HEALING THE SOUL OF THE NATION INTERFAITH CONFERENCE: Interfaith Conference held at the University of Pennsylvania – Co-Chaired by Aziz Nathoo, Interfaith Speaker & Peace Activist. Saturday, April 14th 2018
FEATURED GUEST SPEAKER: SAHIL BADRUDDIN ON RELIGION, TECHNOLOGY, AND SOCIAL MEDIA
An important Interfaith Conference was held at the University of Pennsylvania and hosted by the Chaplain of the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Charles Howard on Saturday April 14, 2018. The Conference was co-chaired by three organizations:
- United Mercy Mobilization Alliance (UMMA) Charities, whose founder and president is Aziz Nathoo, a Philadelphia-based Ismaili Interfaith speaker and Peace activist
- The Dialogue Institute, through the Founder, Dr. Leonard Swidler, which is based out of Temple University
- Bringing Respect In Community (BRIC), a Philadelphia-based Interfaith organization invested in fostering respectful dialogue
These organizations, in their unique and collective capacities, seek to advance intrareligious, inter-religious and intercultural dialogue and tolerance and bridge the deep divide of misunderstanding and discord among American faith groups.
This Conference is the second in a series of national interfaith conferences to be held across the country that seeks to address a deepening of political differences among various groups in the United States which has been associated with feelings of psychological and spiritual unease, amounting to what some observers have termed a “spiritual sickness” – a crisis of the soul of the nation. As the spiritual malaise has intensified recently, religious clergy and Civil Society leaders have struggled to understand it and respond with solutions to address it. The Conference series seeks to provide a forum for religious leaders and activists to share their collective wisdom and on ways to address the debilitating effect of the national spiritual sickness.
Among the presenters, Sahil Badruddin — Project Manager for The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding’s Research Department (Washington, D.C.) — was invited to speak on Religion, Technology, and Social Media. He has interviewed scholars, leaders, and educators for their insights on Religion, Media, Technology, Echo Chambers, Social Media and other relevant contemporary issues. Some of his recent guests include Eboo Patel, Wajahat Ali, Dalia Mogahed, and Reza Aslan.
Sahil started by explaining that humans are born with an innate and evolutionary religious impulse and for most of human history, the expression of this instinct took form largely in communities bounded by geographic borders (tribe, city, country, etc.). However, because of the rise of globalization, advancement in technology, and advent of the internet, the definition of a community has expanded. Since religion is constantly evolving, technology and social media has changed the way in which we communicate the religious impulse. While this change can be partially beneficial in helping people connect across borders, Sahil cautioned about the dangers of echo-chambers and filter bubbles while also suggesting a few solutions. The talk, followed by a Q/A, was very well received and was noted to be one of the highlights of the conference.
Aziz Nathoo, during the conference, elaborated on the under-appreciated use of humor in dialogue, especially when speaking in a hostile environment or at a place of worship where Islam is not perceived in a positive light. He shared examples of his speeches and panel speaking experience where he was able to navigate hostile and offensive charges by injecting humor in his response, thus turning an adversarial situation into one where both he and the audience were laughing at the same joke, unconsciously bridging the difference between them. Aziz shaped his narrative with the introduction of Sura al-Hujurat (49:13) where Allah says “O mankind, Indeed we have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another” which highlights the necessity of getting to know, that is to dialogue, as an integral foundational message of Islam. Indeed, Islam was a challenge to jahiliyya, the age of ignorance, with a focus on spreading knowledge. He proudly quoted Hazar Imam on his refutation of the “Clash of Civilization” by referring to it as the “Clash of Ignorance” and how it is our collective duty as individuals, members of the Ummah and global citizens to focus on reducing the chasm of ignorance by spreading knowledge. He touched upon our Imam’s guidance that Knowledge is multiplied when shared, instead of being divided.
Aziz has been conducting dialogue for about 20 years, speaking at various houses of worship, universities, civic organizations and working with the United Nations on The Culture of Peace, and the Refugee crisis. He provides shelter to refugees at his home and works on resettling them. Aziz’s non-profit UMMA Charities, is focused on fostering dialogue and helping alleviate poverty by mobilizing philanthropic instincts in members of civil society to help those who are disenfranchised. His other charitable endeavour is Peanut Against Poverty, which provides employment to immigrant women and help them gain the dignity of having their own income. He ended by imploring the participants to worship “Not the mighty but the Almighty.”
The inaugural Interfaith Conference was launched at the School of Conflict Analysis & Resolution (S_CAR) at George Mason University on December 13, 2017 and chaired by Dr. Richard Rubenstein of S-CAR, who shared with Aziz his personal friendship with Mawlana Hazar Imam while they were both attending Harvard University. Mr. Nathoo spoke about the need to respond to darkness with not more darkness, but to shine a light of love, knowledge and compassion, focusing on the mandate and contributions of the AKF & AKDN in making the world a better place, in accordance with the ethical principles of Islam.
The next Interfaith Conference is being planned for Atlanta in the Fall and hopes to include more speakers from the Ismaili community.