Daisy Khan, founder and executive director of the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality, commemorates International Women’s Day by discussing women and faith-based activism, as part of CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.
FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record and the audio and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org, and on our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy.
We’re delighted to have Daisy Khan with us today to commemorate International Women’s Day with a discussion on Women and Faith-Based Activism. Daisy Khan is the founder and executive director of the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality, a New York-based nonprofit organization that enables Muslim women leaders to create a peaceful and prosperous world anchored in gender equality and human dignity. Formerly, Ms. Khan served as executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, where she spent eighteen years creating groundbreaking intra- and interfaith programs.
In addition to her forthcoming memoir, Born with Wings, Ms. Khan served as executive director for WISE Up: Knowledge Ends Extremism, a 2017 report she edited in collaboration with seventy-two contributors. WISE Up is aimed at empowering Muslims and the general American public with the knowledge and resources to discredit extremist ideology and prevent Islamophobia. She appears regularly on media outlets and is frequently quoted in print publications, such as the New York Times and TIME Magazine.
Daisy, thanks very much for being with us today. As noted in your extensive bio, you have been involved in faith-based activism for a long time through the organization that you head now, the acronym is WISE. And I’ve heard you talk about countering terrorism, Islamophobia, women’s rights. So perhaps you can get us started by talking about how women, in particular, can act as a bridge—to bridge the gap, rather, between moderates of all faiths and forge a path toward a better world for all of us?
KHAN: Thank you very much, Irina. And thank you to everyone who has joined this call. And happy International Women’s Day. Good afternoon, everyone. Irina, this is—this is a question that many of us have been actually thinking, pondering, and acting upon, you know, since 9/11. There are many people on this call who have been actively involved in doing the kind of work I’m doing. But I’d like to take us back a little bit, because it is International Women’s Day, you know, and international—also, women’s month. I’d like to just talk a little bit about the history of women in general. And many of us know that women’s history is one history, and women of all different nations and religions have seen both the emancipation and the restriction.
So as a Muslim woman, I always remind my Muslim audiences that less than 100 years ago here in the United States, in this great democracy like America, Christian women had no access to higher education. They were unable to own property or even own a bank account, or vote. And not so long ago Hindu women—in a country where I come from, India, Hindu women had to give up their lives and burn themselves on a funeral pyre when their husbands died. Why? Because some priest said that it was in the scriptures—it was written in the scriptures. And so it was women who challenged this abhorrent practice and eventually discredited the priests. Similarly, you know, in 1837, even a decade before the anti-slavery convention took place, Christian women, black and white, driven by a faith in a just God, not only challenged inequality against women, but also the practice of slavery itself.
And it’s very interesting, because when I first heard the statement that they had issued at the first convention in 1848, it read: The time has come for women to move into the sphere which God has assigned her, and no longer remain satisfied with the limits of corrupt custom and perverse application of the scripture that have encircled her. And when I read this, I thought to myself, 100 years later Muslim women could have written the statement ourselves as to what was happening to us. But then I realized that before there was a United States, around the year 640, when Prophet Muhammad was receiving God’s revelation, one of his wives, Umm Salama, noticed that God was only addressing men in the revelation.
So she asked the prophet, why does God only address men in the Koran? The prophet didn’t have an answer. So he remained silent. And I guess this question must have reached directly to the divine throne, and revelation was sent, not only answering her questioning—question, but also validating Muslim women’s equality forever. And this is a very famous verse that Muslim women use. It’s 33:35, and it says: Surely the submitting men and women, the believing men and women, the obeying men and women, the truthful men and women, the patient men and women, the humble men and women, the alms-giving men and women, the fasting men and women, the men and women who guard their chastity, and the men and women who remain—who remember God, for them God has prepared forgiveness and a mighty reward.
So there’s no wonder then from the earliest days of Islam to contemporary times today Muslim women have built a rich legacy of fighting not only for their rights, but also creating positive social change by uplifting their own communities. They have an impressive record of peace and justice through service and advocacy, education and media, social services, philanthropy, and spiritual growth. And there are many exemplars that Muslim women have, including Aisha, the last wife of the prophet, who after—you know, after the prophet died, she continued—remained engaged in scholarly pursuit and religious instruction.
Many of her people eventually became authoritative voices in the transmission of his sayings. And it’s really important, because here was a woman. And oftentimes people think Muslim women are oppressed and suppressed. And here we have taken an authoritative source from a woman and never questioned it. And Sultana Razia, who was chosen by her father over her brothers to become sovereign of Delhi was the first woman ruler in Muslim history. And she was known for her belief that the spirit of religion is more important than its parts. She established schools, academic centers for research, and public libraries.
So all in all, this story of faith-based activism and peacemaking is continuing with Muslim women today, because we have a very rich legacy of it going all the way back to the earliest of times. We are adding a unique and critical voice to the table, one which can be of great service to the aspirations of the entire global Muslim community. And with the world witnessing a religious revival, increasingly Muslim women want to define themselves through their religion, because they consider it their sacred mission to reclaim not only God-given equality, but a responsibility of—as vice-regent of God on Earth, to promote equality, pluralism, and prosperity for all.
And so in 2006 when I launched the first global Muslim women’s faith-based movement, called WISE, it was intended to unleash this activism. This activism which would have meaning, and it would have purpose, it would have a calling. It would be grounded in ethics and morality. And we created a global network of Muslim women, changemakers, with deep spiritual roots so that we could foster cooperation among divergent and sometimes opposing groups. And we even emphasized solidarity, so we were able to unite around Islamic ideals of pluralism, equality and justice.
And this is what became the blueprint for creating positive, sustainable change. And this is why today in America myself and many other Muslim women leaders are at the forefront of creating—bridging divides between communities, and reaching out to their interfaith allies, and grounding their work knowing with conviction that this is not only something that is good for society, but it’s grounded in a conviction that this is their moral duty and their obligation to God.
So in the past, Muslim women’s activism has been hampered by their inability to confront destructive scriptural interpretation. So we established the first global Muslim women’s Shura Council of 40 members across the globe to separate the overarching message of equality, justice embedded in our scripture, and so that we could combat injustices by constructing religiously grounded arguments to lift the truth of Islam. So we began to interpret our own scriptures and issued statements against domestic violence, female genital mutilation, child marriage, violent extremism, and domestic violence, and women’s leadership and agency.
And so I can give many examples, and I’d rather give examples a little bit later in the Q&A. I believe that with educational awareness we can create long-lasting social change.
And today we are struggling throughout the globe to combat extremism. Not only extremism that is done by Muslims, or people who call themselves Muslims, but really even here in the United States we are seeing the ugly face of extremism from certain right-wing groups and nationalist groups and neo-Nazi groups. And we are witnessing the carnage that they have created. And similarly, for over two decades we have watched extremists in my community, or Muslims who are extremists, unjustly take away innocent life, destroy property, poison the minds of newer generations, and mar the religion and reputation of Islam, which eventually affects the Muslim community—you know, adversely affects the Muslim community here in the United States.
So the question I have to ask myself is are Muslim women responsible for fighting the extremists. You know, most people will say of course, but I’m always asked why these—you know, these questions by well-meaning people, what are you doing as a Muslim woman? What are you doing about the girls that are enslaved by Boko Haram. You know, so this is—this is the difficulty we have, is we’re constantly asked to step up. And so, we do. You know, as a Muslim woman what do we do when the honor and the truth and standing of Muslim is being fundamentally challenged? We have already spoken out against all forms of violence today. But I think we need to collectively amplify our voices against crimes that are committed in the name of religion, which I believe is a crime against religion itself.
So as a Muslim woman, I know that we have to prevent the extremists from growing, because if we don’t then they will continue to subjugate other women and they will consolidate their power and they will spread their influence and they will breed new extremists into the world. I do take my strength from those American women whose legacy I’m inheriting, women who were at the forefront of the suffragette movement, the peace movement, the civil rights movement, the equal rights movement, the child care movement, and now the #MeToo movement. And I think that—I hope that all of these movements can come together. And as American Muslim woman it does not surprise me that a call to reshape Muslim society is quietly being led by Muslim women all over the world.
I go into pockets of communities and I’m so stunned and inspired to see the level of commitment that women are bring to their activism, and how quietly they are going about, you know, lifting their communities. And as women we know that while political conflicts are usually being resolved by men in power, we mothers, community leaders, families who are seen as credible voices can ensure that we can prevent, you know, negativity from taking root in our communities and prevent extremism from luring young people to their cause. So as Irina mentioned, we recently published a 375-page report addressing this issue from a very holistic viewpoint, where we—you know, now Muslims and non-Muslims are being called together to rise up, to stand up against all forms of extremism, to disrupt the ideological base of all extremist groups and the appeal that they have, to inoculate our young people—young men and women so that we do not—so that we can, you know, lure people to a moral cause and not to a cause that is disruptive to society.
So I think that, you know, I didn’t directly address the issue of how moderates of all religions can come together against the extremists of all religions but embedded in the work that we’re doing that is the result of it. I think that majority of people in the world are moderates and there’s only a fraction of a fraction of a fraction that are extremists. And the reason why the extremists get all the press is because they have—they are the loudest. They use theatrical events to draw attention to their cause. And they are very enticing to the media. And the media gives them the platform. And this is why it looks like they are dominating, and it looks like they are—they are shaping the discourse for the rest of us. And I think it’s an obligation for all of us to step in together collectively—Muslim, non-Muslim, men, women of the conscience of rise up against the spread of extremism.
I thank you very much and I’ll open up for questions.
FASKIANOS: Thank you, Daisy, that was terrific. Let’s open up to the group for questions and comments.
OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time, we will open the floor for questions.
FASKIANOS: As we wait for questions to queue up, Daisy, can you talk about the intersection of gender and religious identity and how it has influenced the work that you are doing? You know, go a little bit deeper into that?
KHAN: So, I’m sorry, Irina. Gender and?
FASKIANOS: Religion. Religious identity.
KHAN: Well, I mean, I think that, you know, if you—I think that we all have different forms of identities. I don’t think that those—only human beings don’t have just one identity. We are a microcosm of many different identities. And the core identity that faith-based people have is the spirit that comes from all of us, you know, the spark of the divine which resides in each and every one of us, which is what gives us that, you know, equality, because we are seen as part of the same spark. And so within that spark, nested around that spark, we have our other identities. You know, we can have our national identities, we can have our racial identities. But those are all superficial when it comes to religious—or our spiritual identity. Our spiritual identity is connected to a larger, you know, force—a greater force outside of ourselves, outside of our human realm. And so really the ideal religious identity is one where one recognizes the other or, you know, the spark of the other. And then nested in that, around that, is all national identities.
So once we recognize that, then we are, you know, equal in the eyes of God. And so this is what we have discovered. For instance, in WISE when we brought all the women together, although we were—the women were fragmented along many different lines—they were fragmented along racial lines, around conservative, liberal, secular—and it was very hard to create solidarity between groups who were ideologically divided. But when we got down to the core of it and we brought everybody together and we realized that we were all—you know, according to Islamic identity, we were all a vice-regent of God—this is what we believe; Muslims believe, that we are here as ambassadors or stewards of God on Earth—that that fundamentally is what tied us all together.
FASKIANOS: Great. Let’s go to the first question, please.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our first question comes from Suzan Johnson Cook, former U.S. international ambassador.
COOK: Good morning, Daisy, and all who are part of this. It’s so good to hear your voices. Thank you for all the work that you continue to do.
I was on the frontlines of 9/11, as well as the ambassador for international religious freedom. And one of the things we needed to do to help with the sensitivity around Muslim, Christian participants together, was we created a partnership of faith. And that helped in the aftermath of 9/11. So you know, I run a Christian organization of women. It’s called Pro Voice Movement for Women. I really wanted to pledge our support to work with you and to form a female partnership of faith leaders, that we can help the world to understand our diversity, and that women are on the front lines of addressing this through faith means. But this is really is more of a comment just to let you know I’m supportive, and see if you have any interest in working together with a female partnership of faith.
KHAN: Oh, thank you so much, Suzan. It’s such a pleasure to hear you again. And, yes, we are sisters in faith. And I think that the #MeToo movement really could benefit from those of us who have been involved in faith-based activism.
KHAN: I think that I don’t see any reason why we could not create something like the first convention, the 1837 convention, where black and white women came together, drafted, debated, and adopted their resolutions, and then that event became Seneca Falls. I don’t know why we don’t draft a resolution. Why can’t we all come together? I mean, the protests are great, but I think that we need to do more than protest. I think we have enough people in this country now demanding change, you know, advocating this great awareness. And we have so many men that are rallying around us, so many good men that want to work with us. That, you know, just like when people were talking about slavery there were men who wanted to support that, but they needed women to be at the forefront.
So we’re ready to be at the forefront. I’m ready to work with you if we can rally groups of people together. And I know tons of other women who are thinking along the same lines but haven’t figured out the right kind of new blueprint that we can bring to the table. I do want to bring one book to everybody’s attention. It’s worth reading. It’s called And the Spirit Moved Them. It’s by Helen LaKelly Hunt. It is about the history of the suffragettes and the abolitionists. Really worth reading because it has a lot of information, a lot of insight about how that movement really created a seismic change in this country. And I think we are ready for a seismic change.
COOK: Well, after the call, you know, let’s connect and let’s plan it, because the faith element has been missing from all of—all that we hear now. And so as women of faith, I’d love to work with you. So I just wanted to, you know, give you my support, and we can talk offline. Thank you.
KHAN: Wonderful. Thank you so much.
FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Next question or comment, please.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Letty Pogrebin with Americans for Peace Now.
POGREBIN: Hello. Hello and thank you, Daisy, for your presentation. And it was great to hear Suzan’s voice as well.
I was only able to enter the call at about eleven minutes after 12:00, so I may have missed this if you covered it. My question is about the usefulness of dialogue versus direct action and cooperation. I am a strong believer in dialogue as setting the tone for mutual understanding and intergroup harmony. But others have objected that we get too tied up in talk and not enough in action. So I’d just like to hear what Daisy has to say, or anyone else on the call has to say on that subject.
KHAN: Yeah. So I think that dialogue is essential to building trust and to create action. In my own experience, it always beings with the dialogue because within dialogue you really can’t get to know one another. And you need to build trust, create friendships, and see a common vision. So dialogue is the starting point. So in our case, for instance, as Irina mentioned, how do you bring the moderates together against the extremists? So, you know, we started very humble dialogues across—literally across the dinner table with certain members of the Jewish community where there was a lot of distrust, you know, after 9/11 between the Jewish and Muslim communities, because they didn’t understand each other, or it was highly politicized and very charged with the Israel-Palestine issue.
So when we sat across the table and just, you know, had dinner and got to know each other as individuals and as people, we befriended each other. Eventually, those friendships served us really well because every time there was a massive conflict, you know, we would step in and speak to one another and explain our positions. Now, that was going on for 10 years. And 10 years later now we have a Jewish-Muslim advisory council, which is a structured institutionalized intentional effort to Muslims and Jews to work together to—against hate crimes. So that would not have happened if those dialogues and those relationships and friendships had not taken place to begin with.
And it’s my—it’s also my experience that when we had—we had planned to build our community center in lower Manhattan. Many of your heard about it in the news. A lot of people that rallied around us were people who had—we had done dialogue with, people who had—who were our friends. And they were the ones who were outside on the street with vigils and, you know, became our surrogates on TVs and were circling the wagons around us. This would not have been possible without dialogue. So dialogue is an essential first step to building those relationships. And only then can you create action and collaboration. And that action and collaboration becomes very powerful because you are doing it collectively with a joint purpose and joint meaning.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question or comment.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Eleanor Ellsworth with Episcopal Diocese of San Diego.
ELLSWORTH: Thank you. And happy International Women’s Day.
My question to you, is could you give us a little more detail about the council that you put together to look at the theological and religious underpinnings for your work? I’d be interested in how you got that together, how long you collaborated, what—just spell it out and maybe paint a little deeper picture for us about that? Would you be able to do that, please?
KHAN: Yes, of course. So in our conference of 200 Muslim women, we asked Muslim women a question. We said: What do you think is the biggest barrier to your advancement? And it was an anonymous—(coughs)—excuse me—anonymous polling device. And we were surprised that women chose—87 percent of the women chose distorted scriptural interpretation as the number-one reason or a barrier to their advancement. So we knew that that was—that was a very important finding for us. And then we asked another question, and the question was: Do you think that Muslim women should be at the forefront of interpreting scripture? Now, there’s no prohibition in Islam for women to interpret scripture. It’s just that, you know, over—in contemporary times, women have been relegated to—not to the forefront, but to the—you know, to the back burner. And women have traditionally not been jurists, though in the past centuries they have.
So we were surprised that 91 percent of the women gave us the charge and said: Yes, women should be at the forefront of interpreting scripture. So with that, we were able to get the authority of the women themselves to start a council, because if we had done it without really have the support of the women, we probably—the credibility of the council would have been questioned. So knowing that the women were behind us, and they gave us the charge, we invited people to be on this council. And we wanted to blend this council with religious women, spiritual women, and some women who were academics, and some women who were activists, because we knew that the activists knew what the issues were on the ground. And the academics and the religious women usually had the answers, or solutions, or opinions on how to solve that problem.
We wanted to collaborate between the two. So the activists would feed us the information and say: You don’t know what’s going on in our community. And you don’t know how this injustice is being justified in the name of religion. So we were able to cull this information. So we had 40 members from around the globe. And it was all voluntary. It was a webinar call—I mean, a phone call. Everybody would be sitting in their kitchen tables, or wherever they were, in all parts of the world from Kenya, to India, to Pakistan, the Egypt, and Turkey. And they would all dial in and give us their feedback. We had one person that was culling all the research together and a writer who was pulling all the different aspects of the things together.
So what does the Koran say about this issue? About, let’s say, child marriage? Is it in the Koran or is it not in the Koran? What did the prophet do about it? What are the norms in different countries and different societies? What is the age of marriage in different societies? So we were able to bring all of this research together. And then one writer—our organization hired a writer—would lead the way, and this paper would get circulated to the entire council. And then people would provide their own feedback into the—and they would edit the document and it would come back and forth and forth. And in six months, we would have a finalized opinion paper. And that opinion paper would then be distributed to all the women around the globe. And then they would take it into their own communities and use it as research and evidence to do trainings in their own communities.
So one of the first papers that we did was female genital mutilation. And one of the ladies from our council took this, Adriana Kaplan, and was very excited because all the research that she had done on female genital mutilation was based on medical research. She didn’t have any religious—you know, she didn’t have anything on religion. She knew that was a missing piece of the puzzle. So she ran with that, and she wanted to test it with a group of imams to see what their reaction would be. And she was doing work in Gambia. And so she walked into a colloquium of scholars and activists and, you know, sheikhs who were having a conference. And she said, I need five minutes of your time. She’s a white woman. And they were all, like, stunned, you know? And so she told them: I just need you to read this two-pager, because for every statement that we do, we also do a very synthesized abstracted version—two pager. And so she just read them the two-pager.
And they were so stunned at the research and the evidence that female genital mutilation was not only un-Islamic, it was a crime against women, that they issued a fatwa on the spot, at that moment. They said—a fatwa against it. And this fatwa became so powerful that she, for the last—since 2011, she has been going with this fatwa from imam to imam, sheikh to sheikh, person to person. And I was just in Gambia. And I came back. And I want to tell you that Gambia has passed a law against it. They banned it. It’s being legislated. And I met the vice (president ?), yeah, who is so excited that we did this paper and, you know, that this religious element was missing from this conversation. Because once you have this religious argument, it changes hearts and minds at the deepest level. People think they’re doing something sinful, and they walk away from it permanently.
ELLSWORTH: Well, thank you so much. That was really illuminating.
KHAN: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you.
Our next question comes from Zainab Al-Suwaij with American Islamic Congress.
AL-SUWAIJ: Good afternoon. Thank you, Daisy, very much for a very informative talk. I really appreciate it. And I always am proud of your—of the world that you do.
My question is you have mentioned the Shura Council, and the work that you have done with several women leaders from around—Muslim women leaders from around the world. How effective that Shura Council is, and how many women you have in it, and what are the issues that you discuss, or you work on? Thank you.
KHAN: Yeah. Thank you, Zainab. And for all those people on the call, Zainab is one of those people that I was mentioning. There are scores of women at the forefront of change. And Zainab is another one of those people that does immense amount of work in our community. And so I applaud you for that as well.
And so the Shura Council, when it was first formed, it’s a completely voluntary group. And we decided when we first met to list the top—what we called the deadly sins against women around the globe. And so we identified domestic violence, terrorism—which because—you know, out of the group, the group said terrorism affects us all and it’s not only a women’s issue, it’s a child issue, it’s a family issue, it’s a societal issue. That was second. The women’s leadership, female genital mutilation, child marriage, forced marriage, and finally women—right of education. So these are the top ones that we decided to do position papers on. And so our women’s leadership paper is going to be released this year.
The Shura Council is not always active. It only gets activated when we are working on a position paper. So probably we will get reactivated again next year when we have to take on more positions papers. We still want to work on guardianship because that’s still an issue that affects women around the world, women’s mobility and their freedom to move around, and we’ve also done a very strong paper on adoption which has been an issue around the Muslim world, where people think adoption is not—is not permitted. And this adoption paper is being used by people on the ground. And single women are now adopting children because they know that it’s permissible. And they have used our adoption paper.
So the effectiveness in the Shura Council, the body itself, is not what we are selling. It’s the product that we put out, which are the position papers. The papers themselves are so well done, the scholarship is so tight, because we know we will be scrutinized up and down. So we go for the highest, the most excellence. So our research is really well done. And so that—the position papers is what makes the Shura Council effective. And want to see its effectiveness on the ground. And in Afghanistan we have used our Jihad Against Violence, which was the first paper we did against violent extremism. And we have been able to convince imams to stop conducting marriages. We have Jamila Afghani that we work with in Afghanistan. She used the child marriage to do trainings of imams on the ground. And we convinced the imams that child marriage is prohibited in Islam.
And one of the imams went to conduct a marriage. And when he did, he saw a little 13-year-old girl crying. And he asked her, why, you don’t want to get married? She said, no. He said, why? She said, I want to go to school. And he said, did they—did you not give your consent? And she said, no, I didn’t give my consent. I’m being forcibly married. And so he walked away. He said, I’m not conducting this marriage. Both sides of the family tried to bribe him. He said, no, I’m accountable to God. I’m not accountable to you.
And then the next day, he gave a sermon—as part of the training program was so that the imams would talk about this in their sermons—and he did that and he told the people there: Why do we do this to our daughters? This is a crime against them. And a little old man was in the audience and he was shook up. And he held the imam’s collar and he said: Why didn’t you tell me this before? I have sold one daughter for bride price. I’ve given my other daughter away. And my daughter—you know, basically all his three daughters are miserable. The imam turned around and said: It’s too late for you, but it’s not late for the other people in the room.
Now, I’m saying this because we started with the Shura Council paper. If we hadn’t had that Shura Council paper, Jamila would not have been able to do any of her work, because she needed really well-researched papers. And she—we started with twenty-five imams. And we have trained 6,000 imams using the trainer of trainer model eventually. And so this is all recorded. It’s all evidenced. We have all the impact stories. And this is the power of knowledge and disseminating proper knowledge. I fundamentally believe that people don’t have the right knowledge in their hands. And many people, you know, don’t have the time and the inclination to provide this information in a succinct manner.
And that is the work that we set out to do for ourselves, and including WISE Up report, which is really the synthesis of all of the work that even the Shura Council did. We used that model, and we replicated that, and we expanded it, and we, you know, made it even more holistic than what we had done with the Shura Council. So that, I’m sorry, is a long answer to your—to your very profound question.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Colette Mazzucelli with NYC Center for Global Affairs.
MAZZUCELLI: Thank you very much. Happy International Women’s Day. Daisy, thank you so much for your wonderful presentation.
I’d like to hear more about the upcoming congressional briefing that WISE is planning. I think that we’ve seen a number of presentations of the WISE Up report at different educational institutions in the United States. And it’s quite clear to see how that dissemination is taking place. Could you please brief us a little bit on what you have planned in Washington, D.C. in the coming weeks?
KHAN: Yeah. So the WISE Up report that we did included not only the issue of rise of extremism, but also the other side of the coin, which is the rise of Islamophobia, how one feeds the other and how, you know, it’s a cycle that continues on. And so, with the rise of Islamophobia, certain groups—you can certain people can feel alienated and feel like they don’t belong in this country and become vulnerable to recruits. So we wanted to prevent that. And we want to bring that awareness to the policymakers, especially the awareness that the linkage of Islam to terrorism, the continuous linkage or verbiage of Islamic terrorism, Islamic radicalism, Islamic this, basically is validating the terrorists. It’s not really distancing—you know, it’s not doing anything to rally Muslims or to—you know, to mobilize Muslims to go against the extremists. But all it does is it promotes—it promotes the—gives credibility to the terrorists, who yearn this credibility, who want to use religion as a veneer to justify their actions.
So we want to bring this awareness to the members of Congress. And Colette mentioned a couple of weeks—we are still trying to get a place. We have not secured a space. so it may not happen in a couple of weeks. But we want to bring the—all our research that we have done in WISE Up, where we show the various challenges that American Muslims are being confronted by right now, especially in this climate of fear—everything from rise in hate crimes to what it feels to be othered or to be seen as a suspect, civil liberties issues, the continuous linkage of Islamic—Islam to terrorism, and labeling, and the framing of how Islam is framed, or as a securitized faith, not just as any, you know, global faith with similar challenges. So some of these things, we want to bring that awareness and make certain recommendations to members of Congress.
And the WISE Up book itself is the basis of the research. And we want to give out these copies of WISE Up reports to members of Congress, so they can read it. So we’ve done some of the testing with some of the folks. We’ve been doing these dialogues—town hall dialogues where we go around the country. Whoever invites us, we are there. So anybody on this call, you want to bring us, we’re there. Just call us and let us know. And it’s a great way to actually engage the public, because now you have something you can leave with them. In the past, we didn’t have anything, and people had to do their own research. So much of the feedback we have gotten is thank you very much for giving me this stuff that I now I have in my hand. And as one politician said—elected official here in Westchester said, you know, a day—a page a day keeps the extremists away. And he promised that he was going to keep this next to his night table and read one page every day.
But I think that the one thing that we Muslims have not done effectively—and it’s not really a criticism, it’s just the reality of how we are. We are a very diverse faith. Many of us are doing work in activism in our own pockets. And we’ve not done a good enough job to present our story as a collective story to the general public. And so our attempt to bring these seventy-two voices together to tell the big narrative of who American Muslims are, their challenges, their aspirations, how they’re contributing to America, but also how they are confronted as a community from the enemy within. And that’s very important, because if the politicians become aware that—of who the real threat is, then we can really start to solve the problem. The difficulty we have is they don’t know who the enemy is. And sometimes they think that the enemy is Islam itself. And that does not—does not—you know, doesn’t really allow Muslims to come forward and get mobilized.
So this policy brief will be done in conjunction with other organizations, especially those who have contributed to the—to the report, but also other people in Washington, D.C. So we are working on it still. And it’s not finalized yet. But that’s the intention, is to actually go and make policymakers aware—not only to make them aware, but really to ask them to start, you know, reframing the way they speak about Islam as a religion, which is a global religion, and its ties to extremism aren’t there, because we have now given you enough evidence to show in black and white house Islam is being distorted by the extremists, how it’s being utilized as a political tool or a tool, how they are weaponizing religion and using it as a tool to further their own political ends. So I hope that now that we have shown people in black and white what the distinction is between the two, that we will be able to say who the real enemy is, and stop using Islam and, you know, conflating Islam with terrorism.
MAZZUCELLI: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you, next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Mary Hunt with Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual.
HUNT: Good afternoon. I’m delighted to be on this call and appreciate your work, Daisy. I’ve long admired it from a distance.
I have two kind of related very practical questions. And they have to do with religious education for children. I work at WATER, the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual. And we over our three decades of work have found it very difficult to bring some of the ideas—both the kind of things you’re talking about and the thing we’ve worked on over the years, particularly in the Christian tradition—to religious education for children. So I’d love to be instructed by you as to how you do that, how you begin to get some of—how do you get traction to get some of these ideas embedded, as it were, at a much younger age for people than many of us received them.
And the second question that I have has to do with support for young women who are students. I’m thinking about our interns, many of whom are in graduate studies. What kind of support do you see for the feminist work of Islamic scholars—Islamic prominent scholars? Is there support at the graduate level so that we will have a cadre of women well-trained when those of us finish our work that can take this over? So it’s really the question of children and then of graduate students. I’d appreciate any insights that you might share. Thank you. And, again, I appreciate your work.
KHAN: Yeah. Well, these are such big, monumental questions of structure, you know? I think that you are talking about a religion that is so democratic and so individualized that it really depends on its pockets of community that are—that have very strong national linkages, strong ideological, you know, alliances. And so there is no one prescribed curriculum that is taught in Sunday schools around the country—in Muslim Sunday schools. So you see some very—you know, very conservative schools that preach a very sort of puritanical form of Islam. And you see—you know, you would see something that is a little bit more pluralistic. And it depends on who the community is and what their outlook is, and what kind of curriculum that they can get their hands on.
So my husband recently has embarked on a brand-new curriculum, which is something that—they searched everywhere. And they were never satisfied with anything that they saw. Or they thought that whatever was out there, or the curriculums that were out there were lacking or were not sufficiently critical. So they’ve taken upon themselves to start from scratch, you know, brand-new, and really base their curriculum on critical thinking, and critical thinking that is appropriate for the American mindset, although it would be completely grounded in Islamic theology. It would have all the elements of Islam that are necessary to teach. But it would have a very strong critical thinking element to it. But it’s brand-new. It’s being tested. People are enjoying it. They are flocking to it. But, you know, it’s a question of resources and how quickly they can, you know, expand and get their own space, and so on and so forth.
So we are trying very hard to get WISE Up to the Sunday schools, because we think that by bringing all the key elements of Islam together—especially things that are being talked about right now—in one place and well researched and written by scholars, and we also show the distortion between that and, you know, what is true Islamic teaching, that that might be something that would be useful in schools right now, because there’s a lot of fake stuff that is being taught online that are influencing the children. So I’ll give you an example. I was just in Morocco. And I met a gentleman who is in charge of—who has actually been made in charge of creating a brand-new curriculum for schools. So there is an awareness around Muslim societies that the curriculum itself is lacking. And it’s not creating a cadre of, you know, brilliant minds or critical thinkers. That it’s memorization, the same stuff is being taught over and over again in the old-fashioned way.
And so when I gave him WISE Up as a gift, he was so excited by what he saw that he wants, you know, to take it and turn it into Arabic and French and possibly even introduce it into the schools on an interim basis before their real curriculum gets started. So this is—this is—you know, I think that religious education, the curriculum for religious education has to be updated, has to be changed, and has to be brought into, you know, the way people understand now. And so I think that it’s still lacking. Though there might be pockets of communities I’m not aware of that might be doing something amazing that, you know, I’m not aware of who they are.
Support for young women, we try to support young women by bringing interns into our office and really giving them the kind of grounding that they need for their own—you know, it’s literally individual to individual. So most people that come into our office are usually people that want to explore either something in themselves personally or their own spirituality, or they want to understand their faith more, or they want to become bridge builders, or they really don’t like the way the world is going and they’re very passionate about making a change. So if we can train these people in the right way and we can equip them with the knowledge that they need, they can, you know, move mountains down the road.
So we don’t have a specific program right now, though we are thinking of creating mentorship program that might be a little bit more aligned to, you know, what you have proposed—real support for women at the graduate level. But right now we’re doing it through internships when people come intern for us. And then they leave and they go on. And they’ve done remarkable things. We have, you know, real success stories of women who have gone on to do—are doing some amazing, amazing work out there.
HUNT: Thank you very much.
FASKIANOS: Great. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Burton Everist with Wartburg Theological Seminary.
EVERIST: Yes. Thank you. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is currently studying the issue of women and justice. And my wife, Dr. Norma Cook Everist, has conducted a number of discussions about this. And she has learned from over the years of doing discussions of men and women in the church that it’s excellent if you can have equal numbers of men and women for such discussions. And then at one point, to separate them, and then to bring them back, so they can ask questions of each other. I wonder what kind of processes you are following to gather the women and the men together. I noticed that you indicated that there are a number—that men have been supportive. But how can we build that?
Parenthetically, I ought to say that I am an adjunct. And so I am currently in Mason City, Iowa.
KHAN: Oh, wonderful. So I don’t know how many of you know this, but I am married to an imam. So, you know, I got my activism—I mean, I got my feet wet because I saw how people used to come to my husband asking questions. And I began to mentor other people and I began to, you know, help others. And so people in my community have always seen, you know, men and women working together. You know, we support one another. And our community is like that. So we have very active women in our community because we have modeled something for others and others are following that model. So though we may be women, we are collectively working as a group together.
So with that, understanding the influence that men have in our community is very important because they are the ones that oftentimes have a seat at the table. But we have also seen in recent times that, you know, communities that tend to be very progressive and that tend to see women in an egalitarian role also give women important positions in boards. And we have two mosques that have women presidents now. And so men who value their women, oftentimes those communities really do well and progress really well. And they grow and they expand. And here’s a mosque in Westbury that’s like that. There’s a mosque in Toledo that’s like that. I mean, these are the mosques that I’m aware of, where women and men work together in conjunction with one another.
Now, having that knowledge, when we were getting ready to do our WISE Up initiative, the report, I had to find the right kind of people in the community. So in Islam, we don’t really think of, you know, a woman leader or a man leader. The whole basis of leadership is on meritocracy. So whoever has the most knowledge, whoever has—is the best at something is the right person for that role. This is something that is a tradition. This is something that is of great value, that has served the Muslim community really well in the past. And it’s something that’s been relegated to the side, you know, because societies have changed, and people’s attitudes have changed. So we wanted to unearth that.
And so with that, I really sought out people who had—who had merit in the community. And so I didn’t distinguish between men and women—whoever was the right person to do that job. So the seventy-two contributors, many of them are men. But some are women, of course. And so this is how we showcase, you know, when women lead change, we don’t really distinguish between men, women, or even youth and gender and, you know, we’ve even included voices of non-Muslims because they were the best people to offer that advice or to offer that expertise. So this is how we have done it. And we think that this is a better model than just relegating—you know, just saying only women’s voices or only men’s voices. I think that the collective voices of both of us coming together is much more powerful to the public especially, that is yearning for—to see men and women coming together.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s take the next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Kirsten Muth with Episcopal Relief and Development.
MUTH: My name is Kirsten from Episcopal Relief and Development.
And I just wanted to say that I am deeply appreciative of the scholarship and the work that you’ve put in. When you were talking about your work in Gambia, we have an interfaith program in Liberia where we work with the Interreligious Council of Liberia. And our program we’ve just been invited to replicate and expand, and the scholarship that you’ve done would be enormously helpful in this program that’s also starting to go in other countries. We’ve worked with the national religious leaders in our—and what I think has been successful is the way—is the way that the program really has engaged with the theology and not just the messaging.
So I am just wondering—my question is, how can—how can we work with you to get some of this scholarship out? Because we have a lot of ways to do that.
KHAN: Yeah. Well, so this is excellent. This is music to our ears, because all we want to do is the scholarship that we have already, you know, published, should be disseminated. So we are looking for partners to carry out this work forward, especially in countries where we don’t have any access. Because in some countries we have individuals who are part of our network that carry out the work and we help them and we support them. But in other parts of the world, we don’t have that access. So if you—if you would like to partner with us, you know, just send us an email. [email protected]. And we’ll get started. I’ll be happy to work with you.
MUTH: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: I’m going to try to squeeze in one more, because we’ve got two minutes and we’ve got more questions than we have time for. So let’s just do one more question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our final question comes from Satpal Singh with State University of New York at Buffalo.
SINGH: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. And thank you very much for your efforts in addressing the issues of treatment and mistreatment of women.
Now, my question is related to the fact that faith plays a very significant role in the mistreatment of women, and only occasionally and marginally addressing these issues. At the same time, I see that leaders of faith in general can do far more on these issues than most other segments of society can. So my question is, if we look at the current awareness or mistreatment of women arising from many angles—you know, not only #MeToo, but many other issues—how much role are leaders of faith playing at the actual, practical level? Not must among Muslim women, but men and women of faith in general. And as an extension to that, what are some other—some very critical issues on which faith leaders can play a more significant role?
KHAN: Yeah. I think this is a really important question because I have seen in my work that there are a lot of good men who really want to help women, but oftentimes they don’t know how. I think it’s not enough to just give a sermon. I think men can do a lot more. Influential men can—you know, so in our experience the only way we were really able to get any traction was to actually sit and have workshops with men. So in Afghanistan, when we actually sat down—I mean, the two examples that we have—two, three examples that we have—Egypt, Afghanistan, and Gambia—is you actually engage the people, you sit down with them, you show them—you show them the evidence and you ask of them to do something about it. Only then, you know, leave them with something that they can deliver, that they can speak about, equip them with the information that they need.
I think that there are—there is so much momentum in this country right now. And that’s why when Suzan Cook said how can we work together and bring the faith angle into this, I think that we need to do more deliberate conversations—perhaps maybe phone calls with key male leaders—to see how we can rally them and ask them to not only speak, but to act upon these things. And they have to be left with something so that they can—they can take this and distribute this to their communities, or speak—I mean, you know, you have people like Reverend Barber who comes and, you know, Jim Forbes, and they speak and they give beautiful eloquent speeches, and they mobilize people for a moment. But I think that if you have to get action on the ground, you have to give people something more than—more than just, you know, verbal. They need a charge. They need to be charged with something.
SINGH: Thank you so much.
FASKIANOS: Thank you very much, Daisy, and to everybody for your comments and questions. I think this is a really wonderful call. We appreciated your insight, Daisy, the work that you’re doing, and hope that this forum—you will continue the discussion. You can either email us at [email protected], or email Daisy. I know we had several questions still waiting, but we do try to end on time. Again, her email address is [email protected]. I encourage you to follow Daisy on Twitter at @DaisyKhan. The WISE Up report is online. And we’re looking forward to seeing your new book, Daisy, Born with Wings, when it comes out in April.
KHAN: Yeah. Thank you so much. Yeah, I look forward. And like I said, Irina, I just want to emphasize, there are so many people on this call that you wouldn’t have joined the call if you weren’t really interested in this work. So we are willing to work with everybody and anybody. I think the moment demands that of us. WISE Up report is something that we have done for you that you will be equipped with things that you need in your own activism. If you—if you can, and can afford to, it’s only $30, please buy it, if you can. It’s WISEUPreport.org. A book will be sent to you right away. It’s not on Amazon yet. And then, anybody who wants to work with us and bring us to your community, your—you know, or want to collaborate with us as partners, we’re happy to do that, really.
FASKIANOS: Fantastic. Thank you all. I hope you will also follow us at—our Religion and Foreign Policy Program on Twitter at @CFR_Religion for announcements of upcoming events and information about the latest CFR resources. And we look forward to hearing from you your ideas and your continued participation in the work that we’re doing here at CFR. So thank you all.