Istanbul not Constantinople...

Well, it looks like one of my dreams and prayers is going to come to pass sometime in the Spring or Summer of 2011: I have been asked to be a part of the Sister City Jazz Ambassadors as we exploring partnering with a Muslim nation. The Sister Cities website puts it like this:

Sister Cities International recognizes that in order to secure a more peaceful future, we must encourage better understanding and cooperation between the West and the Muslim world. Sister Cities International is in a unique position to play a vital role in bridging the gap between the Muslim world and the West through the "citizen diplomacy" movement. We engage communities in a broad range of programs and activities that involve these citizen diplomats around the world.

The Muslim World Partnership Initiative seeks to provide U.S. communities and communities in the Muslim world opportunities for positive direct engagement with one another. The Muslim World Partnership Initiative will encourage mutual respect, understanding and cooperation through Sister Cities partnerships, educational outreach and joint programs. This Initiative will encompass several goals:

+ Strengthen the existing Sister Cities partnerships between the U.S. and Muslim world and form new partnerships.

+ Demonstrate through these Sisters Cities partnerships that mutual respect, understanding and cooperation can be built and sustained between the United States and the Muslim world.

+ Tell the remarkable stories of these partnerships and programs to help inform and educate the American public about the positive impact of citizen diplomacy.

People-to-people peace-making has always made the most sense to me. It is slow, to be sure, and takes a long time to bubble-up into public policy. But building relationships and respect with real human being is the only lasting way I know to subvert hatred and fear - and interestingly, this is how much of my public ministry has unfolded:

+ Back in the Cold War, I was a part of a number of people-to-people encounters with the former Soviet Union - travelling throughout Russia four different times in 8 years - and leading both a 50 person youth group and a state-wide coalition of adults.

+ In Cleveland I was appointed to serve on the Community Relations Board - a city agency empowered to improve race relations in that profoundly segregated city - which eventually led to being a part of the inter-racial School Board reform team.

+ And in Tucson I found myself called into similar work building trust and relationships with sisters and brothers in the LGBTQ community.

And now a chance to move forward in the peace-making work between Islam and the West in the 21st century. In her moving spiritual autobiography, The Butterfly Mosque, Willow Wilson writes about the true heart and beauty of Islam - and how countless souls in Egypt and throughout the Muslim world are working against the fears of fundamentalism. In a recent interview, Wilson said that the biggest problem facing young Muslims today is:

Despair. I’ve fallen prey to it like everyone else. Too many of us are convinced there is no hope–that we really are casualties in a battle between East and West, Islam and jahil, right and wrong. There seems so little room to be a whole person, so little room to make human mistakes and be forgiven. I think young Muslims suffer terribly as a result. I pray that Allah delivers us from this time of trials and puts peace in our hearts.

She also notes that Islamaphobia is the mirror image of Muslim fundamentalism - the same demon - only with a Western face. Just as Islam must wrestle through the challenges of reclaiming the peace and beauty of Islam from within; so we, in the West, are charged with creating alternatives to the fear and hatred in our camp. This observation, for example, is profound as she explores:

... the roots of anti-western malice. Military conflicts are a superficial exterior for what Islamic extremists really abhor; they are philosophically outraged, she says, by the sheer accessibility of western culture: the fact that everything a person could want, from consumer goods to emotional highs to sex to spirituality. [… T]his clashes irreconcilably with Islam, where the things that are most precious, most perfect, and most holy are always hidden.

And so we start to plan - and practice - for our way of fighting back the fear - through respect and relationship. As a child, the only thing I knew about Islam was the Ali Bab stories - sanitized to be sure - a few Bob Hope/Bing Crosby movies and this song from 1953.

Stay tuned... In šāʾ Allāh (إن شاء الله)


Black Pete said…
Indeed. "Butterfly Mosque" is a must-read for every North American.
RJ said…
And Peter... what a trip that she is the author of "Cairo," yes?
Black Pete said…
That she experienced what she did in "Butterfly Mosque" made "Cairo" possible. Yes, what a trip!

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