Sock footed in the Islamic Center of Tucson's prayer room, more than 30 people of various religious and cultural backgrounds—many of them youth—gathered for conversation on Saturday, Feb. 4.
Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Baha'i, atheist, and more gathered to recognize commonalities and celebrate differences as part of World Interfaith Harmony Week. In 2010, the United Nations designated the first week of February as WIHW and communities around the world have supported the initiative, hosting gatherings for prayer, conversation and even music.
Tucson's youth interfaith dialogue, sponsored by the Islamic Center, was supported by Mayor Jonathan Rothschild through a proclamation. Tucson is the first of four cities to formally proclaim participation in WIHW through the Mayors and Cities for Interfaith Harmony initiative.
"It's the right time, given our political atmosphere," said Irfan Sheikh, organizer of the event.
Sheikh believes people with deep theological differences can live in peace.
"The art of living is to respectfully coexist despite differences. That's when we show we are human beings."
Sheikh said that while it's critical to acknowledge the wars and conflicts that have characterized interfaith interactions of the past, we must also look ahead to opportunities for building harmonious, loving communities.
"It's good to keep looking at history," he said. "By looking in the back-view mirror you position yourself right. However, we will crash if we only look in the back-view mirror. We need to come together and outweigh the stance that's trying to divide us."
The discussion, facilitated by Catalina Foothills High School students Sameed Irfan and Josh Cohen, explored stereotypes and misunderstandings of faith groups as propagated by news or social media, particularly regarding Islam.
Many at the gathering agreed that mingling and becoming true friends with people of various backgrounds, exposing ourselves to the nuanced stories of humanity is key to successful interfaith interaction.
When we spend time with those "different" from ourselves, growing sincere friendships, then "all misconceptions ease out," said one participant. "We all find we have two hands, as well as needs and wants."
Sandy Marshall, a University of Arizona's School of Geography and Development professor, reminded the group that "harmony" is a musical word. "To achieve harmony, you need many diverse voices," Marshall said. It's not a harmony if everyone sings the same note.
Nonetheless, there were some concerns. One group member expressed a desire to reach out to Muslims he saw at a grocery store, but had heard there were gender restrictions for men speaking to women. A Muslim woman spoke out and shared that, regardless of these uncertainties, any man should feel free to say hello or to offer help, that in fact Muslim women would appreciate such peaceful contact.
Marshall, who provided opening and closing comments at the gathering, expressed a desire that participants "not be afraid to have uncomfortable conversations with others." There will no doubt be fumbles along the way, but we can learn.
Amidst conceptual dialogue, there were also calls to action. The second half of the meeting focused on ways young people could work to improve interfaith relations.
Keenan Anderson, a UA graduate student, pointed out that most people, regardless of their belief in God, "really care about what's going on in their society." We can be united in our desire to better the world.
Several students hope to coordinate an event on the UA mall where people can visit tables and become familiar with different faith groups, thereby widening the circle of interfaith discussion. One youth suggested hosting a dinner for community members, providing yet another space for people of diverse religious and cultural identities to mingle.
The group also acknowledged that the people gathered in the room were already on the same page: They all agreed that harmonious interfaith interaction is urgent and important. Those creating conflict, those carrying the most malignant racial, religious, and cultural stereotypes, were perhaps not to be found in the room.
A participant in the front of the room pointed out that "We need to bring this outside of the mosque and into our daily lives." That means speaking up when friends or family employ ignorant stereotypes; that means pulling people from every corner of our lives into the conversation.
For more information on World Interfaith Harmony Week and Mayors and Cities for Interfaith Harmony Week visit www.interfaithcities.org