New York: The Interfaith Institute of the Islamic Center of Long Island (ICLI ) this month presented its second annual award to Prof. Diana Eck of Harvard University for her seminal work in the field of religious pluralism. It also acknowledged her contributions to the religious dimensions of America’s new immigrants; in particular, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain and Zoroastrian communities.
An elite audience representing different faiths attended the event at the Islamic Center in Westbury, New York, October 1. Dr. Eck is a noted writer and professor of comparative religion and Indian studies, and director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University. She is also faculty dean of Lowell House at Harvard.
Dr. Eck, author of ‘A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation,’ spoke about building bridges between communities and creating an infrastructure to facilitate that. She spoke with dismay about the anti-Semitic march in her ancestral home of Sweden and the anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic movements in the US and pointed out the linkages between them.
She praised the role of ICLI, which has grown as a model Islamic center, reaching out to the other communities in the area and also for its work as an interfaith center.
Just like the city needs an infrastructure, people need a cultural network to build bridges between them, especially when diversity has become the hallmark of the country, she said.
The immigration bill signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 opened the doors for immigration from all lands, she noted. It resulted in the religious diversity we see now, she added.
“The Bill of Rights guarantees religious freedom to all in America. In his inaugural address back in 2009, President Barack Obama correctly said that ‘we are a country of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, believers and non-believers..’
“Who are we? How are we coping with the new religious diversity? Different religious traditions are like rivers flowing through the land.
“America is changing, though more than 80 percent of the population is still Christian. We have to accept the new realities. We see the turban-wearing Sikh man and the bindi-wearing Hindu woman on the streets.”
The change in demographics has affected governing too. The Seattle Airport has an evergreen Christmas tree, which is too religious. The Army has no place for worship for the Wiccas in its rank and file. There was also the issue of the Somali taxi drivers who refused to pick up gay people from Minneapolis Airport, she pointed out.
There are several interfaith movements nowadays, and each one generally flows in the same direction.
“Some people, not me, worry that the white population might become a minority. Car companies like Ford Motors have a global workforce with people from different faiths. These are the realities and we cannot escape from it,” Prof. Eck noted.
Dr. Faroque Ahmed Khan, board of trustee chair of the Interfaith Institute, noted how his father spoke highly of the Jewish hosts who took care of him when he was a student at Harvard. Years later, when Dr. Khan settled in New York, there were no Jews nearby. When he inquired about it, he was told that Jews were not welcome in the area, which was a shock for him.
Dr. Khan started his speech introducing his wife, saying he had heard rumors that she plans to retire next year from the Long Island Jewish Hospital after working there for 50 years. The room resounded with laughter.
He said anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim propaganda and threats were the reason that the interfaith institute was launched, as a response.
He quoted an Imam who had said earlier that children are born with no prejudices but they are made to acquire them. We are not here to preach, but to interact. We get inspiration from the holy books, which instruct us to translate life to service. Within Islamic faith, interfaith relations are highly respected. You may not despise one another, the Koran says, he noted.
Dr. Isma Chaudhry, president of the ICLI, described the work of the center and the institute for promoting better relations with different communities.
Dr. Qamar Zaman, chair of the board of trustees of ICLI, said technology had brought the world closer. However, 9/11 changed everything. Muslims became the target of attacks, both physical and verbal. It created an opportunity too, as more people started to learn about Islam.
He lamented that religion these days is interpreted by fundamentalists. They have done much harm to all. Let us work for a world of love without anti-Semitism or Islamophobia, he said.
Rev. Thomas W Goodhue described the start of the program ‘Know your Neighbors.’ It helped people to not only know each other but also learn from each other.
Jean Kelley, executive director of Interfaith Nutrition Network, Long Island, spoke about an incident when she worked in a soup kitchen. Two women belonging to two different sects of Christianity came for the food without knowing each other’s religion. They feared the other group till they met. She underscored the need to love others irrespective of their religious affiliation.
Farooq Kathwari, co-chair of the Muslim Jewish Advisory Council, spoke about his rise as chair, president and CEO of Ethen Allen Interiors, a company started by Jews. He also spoke about the continuing work for interfaith relations.
Dr. Unni Mooppan, trustee board member of the Interfaith Institute, and ICLI, noted that 54.5 percent of the world’s population follows Abrahamic faiths and the rest the other faiths. He emphasized the need for understanding and cooperation between the followers of various faiths. “You would not have come here if you don’t believe in interfaith relations,” he said. He introduced some of the guests who were among the audience: Mr. Satnam Singh Parhar (past president of Indian Association of Long Island, and chairman of the SBN Singh Cultural Association), Mr. Bala Ramanathan and his wife Dr. Rohini Ramanathan, a corporate trainer, Classical Music vocalist and the secretary of Global Organization of People of Indian Origin), Dr. Harsha Reddy representing the Buddhists, Mr. Joeph Kadapuram and Mr. Jacob Manuel (Kairali TV ) Dr. Harshad Bhatt and Mr. Niranjan Patel, representing BAPS mandir of Melville, L.I.), Mrs. Leela Maret, president of the Womens Forum of FOKANA and representing India Catholic Association, Dr. Teresa Antony, a retired professor, and Mr. E.M. Stephen and Mr. Thambi Thalappillil, representing Kerala Center. Dr. Mooppan recalled the Interfaith Prayer vigil organized by the Kerala Center after 9/11 in 2001 and ICLI participating in it.
Dr. Harshad Bhatt spoke about BAPS mandir and the concept of understanding between various faiths. Dr. Rohini Ramanathan gave a beautiful rendition of a Sanskrit Shloka from Upanishads and its English translation, which is relevant to people of any faith.
Mrs. Seema Rahman was the emcee.
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