YODA recognizes Calgarian youth every year “for their extraordinary achievements, passion and dedication to the community.”
By Mary (Mehrun) Hassanali – May 6, 2017: Islamophobia has gripped the western world and it is escalating. Few North American Muslim voices have been able to articulate Islamophobia in a way that strikes at the core and challenges perspectives. In her riveting TEDx talk delivered to a live audience of over 600 and with over 24,000 YouTube views (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T_mmKodFZg4). Kiana explains that the world has branded its 1.6 billion Muslims as potential threats despite the fact that far less than 1% of them are extremists. A profound lack of understanding, Kiana notes, is the underlying problem. She points out that “even in what we call ‘cosmopolitan’ cities, where we are in such close proximity with people of different races, religions, and cultures, we are so appallingly disconnected. “A true cosmopolitan takes a step beyond mere tolerance of and blind coexistence with people who are different and he/she seeks to appreciate difference, to understand and learn from it” asserts Kiana.
She calls on reigniting the cosmopolitan ethic as defined by the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of Shia Ismaili Muslims, in his Jodidi lecture at Harvard University in 2015, as “a readiness to work across frontiers of distinction and distance without trying to erase them.” The Aga Khan further emphasized in May 2017 at the opening of the Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa, that pluralism is imperative. He stressed that “ In an ever-shrinking, ever more diverse world, a genuine sense of pluralism is the indispensable foundation for human peace and progress.”
In concluding her TEDx Talk Kiana appeals to her listeners “I am not standing before you today to impose that we should love, or even like ‘the other’. I’m just asking that we make an effort to be citizens of the world, before it’s too late; I’m asking that we make an effort to truly understand others before we judge, before we fear, before we act.” Kiana’s message has reached over 24,000 people worldwide and she hopes it will change not only the hearts and minds of people, but also their actions.
Kiana, a 16-year-old Calgarian indeed strives to be the cosmopolite she is urging others to be. She attended 8 years at Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School in Calgary before she left to study high school at Deerfield Academy, a highly competitive, boarding school in Massachusetts where she is a Grade 10 student. Kiana is a strong public speaker and was selected for the Canadian National Speech Competition in 2014 when she was in Grade 8. Merely 13 she chose as her gold medal winning speech topic the controversial bill then being tabled in Quebec that in essence was aimed at Muslim women who wore the niqab. She stated, “as a strong believer in social justice, as well as an Ismaili who does not wear the niqab herself but respects the values and beliefs of other Muslims, I felt that it would be wrong for a province to deny their citizens from expressing their religious and cultural identities, especially in Canada, a nation known to embrace diversity.”
In her first year at Deerfield Academy, when the devastating Charlie Hebdo attacks occurred in Paris, Kiana stirred up debate and discussion through an opinion piece she wrote in the Deerfield Scroll entitled “Liberty is not License” (http://deerfieldscroll.com/2015/02/liberty-is-not-license/). While clear that as a Shia Ismaili Muslim herself she condemned the horrible acts, she put forward the notion that as citizens in a local or global community we must balance freedom of speech with social responsibility and that “Just because we have the right to say things about and to others does not make it right to say those things.“
At Deerfield Academy, Kiana has written articles in (http://deerfieldscroll.com/2016/04/when-one-suffers-we-all-do-muslim-students-speak-up/) and is a page editor for the schools’ newspaper, The Deerfield Scroll, and sits on the board of Deerfield’s literary and art magazine, Albany Road, to which she has contributed her works of poetry and visual art (http://www.danoteworthy.com/albanyroadlit/2016/10/23/the-black-book-kiana-rawji-18). In 2016 she was selected to attend the The New England Young Writers’ Conference at Bread Loaf.
In the words of her school advisor Mr. Conrad Pitcher, “She combines a powerful intellect with unbridled determination, while demonstrating a genuine commitment to playing an active role in raising awareness and finding solutions for the social justice issues that face the wider world around her.” To Kiana, speaking and writing are powerful vehicles for change and she hopes to continue to leverage her talent in both to take on some of the most distressing and challenging issues of our time. Kiana has spoken in public speaking forums, churches and mosques and written journalistic and literary pieces, and through her powerful messages, is promoting a greater understanding of Islam and pluralism. She will be undertaking an internship with Professor Ali Asani at Harvard University in the summer of 2017 to deepen her understanding of Islam and pluralism.