Toward Interfaith Cooperation

In the months since finishing the 2014 All-School Read, I Am Malala, the Middlesex community has periodically revisited the inspiring memoir, particularly during the visits of guest speakers, who have discussed the power and advantage of educating girls worldwide.

On March 27, the School considered a different aspect of Malala’s story: the religion of Islam and how Muslims may differ in their interpretation and expression of their faith. Handling a complicated topic with impressive ease was Usra Ghazi, a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School and Public Policy Fellow of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Currently working on faith-based engagement at the Mayor’s Office of New Bostonians, Ms. Ghazi is a longtime interfaith activist who first became involved in this work through Interfaith Youth Core, a nonprofit based in Chicago.

Articulate and poised, Ms. Ghazi also used her wit to dispel “the three biggest myths” about Muslims: that they are all either terrorists or superheroes (as in Marvel Comics); that when they radicalize, it always results in violence; and that they all look the same. Sharing anecdotes from her own childhood in Illinois, and from her studies and travels, she readily conveyed a sense of the diversity that exists among Muslims. Some women might wear the hijab and others might not; some might drink alcohol while others do not. In short, she stressed, she has met a variety of Muslims who are only united in their belief that the Quran is their holy book. Beyond that, they may differ greatly in their interpretations of that text and in their religious practices.

After debunking each myth, she asked the audience to discuss a related question with those seated near them, giving her listeners time to think about the ways in which their religion or ethical code informs and affects their own lives.

“Islam is a diverse religion,” she said, “and the same disagreements that divide Muslims are sometimes at the root of the biggest conflicts in other parts of the world.” Rather than engage in “Islamophobia,” however, she encouraged people to be critical thinkers. “The first step in understanding someone else’s background is to ask about it,” she maintained.