CHAUTAUQUA - Chautauqua Institution's Hall of Philosophy reached full capacity and then some Tuesday afternoon. Chautauquans gathered on the grass and the streets to get within earshot of Daisy Khan and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf: the day's Interfaith lecturers.
Feisal, chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, and his wife Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, have visited the Institution's grounds on several occasions, finding a summer home away from their New York City headquarters.
Speaking on the Institution's Week Two Interfaith Lecture theme, "2012: What's at Stake for the Common Good?" the duo focused on issues affecting Muslim-Americans on Tuesday.
Photo by Scott Shelters
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf answers a question in Chautauqua Institution's Hall of Philosophy on Tuesday. He and his wife, Daisy Khan, lectured on '2012: What's at Stake for the Common Good?'
Imam Feisal touched on themes addressed in his recently released book, "The Mountain, Beyond Ground Zero to a New Vision of Islam in America." Those topics included the common ground of various faith traditions and the nature of his work with the Cordoba Initiative, an independent, multi-faith project that aims to provide solutions to conflicts between Islamic and Western communities.
"The projects we're working on have to do with addressing the underlying issues: the issue of identity and social identity; the relationship between church and state in Islam; and building a coalition of moderates across the faith traditions to combat extremists in all our midsts," he said.
The projects include a women's initiative, which deals with the role of women in Islam; a youth initiative, which focuses on developing a generation of American-Muslim leaders; and shaping an American-Muslim identity.
"I believe that we need to evolve from the immigrant generation to becoming American-Muslims," Imam Feisal said. "We are American in terms of our theology, our law and our social identity."
When speaking to the audience, Imam Feisal said two commandments are common among all Abrahamic faith traditions: to love the Lord with all one's heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love thy neighbor, including the planet and its creatures. From those commandments, Imam Feisal said, the common good is derived.
"For all of us, there's a gap between our ideals and our realities," he said. "Although we fall short, we should strive for perfection. ... We Chautauquans have a call to action upon us. We have to 'Chautauquanize' America. I see Chautauqua as the culture that can positively transform America because here is the soul of what makes America great."
Khan focused her lecture on issues facing Muslim women in the U.S. and abroad, including those in Afghanistan. She sees similarities between the current struggles of Muslim women for equal rights and those American women went through in the 20th century.
"I would like to speak about the recent challenge that Muslims have had with being accepted as equal members within society and what's at stake for America to remain religiously plural and to live up to its highest ideals of acknowledging and accepting those who are different, those who are newcomers," Khan told the newspaper prior to her lecture. "Islam is also an American religion. We are in a very small minority, but we are a robust religious community that can contribute significantly to America's future heritage. This is part of what Chautauqua has always been about: accepting new people in its fold. To me, it's a very symbolic place to make an address from."
Kahn told the audience that gender equality is an intrinsic part of the Islamic faith, but added that fact needs to be proven to some. She has focused efforts on teaching Afghani imams the importance of women's rights in the Quran.
"I came to the (U.S.) and took my oath," she said. "I want to share the successes of this country that made me who I am. ... Why should Muslim women have the biggest burden of all?"
Khan feels comfortable lecturing at Chautauqua, where she has found audiences are mature concerning religious and faith-based arguments. However, she said Chautauqua audiences also provide challenges to her as a lecturer.
"You get very pointed questions," she said. "You get a lot of appreciation, but you're also deeply challenged by very direct questions about the kind of issues that people are trying to sort out in their own minds. Particularly with Muslims, there's always a long line of people waiting to ask questions on any number of issues."
Among the several questions she answered Tuesday, Khan was asked about educating imams in the U.S. on women's rights.
"We want to show them the bird's-eye view, the women's view," she said. "If the Muslim community can focus on women's rights, I think we will see a change in the way Americans view Muslims."
After lecturing on the similarities between Christianity, Islam and Judaism, Imam Feisal was asked if Jesus was a Christian prophet or a Muslim prophet.
"All and none of the above," he replied. "We tend to think of Jesus, Moses and Muhammad as trying to create Christianity Inc., Judaism Inc. and Islam Inc. Think of it as God Inc., and Jesus, Moses, and Muhammad are regional managers."
OFF THE GROUNDS
Khan and Imam Feisal aren't strangers to dealing with difficult questions off Chautauqua's grounds. They've dealt with scrutiny for the past two years after proposing the idea of the Cordoba House, a planned Muslim-led, multi-faith center in lower Manhattan.
"There was so much confusion in the marketplace about our intentions that some audiences were hostile," Khan said. "They misunderstood our intentions. It took a lot of courage and a lot of patience to try to alleviate the fears of people."
Two years later, the dream to create the center still lives, according to Imam Feisal. Describing Chautauqua as "a community bonded by faith," he said the Institution's multi-faith approach in part created the Cordoba House idea.
"(The idea) is still alive," he said. "Whether I do it in that location or another location, it still is a work in progress. The fact is that the very first idea to set up the Cordoba House was conceived here in Chautauqua when I came here for the first time in 2002. They wanted us to think about establishing a Muslim community of Chautauquans. We're hopeful right now that we'll be able to set up such a Cordoba House in Chautauqua as a combination first-step summer home to help bring about the kind of thing we want to do. The multi-faith center in lower Manhattan was conceived over something like the 92nd Street YMCA concept, which has become a center where people of all faith communities can be members ... where there are activities which are common: cultural, educational and we would like to add a religious concept to our programming."
According to Khan, the Cordoba House would bring a taste of a Western New York community to Manhattan.
"As we embark on the future for the next go around, we will make another proposal, and we will make sure our original vision of creating a Muslim-sponsored, multi-faith center is very much intact and that a little bit of Chautauqua can be recreated on this little island called Manhattan," she said.