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The US Embassy and State Department do da'wa - "US Women Tell Italians About Sharing Islam With Christians"

December 13, 2007


U.S. Women Tell Italians About Sharing Islam With Christians

ROME: Muslims living in predominantly Christian countries need to reach out to educate their neighbors about their faith and to join others in building more open and just societies, said two young American Muslim women.

As part of a two-week speaking tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department, Zeenat Rahman and Aalaa Abuzaakouk spoke Dec. 10 to a group in Rome that included young Italian Muslims full of questions about how to promote acceptance in Italian society.

The meeting with Catholic and Muslim students and a separate meeting with the press were coordinated by the U.S. Embassy to the Vatican.

For many Muslims in the United States, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks brought the realization that most of their neighbors had no idea about what Islam taught or how the vast majority of Muslims lived, the young American women said.

After the terrorist attacks, "I felt the importance of engaging with civil society and letting people know that Islam is not a violent religion," said Abuzaakouk, who grew up in northern Virginia, attended a Muslim school for 13 years, then graduated from Jesuit-run Georgetown University in Washington.

"Before, we were complacent. We did not engage with others or let them know who we are," she said.

Rahman, who grew up in Chicago and attended public schools, said, "I think we have made some progress in winning hearts and minds" since 2001. "Ours was a very insular community, focused on maintaining our faith and cultures."

The very public questions about Islam and violence "forced us to engage publicly, to let people know who we are," said Rahman, a graduate of the University of Chicago's Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

While Rahman said she grew up with Christian, Jewish and Hindu friends and Abuzaakouk said her childhood friends were all Muslims, they both described the years of high school and college as key times in forging an individual religious identity and sense of belonging.

Rahman said, "Adolescence is the crossroads of inheritance and discovery; who you meet at the crossroads makes an enormous difference."

Abuzaakouk said, "Identity development is a process. There were times when I emphasized one over another," being Muslim or being an American of Libyan descent.

She said attending Georgetown was an important part of the process because it emphasized "spiritual development, intellectual development and social service." The university's "religious heritage is emphasized, but it does not exclude others," she said.

She now works for the Muslim Public Service Network in Washington, promoting Muslim involvement in politics, civil service, law, the media and nongovernmental organizations.

Rahman is a program coordinator for the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core, a program promoting interreligious dialogue and community service for teens and young adults.

She said her group focuses on helping young people tell their own stories, "speaking from their own experience rather than about dogmatic or theological differences, which makes it easier to identify shared values" and plan shared projects for the good of the whole community.

In addition, she said, "through storytelling you open up space for the voices of women in a way that theological dialogue often does not in many traditions."

While both said the United States' long experience with diversity makes it easier to be a Muslim in America than in Western Europe, they encouraged the Italian Muslim students to tell their peers about their faith and to find ways to work together to share their stories with the wider community.

(Catholic News Service)

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