A Pakistani Muslim woman attends a conference in Israel, and loves what she sees

Raheel Raza relates her personal thoughts from the Israeli Presidential Conference 2011, in Jerusalem

Raheel Raza
Tuesday 28 June 2011 10:40:00

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President Peres addresses the conference in 2008President Peres addresses the conference in 2008

I have been on a fascinating journey for the past few days – a journey which started back home in Toronto and has now brought me to Israel. When I got the invitation to speak at the global “Facing Tomorrow 2011” conference, I first thought they had mistaken me for someone else: the roster of speakers was impressive to say the least.

Then I decided that they must have thought they needed some balance. So that’s why they invited me! Luckily I have no ego, so I contented myself with that.
Enroute in Frankfurt where I had to change aircraft, I was assisted by a kind Pakistani airport vehicle driver to find my gate. He dropped me off at a spot close to where I needed to board the Tel Aviv flight, telling me vehemently that the Tel Aviv gate “is not the place for you sister”.

Much to his horror I had to insist that my destination was indeed Tel Aviv – he frowned and left immediately; his kindness now turned sour because he saw his Pakistani-Muslim sister enthusiastically heading off to Israel.

Not a propitious start to my journey, but telling nevertheless.

The “Facing Tomorrow” conference is the brainchild of Shimon Peres, President of Israel, who I believe is nearly 90 but attends most of the sessions himself. He wished all the participants “riveting, bold, exciting discussions full of Intellectual chutzpah…”

He was granted his wish without much ado: the conference boasts some of the leading movers and shakers in their fields.

Among the “shakers” at the opening plenary entitled “My recipe for a Better Tomorrow” were none other than Colombian sensation Shakira and American comedian, Sarah Silverman.

Shakira spoke about change in Colombia by giving young kids an education as an alternate to violence, and mentioned the foundations she has set up to promote this cause throughout Latin America.

Sarah Silverman in her own style said it was no co-incidence this conference takes place in Jerusalem, home to the three Abrahamic faiths. Speaking of the conflict in the region, she asked Israelis if they wanted to concentrate more on the acreage of where they live or the quality of life i.e. how they live.

Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia calling himself a pathological optimist, spoke about allowing people to change what they think is not right, even though they may be doing more harm than good. Sir Martin Sorrell and Professor Dan Ariely spoke of hope and the Arab Spring which Sir Martin pointed out is not just a facebook revolution as people would like to think, but much more in terms of changing the landscape in this region forever.

The plenary sessions were attended by over 1,000 ticket holders plus volunteers and students, while later in the day there were workshops and special sessions spread out through the Jerusalem Convention Center. I was impressed at the organization and administration of the event which involved hundreds of security personnel and hundreds of volunteers. Each speaker had a dedicated volunteer looking after their needs.

I had come late and was milling around in a massive sea of people when I heard my name. My guide Assaf Amgar had found me in a throng of people and I didn’t quite know how. He was such an asset throughout the conference, keeping me on time and helping me around the location. It was his first interaction with a Muslim woman activist and he was full of questions, so we had many “breakout” sessions.

I attended most of the sessions although some of the really thought-provoking ones were simultaneous so I had to miss them. The second plenary was Nation, Interests and Ethics in the Journey Toward Tomorrow. Shimon Peres, Tony Blair, Bernard-Henri Levy and Amos Oz were the speakers.

Mr. Peres spoke of the concept of Tikkun Olam – healing the world. He said the past can’t be changed but we can change tomorrow by helping to find peace. The core question he posed to the panel was whether nations should intervene, when and how?

Tony Blair seems to have had a change of heart and mind! He spoke passionately of idealism vs realism. He pointed out that inaction has grave consequences, as in Bosnia. I liked his mention of the fact that freedom is THE condition that defines the human spirit and that the future belongs to the open-minded so any interventions should support freedom.

Henri Bernard Levy, was one of the people who had called for intervention in Bosnia and he reassured the Israelis that they have little to fear from the Arab Spring because they need to appreciate and understand the push for freedom. Once freedom comes to these Arab nations, there will be democracy which is a guarantee of peace, and according to Levy, one democracy will not go to war against another. Unusual reasoning, but well accepted by the attendees.

My own panel was about the dilemmas of migration in today’s global village. The speakers were changed at the last minute as Ayaan Hirsi Ali could not be there. But it was interesting because all of us spoke from diverse experience and backgrounds. The representative of the UN High Commission on Refugees in Israel spoke about the large numbers of African refugees coming to Israel and Ms. Tali spoke about her school which was the focus of the Oscar-winning film “Strangers No More”.

I spoke of the dilemma of terrorism as related to Immigration and many participants said they had not looked at it from this perspective so it gave them food for thought. A young Pakistani girl studying in Israel was delighted to meet someone from her homeland. I was asked what Canadian values are and I told them they are the values of freedom of speech, gender equality, liberty, democracy and respect for differences in lifestyle, sexual preferences and disabilities.

If these are not the same values of people coming to our country, then they need to re-think their decisions.

Overall, the conference, sprinkled with entertainment, receptions and exhibits, was very well attended.

I saw speakers from all parts of the world. The topics that were discussed included science, space, energy, identity, peace, nuclear proliferation, brain-drain, inter-generational dialogue, medicine, education, philanthropy and more.

It was an experience and a half.

Raheel Raza is the Canadian author of “Their Jihad – Not My Jihad” which is free to download at http://www.raheelraza.com