Monday 9 March 2015

#Muslims4Lent: “If anything this is strengthening our faith”

Full transcript, in the original English, of my interview with Bassel Riche, founder of the #Muslims4Lent campaign. The news piece and video, in Portuguese, are here.

Transcrição integral, no inglês original, da entrevista a Bassel Riche, fundador da campanha #Muslims4Lent. A reportagem e video estão aqui.

How did #Muslims4Lent start?
I was in the University of Houston and as part of the Muslim Student Association, every Ramadan, which is like the “Muslim Lent”, we would have a drive which would basically encourage non-Muslims to sign up to join us for one day in fasting and, at the end of the day, we would have a big meal together and talk about interfaith dialogue, share commonalities and stuff like that.

It was a very nice experience and a few years later I decided, on a personal level, that there seemed to be a good amount of people who did things to try and understand the Muslim community and reach out to the Muslim community, and so I felt that t was right for us to reach out to the Christian community and show them that we in turn also have very high respect for them.

On a personal level I would do it, I'd put up a Facebook status, saying what I was giving up. Then this year was a little different, I created a group, I took a picture of myself with the sign, and encouraged others to do the same, and it caught on.

How many people have joined this campaign?
I wish I knew. I wish I could see how many times it has been tweeted and retweeted.

Honestly it is easily in the thousands, but I'm not sure. To go through and count all the pictures on twitter and on Instagram would be quite a task. But it’s definitely enough that we feel we have made a big impact and created lots of conversations around the world.

Is the current climate, with issues such as the Islamic State and fundamentalist Muslim violence, a factor as well?
Absolutely. Because people can be so caught up in their routine, understandably so, we are all busy with work and with our family, and people get into these routines, sometimes when something is foreign to them it can be perceived as scary.

Right now, particularly in America, there is a sentiment amongst some that the Muslim community is that scary variable, nobody really knows much about them, and that is one of the goals, to put ourselves out there in everyday life, and encourage the people who might have these opinions to talk to us.

The shootings that happened in Chapel Hill, a few weeks ago, when they studied the person that shot those people they said that he clearly had racial and religious prejudice against the victims. Hopefully when you reach out to these people and engage in dialogue respectfully, it helps curb us away from that sort of extremist and “us versus them” mentality.

Then we begin to realise that we have a lot more in common than we will ever have different, and if we spend the time talking about our similarities, we probably won't even have time to talk about our differences.

You have also received a fair amount of criticism, correct?
We have criticism on both sides.

On the Christian side we have had people saying that “This isn't actually what Lent is about, so you guys are missing the whole point of what Lent is”, and they will explain that giving something up has nothing to do with Lent. And my response to them would be, that's a good thing to bring up from a knowledge and understanding point of view, but it still means a lot to a lot of people.

If Lent has changed in the way it has been practiced over two thousand years, I don't know, but present day, 2015, this sacrifice of something, is a meaningful gesture and it means a lot to a lot of people, and the tweets on the hashtag #Muslims4Lent proves that. So maybe we can do a better job of understanding what it’s all about, but even something small like this seems to have resonated with quite a lot more people and it seems that it’s the minority of people who are against it.

On the Muslim side there is a similar idea, there are people saying we shouldn't partake in the religious actions of other religions, we should stick to our own, and for that I would say that if you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem.

People have compared it and said that doing something like this is compromising our faith, but how? If anything, this is something which is strengthening our faith, because we are reconnecting and putting ourselves in a position to receive questions from other people and hopefully that will drive us to research more and understand our religion better, so we can in turn present it correctly.

So on both sides it seems to come from a place of not really understanding what we're all about, and it seems that you can't please everybody, and most people are just going to dismiss something that is outside their box of comfort, without trying to understand it.

Were you born in the USA?
American born and raised to Lebanese-Syrian parents.

Have you ever been to Syria?
It’s been a while, but I have, yes.

So it must be particularly painful for you to see what is happening there…
It’s painful every day, whenever I talk to my cousins, because of everything going on... Some of them are my age and they feel that they have been robbed of their future.

When they were younger they had hopes, but one of my cousins has been doing her PHD in Belgium and is set to return to Syria to be a teacher, and even when I talk to her it’s truly sad, because she had high hopes. She wanted to go and change the education system, and advance it in Syria, and then all this happened and now she feels like, who knows? So it is truly sad.

Do you identify as Sunni or Shia?
I don't identify. I prefer just to identify as Muslim. I think that the sectarian division in Islam is one of the dark spots in our religion.

There was no mention of sect in the Koran and Mohammed wasn't sectarian, so I think it is one of the things, internally in the Muslim community, that I try to push on and hope that people start following suit and stop putting labels on ourselves that only serve to divide our own community. 

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