DTC’s Managing Director, Waseema Ali, Visits Anderson University

DTC’s Managing Director, Waseema Ali, Visits Anderson University

On February 25, 2016, the Desmond Tutu Center’s Managing Director, Waseema Ali spoke at Anderson University’s Chapel Service about Christian-Muslim Dialogue. The event was sponsored by Anderson’s Peace and Conflict Transformation (PACT) program and the dialogue was facilitated by MaryAnn Hawkins, Associate Dean, Anderson University.

IMG_7807“I am Muslim and I am American, there’s never been a conflict, just like you can be Jewish and American or Christian and American.” Simple, yet powerful words spoken by Ali  in response to the first question posed in the discussion, “What is it like to be Muslim in America?” Ali has never felt compelled to be anything but her true self while working with Butler University and the Christian Theological Seminary. Growing up amidst a religiously diverse community in Skokie, Illinois, Ali described a very open childhood. Though she may have prayed differently from her friends, they agreed in their common humanity. If there was something they didn’t understand about each other, they researched and engaged in dialogue.

But in current times, Ali acknowledges that for many, this is not the case. While her work environment and local community have not negatively impacted her life and career, the current climate has brought forward new issues. She says, “Islam is misunderstood in the modern community, both in the faith and outside of the faith. For instance with ISIS, what I may see are people calling themselves Muslims, but what I do not see is Islam. Just like if you see a Klan member who calls himself Christian, you probably won’t acquiesce that is Christianity.” She continues, “When people cause harm in the name of my religion, it hurts me,” she said. “it’s an attempt to invalidate me and my faith due to their personal political agendas. They are taking the texts and scriptures I find sacred and manipulating them for their own gain. Also, many people either don’t know or don’t want to acknowledge that Muslim extremists kill more Muslims than any other group of individuals. We [Muslims] are among the victims of their crimes and now we [Muslims] are being victimized by being unjustly and unfairly categorized in our home country.”

When asked about the current political climate Ali states, “What we are seeing now in our political climate is people taking a position of vulnerability, and exploiting it for their own personal political agendas.” These types of harmful and dangerous viewpoints have been perpetuated by certain political candidates and sometimes the media. “If you just study how many Muslim doctor’s there are in the US, you will realize you are  much more likely to be healed by a Muslim than killed by a Muslim.” Ali goes on to recollect the trials of the Catholics, the Italians, the Chinese, the Japanese and the many groups of Americans who were challenged in our country. She reminds the audience that the Muslim community is a very diverse community, a fact that is overlooked due to the generalizations that blanket a whole host of Muslim individuals. Ali uses the example of wearing a hair covering that is often associated with the oppression of Muslim women. However, most of the time to wear a hair covering is a choice; it is an expression of femininity, intellect, and modesty, according to Ali. She acknowledges that while there are locations in which it is required for women to wear hair coverings, hair covering should not automatically equate to oppression. “We should also acknowledge that when a nun is wearing a covering, we call her spiritual, but when a Muslim woman does the same, she is seen as subjugated.” Ali asks us to think critically before making assumptions about individuals.

Ali’s faith has guided her in her current work at the Desmond Tutu Center. She says she desires to go to God at the end of her life and say, “I used my time on Earth to take care of your world and your creation.” The discussion drew many paralIMG_7811lels among commonalities across multiple faiths. Many of us are motivated by our faith and commitment to God through various  religious traditions. The jobs, friends, and paths we choose are often motivated by our personal faiths. “We should be courteous in our curiosities and peaceful in our inquiries of other religions and faith practices. It is through open minds and understanding we can enter a place of love with all of humankind.” 

The final questions Ali answered regarded what changes could be made in the American culture and how we can all act with neighborliness towards one another. She first mentions that her response is being framed by a conversation she had with a friend not too long ago, which speaks to her culture as a frame of reference. Her friend is a Minister at a Unitarian Church in Indianapolis now, but is originally from New York. Ali’s friend shared how her New York culture and mindset are sometimes confusing to many in Indianapolis.

From that point, Ali shares that the American culture is not a monolithic culture. We all have certain norms in common, like being able to drive when we are 16, but there are varying frames of references and cultures with our nation.  “My culture is that of Skokie, Illinois where I only saw America from a diverse lense. It’s been 10 years since I left Skokie but I can’t unlearn that diverse culture, it’s too embedded in my understanding of what makes America beautiful. From my upbringing in Skokie, to my falling in love with the law (in law school) and the Constitution; a diverse, loving American culture is what I know. However, I also realize and acknowledge that that is not the culture every American grows up in and that is okay. So amidst our myriad of American cultures, we can learn to love more.”

IMG_7809We can make a choice not to hate. Often times we condone hateful language because hate offers a false feeling of power; however, we must not be tempted by the desire to have power and control over others, rather we must have moral courage. Religion can be a motivator or maybe it’s not, even atheists, Ali professes can and do live with moral courage- the emphasis is to understand our common humanity.  “There is a humanity that binds all of us. Call it neighborliness, call it getting to know each other.” In this, Ali encourages us to also know ourselves and develop who we are as individuals. Can we be more intelligent, more understanding, more forgiving, she asks? For each of us there is something we can do to take better care of our humanity and increase our moral courage, which will ultimately put us in a better place to relate to others and perpetuate peace and justice.

After the dialogue, Ali joined a lunch time question and answer conversation with a smaller group of students. The students described their work at Anderson and what they hope to achieve now and upon graduation. They inquired more about politics and how Ali felt about comments made by political candidates. The students also discussed how Twitter posts published during and after the discussion revealed that not all students at Anderson were appreciative of a dialogue that did not involve Jesus as a topic, or addressed negative opinions of specific political candidates. Other students expressed their gratitude for the Christian-Muslim Dialogue and emphasized the need for such discussions on campus.

The discussion at Anderson was powerful on many levels. This was Anderson’s first Christian-Muslim dialogue, a step towards increasing intellect and knowledge of diversity. It enabled many students to be exposed to diverse faith experiences, different from their own. For some this was difficult, for others, the discussion encouraged sentiments of openness, understanding, and justice for all people despite their religion, traditions, ethnicity, background,  and culture.  The challenge of introducing diversity, especially as it pertains to religion, is not isolated; it affects how we relate to our global community. In our modern community, it is increasingly important to continue creating platforms for discussion encouraging understanding, peace, and justice for all humanity. 

Written by Allison Troutner

Click here to read Anderson University’s staff editorial on Waseema Ali’s talk.

Click here to read the New York Times editorial with mention of an incident relating to the talk.

Lastly, a few notes from Anderson:
“Upon re-entering Hartung Hall after the lunch gathering I was stopped by a student thanking me for today’s chapel and for our invitation to Waseema to be with us.  He called it the best chapel of his time at AU. Then, when I got to my office and opened my email, I received a message from a different student.  This student wrote:  “Thank you so much (for inviting Waseema Ali to speak).  This morning’s chapel was quite possibly one of my top favorites.”  The student went on to say, “I was moved by her conversation and her testimony,” and called Waseema an “inspiration.” – AU Professor
“Dear Waseema, I wanted to thank you once again for sharing with us during our chapel last week.  Your conversation was exactly what our student body needed.  The talk back session was the best attended session in the school’s history.  That says a lot.  I have received constant praise for having you and constant thanks for the day.  While there were definite negatives to include disruptive students and the bomb threat in the middle of chapel, I was grateful for your grace and dignity throughout.

It is clear, we got the conversation started and many are pleased with the way we did.  It is my hope that you are encouraged to continue using your voice.  While there are those who may try their best to quiet and hinder it, please keep speaking. I have included some of the positive things that were stated to one of our committee members.  I have also included a chapel card from a young man that wants to become a PACT minor as a result of your chapel.” -Nichele Washington, PACT Director

To our readers: “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” – Desmond Tutu


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