Weaving Web of Peace

Toronto Star
July 26 2003

‘You can’t hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end, each of us must work for our own improvement and at the same time, share a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful.’
– Marie Curie

It wasn’t tourism that brought women of various faiths and nationalities to Ottawa last month. It was their passion for building bridges, not of concrete and steel, but bridges of understanding, harmony and peace.

More than 400 converged on Parliament Hill for a conference on Diversity and Islam — Bridging the Gaps, the first initiative of the Canadian branch of Women Engaging in Bridge Building (WEBB). WEBB is “an initiative led by women for women the world over, with many bridges to be built — the first one being a bridge between Muslims and non-Muslims,” explained the organization’s founder and head, Dr. Riffat Hassan, a professor of religious studies at the University of Louisville, Kentucky. “I use the term `engaging’ in our title to reflect that our development is active and ongoing.

“David Kilgour, secretary of state (Asia Pacific), told the conference: “It’s appropriate that this first major event by WEBB, as a new international organization be held in Canada — we consider ourselves bridge builders. This event allows us to see the enormous spiritual, cultural and ethical strength of Islam.”

A few weeks before the conference, Statistics Canada had reported that the number of Muslims in Canada had doubled in the past decade.

The idea for WEBB was born in Milan September, 2001, at a conference on “Women Leading Global Change.” One attendee was Louise Kissane, a businesswoman from Italy.

“I attended a session by Riffat Hassan titled ` Encountering the Future,’ where she talked about the true face of Islam, focusing on the events of Sept. 11 and stressing the need for building bridges,” recalled Kissane. “Hers was a message for women of the world and she was an inspiration to all of us. It was a unique moment in history and I knew I had met someone who had the ability to move the world forward.”

‘Education is imperative for the growth and development of women ‘

Dr. Sallama Shaker,
Egyptian ambassador to Canada

The next day, a group of enthusiastic women asked Hassan to lead them in a bridge-building exercise. They pledged their support and WEBB was born. It has chapters in Canada, Germany, Italy, France, Britain and the United States.

0Kissane became a key patron of WEBB. “I’ve lived all my adult life in a Latin country and wanted to help women in Italy be independent, stand up and to take pride in themselves,” she said.

Laure Capelle, chair of WEBB France, regards WEBB as “a worldwide family — a web made of women (and like-minded men) willing to promote peace and justice with respect, love and compassion between people all over the world.”

Alisha Lehman-Wansing, head of WEBB Germany, wants to realize WEBB’s mission to build “a fraternity (or sisterhood) through a better understanding of each other’s culture, religion and beliefs.”

Some of WEBB’s primary objectives evolved from work in which Hassan is already involved:

Creating change for women through education and raising
Educating women about their rights according to their faith, with particular emphasis initially on Muslim women, to prevent honour killings, abuses of power and other crimes committed against women in the name of God.
Establishing a network for women to enable them to improve their economic conditions.
Giving a voice to marginalized women.
Nazreen Ali, president WEBB Canada, explained why the organization kicked off with a conference on Islam.

“Recent global events have focused unprecedented attention on Islam which is the faith of over 600,000 people in Canada,” she said. “The opportunity now exist

exists to foster understanding of Islam, the diversity of the Muslim world and contribution of Muslims to Canada and the world.”

Heritage Minister Sheila Copps stressed unity in diversity. “I want all Canadians to understand that Islam means peace.”

Dr. Sallama Shaker, Egypt’s ambassador to Canada, said: “The rights Muslim women have today came with a great deal of effort and suffering….Education is imperative for the growth and development of women globally and we support WEBB’s education mission.”

Keynote speaker Karen Armstrong, author of The Battle For God, set the tone, saying “once you find God, you are open to all faiths….Only in Canada can I envision such bridges being built between Muslims and non-Muslims.”

She spoke passionately about the spiritual beauty of Islam and commended WEBB for its vision. “One of the flaws of world religions is that they didn’t listen to the voices of women….What we need is a new solution, a fresh approach.”

For more on WEBB, visit

I see these so-called sharia laws being used specifically to target women and curtail their human rights. In some cases, women themselves interpret sharia to their own detriment. For example, a Muslim woman in Florida has sued the state for suspending her driver’s licence after she refused to remove her niqab or face-covering veil for the photo. Florida law states that a driver’s licence must have a colour, full-faced image of the bearer. My view of this case is simple: Follow the laws of the land, or choose to live happily in a place like Saudi Arabia where women aren’t allowed to drive anyway. That, along with other misogynistic injunctions, is the Saudi interpretation of sharia.

Amina Wadud, a professor of Islamic studies at Commonwealth University in Virginia, presented a paper last month at the 2nd International Muslim Leaders Consultation on HIV/AIDS in Kuala Lumpur. Twenty conservative delegates stormed out of the session and accused Waddud of blasphemy for saying, “Islam and Muslims exacerbate the spread of AIDS and … traditional Islamic theological response can never cure AIDS.” She explained that Muslim women are bound to comply with their husbands’ desire for sex, and can be punished if they do not. This includes women who know their husbands are HIV positive.

Accused of demonizing Islam, Wadud told reporters she stood by her comments: “My paper just states opinions that are different from others. …” Nevertheless, she withdrew her paper to spare the chair of the Malaysian AIDS Council further difficulty.

Difference of opinion has long been the hallmark of Islamic jurisprudence. But today, the willingness to accept a difference of opinion is increasingly rare.

Sharia is a body of rules and regulations based on the Qur’an and Sunnah (sayings of the Prophet). To follow the sharia means living a morallyresponsible life. It’s ironic that sharia, which means “the broad path leading to water,” (the idea of water being fluid and flexible), has been made inflexible and rigid. It’s the road of moral, ethical and just activity
that all Muslims can follow wherever they live. Many Muslims practise sharia living under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is not at odds with sharia as it should be understood and practised. It doesn’t have to be imposed as in Nigeria and Sudan where assertion of sharia is a political act that reduces women and minorities to second-class citizens.

Al-Ghazzali, a renowned 11th-century thinker, held that each Muslim must have enough knowledge of the sharia to put it into practice in his or her own life. Other scholars point out sharia cannot exist without ijtehad (working out principles), ijma (consensus), qiyas (analogy) and, most of all, aql (reason).

Essentially, the laws of Islam should never be distorted to destroy the morality of Islam. Those who misuse laws in the name of Islam destroy the moral fabric of society. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has warned his country against adopting the Taliban version of Islam while struggling for economic recovery and progress: “We are being called terrorists, fundamentalists, extremists and intolerant. We have to decide whether we need Talibanization or progressive Islam.”