paul Harbridge. Good Job! Sincerely,  Antoinette, Grade 6

The story was really good and I think it will be a best seller. The main story was really original and the pictures were great. The pictures were great because since it was made by “Paint” in the computer, it would be very hard for me to draw. It was very very detailed. At the end of the story, there is a translated version of the story in Hebrew and Arabic which is a pretty cool thing. In conclusion, this book is a good book for kids in grade 5 and up. I also hope that I help the person who is reading this.
Jared, Grade 6

“Helena’s Voyage” was a pretty good book. I like the way you put 3 religions in your story. If someone was really sensitive and read this book, that person would probably cry (that’s a compliment). If people from those 3 religions read this book, those people might not fight with other religions. I loved the illustrations in your book. They were really good. Christina, Grade 6

Paul Harbridge is an amazing author, not to mention a great illustrator! He had great ideas for his book and it can inspire many children around the world about religions co-operating with each other. May God bless Helena on her great voyage.  Elysia, Grade 6

When Paul Harbridge came in to talk about his daughter I thought it was awesome. I thought it was awesome because it was his first time. He did a great job. His illustrations were amazing because it was different than all the other illustrations. It was really neat how he has it in different languages. Another thing was how he used those symbols and made the picture in a medallion. It was very interesting and awesome. Thank you for coming in very much. Shealagh, Grade 6

When Paul Harbridge came in to tell us all about Helena and the wonderful book he had written I was amazed on how athletic Helena was. The things I heard about her made me realize that she liked the way she was, it was like I knew Helena, like she was my friend. It was as if I was looking at Helena like she was an angel. Paul Harbridge showed us trophies and pictures of Helena, he also showed us the book, trailer and movie. Stephanie, Grade 6

Paul Harbridge did a wonderful job of teaching children that we are all different but we are all God’s children. For such a beautiful book with a strong message, the pictures were very simple and heavenly. For a first time author, Paul Harbridge did a wonderful job! This book should be read around the world so that the message can be spread. Congratulations to Paul Harbridge and all his success! Sydney, Grade 6

Our neighbour is God and everyone living on earth. Stephanie, Grade 6

I thought the book and DVD was excellent! The pictures were very good simple, which is good. I liked how there were three different religions and how it showed we’re all one God, many voices, one people. Paul Harbridge is a great children’s author! Victoria, Grade 6


 

Don't Fear Islamophobia
published in The Ottawa Citizen and Vancouver Sun

The wide-scale persecution of Muslims in Canada occurs mainly in the minds of an aggrieved and politically motivated few.

By Raheel Raza
June 2008

There is one particular aspect of the long-drawn human rights debacle involving Mark Steyn and Maclean's magazine that continues to trouble me. This concern goes far beyond the principals involved in a hearing before the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.

My unease lies in the constant use of the term "Islamophobia." Since I don't want to spend an inordinate amount of time counting how many times the "I" word was used by the complainants in the Steyn case, all I can say is that it's one too many.

One might think there's an epidemic of Islam-bashing rampant in Canada. We have conferences and panels on Islamophobia. It's a hot topic at the pulpit. The bungling of some Canadian institutions in handling terrorism suspects only adds fuel to the fire.

Let's take a moment to debunk Islamophobia. The term was first coined in the 1980s but gained momentum after 9/11. In 1997, the British Runnymede Trust think tank defined Islamophobia as the "dread or hatred of Islam and therefore ... the fear and dislike of all Muslims," stating that it also refers to the practice of discriminating against Muslims by excluding them from the economic, social, and public life of the nation.

But many Muslims in the West use Islamophobia as a penalty card against free speech whenever there is criticism of Muslims. This reactionary response is stifling dialogue, debate and discussion -- all signs of a healthy thriving democracy. When I last checked, Canada still was one, but I fear Canadians are being held hostage by a small group of people who insist they speak for all Canadian Muslims.

They certainly don't speak for me.

Don't get me wrong. As a devout Muslim, I cherish and respect my faith. However, the question I ask is how much Islam is harmed by those demonizing it. From Dante's Inferno to the Danish Cartoons, there have always been people who demean Islam. Does this harm the faith? No.

We would have to be very insecure in our faith to think that the workings of evil minds and dirty politics would harm a strong, vibrant religion that has flourished for 1,400 years despite hostility and hate. I see no need for us to be apologists or defenders of the faith. Islam will survive, thank you.

But will Canadian Muslims thrive while trying to choke anyone who says boo? If an illegal immigrant is deported, is it Islamophobia? If suspects are picked up suspected of plotting to behead our prime minister, is that Islamophobia? Only in the minds of those Muslims who want to give the impression that they are always the victims.

I would like to ask what these Muslims were thinking when coming to Canada. Did they imagine they were coming to a sacred land where everything would be halal and holy? Also, were they forced to come here?

Most of us came here for personal freedoms. Canada is a country where freedom of expression is a cherished value. This includes the freedom to criticize the followers of a faith if they're indulging in stupidities.

The most recent example of inane behaviour is a Toronto imam blatantly going against Canadian law and blessing polygamous marriages. I can't think of a single Muslim country where brazen actions against the laws of the land would be accepted. But if non-Muslims voice critical opinions on this murky issue, Islamophobia will be used as a trump card to shut them up. Many of us would like to be invited to this imam's farewell-from-Canada party soon.

My version of Islamophobia is an extreme fear at the way Islam has been misused, misquoted and misrepresented by some Muslims. Stifling intellectual debate; trying to pass off cultural values as Islam; unreasonable accommodation requests; intolerance against others while screaming racism for themselves and total disrespect for the culture of this land we live in and call home -- to me, this is Islamophobia.

We need to understand that one of Islam's strengths is the concept of reasoning. Perhaps Muslim communities need to reason that one person doesn't speak for all Canadian Muslims. Maybe we need to create better bridges and dialogue with our Canadian counterparts to understand that all new and settling groups face challenges, and it takes sacrifices and maturity to deal with a plethora of issues, including racism.

This maturity means strengthening ourselves from within first, and learning to treat others as we want them to treat us.

Raheel Raza is an intercultural and interfaith diversity consultant and author of Their Jihad ... Not My Jihad.


 

QUEBEC, THE COMMISSION AND CANADA

By Raheel Raza
June 2008

In the past few months, I’ve been part of many round table discussions about Canada’s role in the world and whether Canada’s diversity is a strength or weakness. I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting with a group of visiting teachers from Europe and mid-America who wanted to know more about how Canada handles diversity. One thing they noticed is that many Canadian institutions that were established over 50 years ago have not been able to keep track with the changing demographics of this Country. However they are evolving and trying to catch up fast.

It’s easy for us to sit back, pat our backs and feel somehow superior that we’ve actually “got it right”. Let’s not forget that the past two decades have been a tough ride both for immigrants and for native Canadians.
Anytime there’s criticism of immigrant’s lack of adjustment, cries of racism emerge. On the other hand if we’re too critical of Canada’s policies towards immigrants and settlement, there are cries of “go back home”.
The wake-up call for many immigrants is when they realize that this is home. Initially we came as guests bringing our gifts education and expertise. The host community largely welcomed us accepting the variety of colors, creeds, castes and cultures we bring with us. When the hosts noticed that some of the guests are quietly re-arranging the furniture and changing the décor they looked the other way. They’re mostly well mannered people – these Canadians. However when the guests started pulling down stuff that was near and dear to the hosts, replacing it with their ideas, obviously the hosts were a bit concerned, and eventually worried. Most of them still kept quiet.

Things started getting murky with media reporting strange sightings of headscarf’s as threatening to Canada’s security! Reaction was the emergence of the term “Islamophobia” which is such a misnomer used by some Muslims to prove that they are victims of racism and discrimination. This racism card is well played by many immigrants when they are criticized for not respecting the social and cultural norms of Canada and when they push for un-reasonable accommodation.

Enter Quebec. Thanks to the people of Herouxville, for putting the cat among the pigeons. Essentially they forced Canadians to put aside political correctness and initiate a dialogue about accommodation which is uppermost in most people’s minds but they’re afraid to verbalize. The resulting Bouchard-Taylor commission has opened many doors for debate which I hope is taking place at every level within immigrant communities. One essential element of the commission is it highlights that the relationship between the host and guest community is a two-way street. The responsibility to adjust is upon immigrants, the responsibility to accommodate is upon the host country.

What the commission does not address are the limits of accommodation. Among the issues I see as being un-reasonable demands for accommodation are the kirpan (ceremonial Sikh dagger) and the niqab (face covering). When I read the findings of the Bouchard-Taylor commission, I am so proud to be Canadian and realize that  this is the ideal for a Pluralistic Canada. This is beyond tolerate to embrace and accept. We are on the right track so let’s keep the dialogue ongoing.


 

SPIRIT OF THE EAST – A SCARED MUSIC CONCERT- Friday May 16

By Raheel Raza
May 2008

Mahatma Gandhi said Always aim at complete harmony of thought and word and deed. Always aim at purifying your thoughts and everything will be well.

Perhaps it was the purity of intention and sincerity of thought behind the event, that made this evening a mystical, magical, musical experience for everyone who came and for those who participated. The idea for this event came to me when I was rehearsing with a group of artists from different Eastern traditions, and found that there was a synergy in the sur and taal that needed to be tapped. Hence SPIRIT OF THE EAST was born, with Noman making a beautiful poster reflecting the spirit.

South Asians are the largest ethnic minority in Canada so, while we may compete over cricket and gossip about politics, the one thing that binds us together is our common heritage and love of music - which knows no boundaries. Hinduism, Sikhism and Islam are the fastest growing faiths in Canada but the least known. To have the 3 traditions on one stage was not only extraordinary but genuinely reflective of this multi-faith, multi-cultural, multicoloured mosaic that many of us call home.

The audience consisted of Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists and Zoroastrians.   We started our program with whirling because this is a symbolic ritual based on the universal idea that everything revolves around something that is bigger than itself physically as well as spiritually. Rumi says "Have you seen a spinning top get up and whirl by itself? Surely whoever whirls has Someone spinning him."

Our young samazen David Coskun, learnt to 'turn' shortly after he learned to walk. A student at University of Waterloo where he is studying to become a mechanical engineer, David had the audience in a trance inviting them with his movements into the circle of love and light. He set the stage for what was to follow.
A painter paints pictures on canvas.  But musicians paint their pictures on silence.

Articulate Azalea Ray and her accompanying artists: Noman Siddiqui who is a whiz on keyboard; Kiran Morarji whose fingers dance on Tabla; Hector Cepade playing for the first time with South Asians - brilliant on bass guitar; Dr. Sundar Viswanathan sublime on woodwinds and Bendana Singh soulfully strumming her guitar began with a Bhajan like we’ve never heard before. The start in English invoking Allah, Shiva, Kali, Jesus, Wahay Guru was stunning. When Azalea chanted Bismillah, I could feel the beginning of goose pimples, because she does not sing, she IS the music. It was an offering that was felt by everyone and the audience was mesmerized. She sang from her heart, the musicians played with their souls and the audience absorbed it all as a spiritual experience. A few said they transcended.

The Sikh scriptures contain hymns or "shabads" which have universal themes of invoking connectedness and oneness with the one God and humanity. Shabad literally means to “cut the ego” as it carries with it the wisdom and strength to do so. It is said in Sikh scriptures that one who has conquered the ego, has won or conquered the world, “Man jeetay jug jeet”.

Onkar Singh sang a Shabad in his soulful and deeply resonant voice. Later he sand a Sufi ballad and explained how his young son told him it was just like a kirtan. Accompanied on the tabla by Jasvinder Hunjan who says that music is his religion and his greatest passion. The way Jasvinder’s fingers dance on the Tabla is expressive of this passion. Their invocation to the Creator was:
You are the very power behind each breath and thus life. We pray and express our devotion to you to help us (through the day to day of life and it's stresses) as without you, we are merely meek and weak.

Munni and Afzal Subhani  came on stage and vowed the audience with three very upbeat pieces including 2 Qawwalis. They sang Laal Meree and the audience joined in clapping their hands. Their last piece Allah Hu had everyone joining in. It was amazing to see Jasvinder accompany them on the Tabla with no difficulty.

The audience was then treated to a new composition written by Noman Siddiqui which was performed with heartfelt reverence by Azalea. The words are:
"Ik Tu Hi Sahara, hai Tu Hi Kinara, Saray jag ke aye malik sub kuch hai Tumhara".
You alone are the sustainer, You alone are the shore
, Oh Lord of the worlds, everything we have is yours!

The finale was the Qawwali "Chaap Tilak" by Ameer Khusro. Azalea spent some time explaining to the audience where she was coming from. Her entire being was infused with the passion of the poet and the magic of the music. There was some innovation and she started repeating Allah Hu, it was resounding. Fact that the singer and musicians were from varying traditions was not lost on the audience. Here we had a true bridging of the gap – a synergy of sound beyond barriers. The ambience, the passion, the purity brought people to their feet in a standing ovation for the singers and musicians.

In the Uppanishads we read about mystical and philosophical truths.
People call for hymns, without understanding the significance of a hymn. The hymn is THAT from which the favour of the Gods arises, as the Earth, from all whatsoever that exists arises. The great hymn is creation.

 

Feedback from the event

"Congratulations on the gift of Allah-given inspiration, which guided you through to the finish in last evening's presentation! To me and to my young daughter in attendance last night, it was a spiritual act of Social Activism. Though I was born in 1949, as a Desi, my soul has hungered since 1947 for the fruition of this dream; that our age-old heritage of brotherhood guide our thoughts, and through them our actions, so that we will reclaim our right to demonstrate the truth; the filial love we have that transcends what colonial whim has created so arbitrarily. You are both true pioneers, Ishwar-Allah inspired souls, who are lighting a path through the blindness of artificially created "boundaries". What we referred to through the evening as "synergy" and as "energy" were, in reality, the blessings Jinnahji and Gandhiji were bestowing from above upon both of you, smiling down on both of you and on your project; For my part, allow me please to request you to accept me into your family-fold. I know that we are kindred-spirit in our dreams, our desires and our sense of creativity. My wish, InshAllah is that you adopt me, so that I too can partake of the sustenance that your project brings to all its participants."
- Felix Almeida

"Many congrats for the success of such a wonderful event. We were totally mesmerized and experience was beyond words. We are so grateful to have such a beautiful people around us. Please convey our deepest gratitude to all the artist and organizers." 
- Arun Sahni

 
Once again thanks for arranging and inviting us for soulful and enchanted evening. 
There was real magic there, the angels were dancing, at times my eyes were not dry.
-Rev. Leslie Mezei


"Dear Raheel, First of all let me say how much we all enjoyed your labour of Love of last Friday. I am also personnally very grateful to you for the very special attention lavished on us. While Rev Leslie has already thanked you, I am conveying the deep appreciation of Swamini Shivpriyannada who heads the Toronto branch of the Cihinmaya Mission. She and the young Brahmchari Novice thoroughly enjoyed the evening. You are uniquely blessed to evoke a direct connection with the audience and in so doing you brought out the best of the singers and the audience alike."
-Chander Khanna


 


 

JOURNEYS TO THE CENTER OF MY SOUL – Kincardine, Ontario. April 2008

By Raheel Raza
April 2008

It seems that once we decide to give our hearts to spirituality, it follows us wherever we go – or we find spirituality in life wherever we go.

The journey continues as we drive through vast lands from Lake Ontario across the plains to the other end, Lake Huron. Blue skies, farmlands, birds singing, cows grazing and very little habitation. I wonder sometimes what I am doing here? Rumi advises:

Load the ship and set out. No one knows for certain whether the vessel will sink or reach the harbor. Cautious people say, "I'll do nothing until I can be sure". Merchants know better. If you do nothing, you lose. Don't be one of those merchants who won’t risk the ocean.

I look for signs and all I see are fields and clouds in the shape of an X. I have been seeing this cross or X continuously for about a year and I ask people what it means as a symbol. Lately someone says it reflects a combination of the Cross in Christianity, the Star of David for Judaism and the Islamic Star in the Crescent – well since I live, breath and dream interfaith dialogue this resonates a bit for me.  I’m awaiting more insight. Perhaps there are secret messages I don’t see:

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don't go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don't go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don't go back to sleep.


We arrive at The Lakefront Bread and Breakfast Inn where a reservation has been made for us. However there is no one there and the place is not locked. The entire office cum house is empty and full of artifacts which could be antique. We walk around observing that the owners must have been connected to shipping as almost everything has a shipping connection. So we find the log cabin on the side of the house, right in front of the beach and the waves and make ourselves at home. Later the owners come home and we meet the amazing Katrena Johnston – a spiritual woman if I ever met one. She does many fundraising efforts for kids in third world countries and has also made skirts from ties – yes men’s ties. She shows me one and I’m amazed at her creativity.

She points to a section of the beach outside her cabin which is a healing place. How so? This was all originally native land and this 8 by 6 section is a place where animals come and are attracted. Later I see my first beaver – a fat blob with a flat tail it bobbles and ducks in the water eating fish and then waddles out to the healing spot, stops a bit and goes back in the water. Katrena tells me deer come and pray at this spot as well. I go down later to take in some of the ambience. I look up for a sign and the clouds are in a cross picture. At night we hear the gentle sound of waves and I am healed. Ready to face the questions next day. I present on Women in Islam and although most of the audience is very receptive, one lady bombards me with hostile questions. I am quite mellow in answering and she tones down. There are hugs and kisses and we find our way home.

For years, copying other people, I tried to know myself.
From within, I couldn't decide what to do.
Unable to see, I heard my name being called.
Then I walked outside
.                       
-Rumi


JOURNEYS TO THE CENTER OF MY SOUL – Brockport, New York. April 2008

By Raheel Raza
April 2008

"When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy".- Rumi

I was invited to SUNY – State University of New York at Brockport to participate in a conference on Edward Said. It was interesting that this conference was entirely for academia but the hosts must have sensed the closet “academic’ in me and invited me as the keynote speaker from a non-academic perspective. I was delighted because I’ve been to Brockport before and had made some connections of the heart including a young Moroccon student who calls me mother.

Brockport is a small US town near Rochester, mostly white middle and upper class. The place I stayed is called The Victorian B & B and is reflective of the true heart of America – not the capitalism and materialism we see around us. Run by two Sisters, the Victorian B & B is quaint, old fashioned and extremely comfortable. Brockport downtown is a 10 minute walk with one of everything i.e. coffee shop, bookstore, cinema, hairdresser etc. River runs besides it and was a joy. I stayed four days and would walk, pick up a sandwich and read – something I haven’t done in a while.

Two amazing things happened. First I met a Professor and his wife who are dervishes. Both have lived and worked in Morocco and are the students of an Iraqi teacher from Baghdad. He is American and she is Spanish. First moment I met her I knew we had a spiritual connection that went far back. They both shared deeply spiritual and personal stories of sufi retreats where they were able to give up smoking and are now staunch vegetarians doing zikr and whirling on a regular basis. She is also a psychic healer and realized that my body and soul were quite exhausted from the work I was doing non-stop for the past two weeks so she indulged me in a mixture of reiki, (Reiki is a Japanese technique for stress reduction and relaxation that also promotes healing. It is administered by "laying on hands" and is based on the idea that an unseen "life force energy" flows through us and is what causes us to be alive. If one's "life force energy" is low, then we are more likely to get sick or feel stress, and if it is high, we are more capable of being happy and healthy.) aromatherapy and prayer. I felt newly revived and refreshed.

The sufi opens his hands to the universe
and gives away each instant, free.
Unlike someone who begs on the street for money to survive,
a dervish begs to give you his life.

I was able to attend the workshop quite bright eyed and bushy tailed. I met many talented and unusual people from Canada, USA and Israel who were presenters as this conference titled:

Reconsidering “the Orient” and “the Occident” in the 21st Century: Observing the 30th Anniversary of Edward Said’s Orientalism.  (http://www.brockport.edu/orientalism)

Of special interest were a few presenters and papers. One was a paper by Dr. Rahul Sapra of Ryerson University titled :Flaming Orientalism: representations of Sati in European Travel Narratives and the other was a panel from Ottawa called Imaginative Geographies in which one paper was titled: Orientalizing the female body in Deepa Mehta’s trilogy.
This conference was in essence a reminder of our colonial history and it’s impact on many aspects of our lives. For me, Edward Said opened the door to many questions about dual identities, loyalties, Imperialism, the other and most important media’s one sided view of Islam and Muslims. In fact my first reading of Said was Covering Islam many years ago and this conference only reinforced some of those observations.
I also met a Mormon couple where he is studying Arabic and Islamic history because he feels a connection between Mormon tradition and Islam – very interesting.
I taught one class on Gender and Islam and came home quite inspired by my not-so-coincidental meeting with many wonderful teachers. I am humbled.  

Take someone who doesn't keep score,
who's not looking to be richer, or afraid of losing,
who has not the slightest interest even
is his own personality: he's free.

 


 

OPERATION ONE HEART AT A TIME – BRITISH COLUMBIA – APRIL 2008

By Raheel Raza
April 2008

I was invited to British Columbia for a National Women’s Retreat. Since I was going to be in the area anyway, I contacted some of the churches (mostly United, since I’m an adoptee) to see if they would like me to speak there, and the response was heartwarming. Before I knew it, I was booked to speak at three locations in Vancouver and one in Victoria. My entire trip was an experience to share.


My first invitation was from Mr. Seymour United Church in North Vancouver which is close to where I was staying with my dear friends, the Belsitos. It was a coincidence that this is the church that they attend. We discovered that the flyer for this church was positioned as “Bridging the Gulf between East and West” – me-thinks that some people thought this was about Eastern and Western Canada and since that is impossible, they didn’t come! Once we set the record straight however, it was exciting and the dialogue was at a high level.
Jen-Beth from Mt. Seymour has lived in many parts of the world including Indonesia, so she had some idea of where I was coming from. I had taken a CD of sufi music (made by my young protégée Noman) and they were thrilled to play it in their sanctuary. Somehow sufi music resounds well in a place of worship.  About 70 people turned up and asked some leading questions from sharia to Sufism.   The response and interaction was amazing.


Later that day I was interviewed on a BC TV channel called Studio 4. This interview done by Fanny Kiefer was one of the best interviews I have had to date. Apart from the fact that BC premier Gordon Campbell was on the same show, Fanny asked me something no one has. She asked “with all the misinformation and controversy out there, would you like to divorce the term Jihad from your life or reclaim it?” What a brilliant question! I told her “reclaim it for sure” and while I was saying that, I realized that is what I have set out to do. It also made me think “do we want to take the word “colonization” out of the English language because of its impact on a large part of the world? Or the word “occupied” because occupation had caused so much death and destruction?” No of course not – what we (I) want to do is ensure that the true meaning of these words is understood and practiced so that the negative connotations can be removed by our own actions and replaced by a noble and humane understanding.  


On Sunday morning I was invited by the Canadian Memorial United Church, downtown. This also has a Center for Peace. Not only is this Church a thing of beauty, the turnout was surprising – about 300 people came. I was touched and humbled by the fact that the church choir had found the words and practiced Sufi chants for the service. Imagine. In this peaceful and beautiful sanctuary, the choir sang Subhan Allah followed by a zikr of Bismillahir Rahmanar Rahim and the entire congregation joined in. It was spell binding and some people had their eyes closed with tears down their faces. Let me tell you that a church choir is powerful and with their organ, the sound of Allah Allah Subhanallah reached the skies. I could only say Subhan Allah again and again and my heart gave thanks and blessings for the music director who took pains to find the words, their translation and put it to music. Of course credit goes to the visionary Minister Bruce Sanguin who made this possible. This is the FIRST time I have heard such heartfelt and genuine zikr in the church. Allah be Praised. Later I spoke to the kids and showed them my Janamaz (prayer rug) and tasbih (prayer beads) and they responded with the true curiosity of kids. One parent came to me later and said “when I saw how the kids responded to you, I knew you were the right person for this work as kids are instinctively honest”. What a compliment. Feedback was warm – I am invited back.

Next day I spoke at the School of Theology and chapel at UBC – another thing of beauty with high rafters and huge French windows on one side. The Minister there is a young lady and she welcomed me warmly. I was so touched at her sensitivity when she gently asked me that if I felt offended standing in the front where there is a cross on the wall behind me, she could turn the crowd around so that I face the other way and I thought to myself, do we have this same compassion and respect for others? The turnout was impressive because the talk was titled “Jihad for Dummies” and some people came only because they were tickled by the title. Later there were many questions. UBC has to be one of the most tranquil and esthetically beautiful campus I have seen – perhaps I haven’t seen them all.

On Wednesday I was invited for lunch by my college friend Almas at a place called Chutney Villa on Broadway. This serves South Indian Cuisine and is run by Chindi Varadarajulu who has lived in Singapore and Kerala and offers a unique mix of food. Although Toronto has some great restaurants, this was most unusual. I had Kerala parathas (to die for), channas with fresh mango and coconut and fish cooked in coconut and tamarind! I can still taste the food. Worth a visit for sure. Later in the week when I had to meet a few people I called them to Chutney Villa so I could eat there again.

Almas invited to speak to her class on Women and Gender at UBC which was early (for youth) at 10am. Most of the kids were half asleep but woke up to hear me speak on women in Islam. Some of them were bright and beautiful researching exciting topics like the connection between poverty and oppression

Next day I invited to take a tour of the Ismaili Jamaat Khana known as Darkhana which is one of six throughout the world and was inaugurated by The Aga Khan for his 25th anniversary. The monument is a study in modern and traditional architecture. Designed by Italian Bruno Freschi, the Jamaat Khaana reflects spirituality and light from the word go. The courtyard with a fountain is out of Spain; the entire façade is covered with calligraphy and the theme is that of an Octagon which resonates throughout the building. It was a great privilege that I was given a guided tour by a young man well versed in the history of the monument and taken to their prayer hall. Talk about stereo-types. I have heard people (who have never been inside a Jamaat Khaana) say that Ismailis pray in front of the photo of the Aga Khan. Well, what do you know? They don’t! The prayer space is so spiritual and sublime, that I wanted to kneel there. There is a small divider between women and men’s side, a place for the Imam, lots of seating on the sides for their elders and carpets with the Octagon embedded in them in sync with a sun roof shining light right through. The entire building is a serene place of meditation and reflection. Downstairs they have classrooms and an impressive library plus offices.

On Friday morning I took the ferry to Victoria Island. Now if there is a place that is like Heaven on earth, it’s Victoria in cherry blossom season. Unbelievably stunning. Of course I took a camera but forgot to take pictures I was so spellbound.

In Victoria I attended a women’s retreat where the speaker was Daphne Bramham, author of a new book called “The Secret Lives of Saints – Child Brides and Lost Boys in Canada’s polygamous Mormon Sect”. I was riveted because she started her talk by saying that while Canadian soldiers are fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan for women’s freedoms and rights, right here in Canada there exists a fundamentalist Mormon sect in Bountiful B.C., where young brides and polygamy play out with nearly forced child labour and extortion. When Daphne heard I was there, she said we must talk and I bought her book in which she inscribed “we have to work together on many of these issues”. These issues transcend cultural and religious barriers to reinforce that women have to work hard to change the lives of our young girls. This book is a MUST READ for all of us who think we are liberated by being in North America and that the struggle for freedom exists all over the world.
On my last day in Victoria, I gave two talks and a First Metropolitan United Church. Almost 300 people came out and were full of curiosity and questions. Here too, the music director led the choir in sufi zikr. In the workshop someone asked me, “are there any Mosques where Christian women are invited to preach and perhaps the Muslim congregation could hear the words of our hymns* [see example below] which are very beautiful and uplifting in praise of God?” My answer - I don’t know.

This trip has opened many doors and has brought much self reflection. I feel blessed to have met so many wonderful people but my heart and soul say thanks to my friends Larry and Tania Belsito who drove me everywhere in Vancouver and put their life on hold for me. When I said thanks, Tania said “you are my sister” and I believe that I am her soul sister.

*A verse from a hymn in Voices United:
Deep in our hearts, there is a common vision
Deep in our hearts there is a common song
Deep in our hearts there is a common story
Telling creation that we are one
Deep in our hearts, there is a common purpose
Deep in our hearts there is a common goal
Deep in our hearts there is a sacred message
Justice and peace in harmony


 

 

 

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