Shared Learning: Engaging with Difference—Event Recap

February 24, 2020

The Lower Mainland Muslim community is experiencing a major shift in visibility and activism. On December 19, 2019, the SFU Centre for Comparative Muslim Studies (CCMS) and the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue co-hosted the closing ceremony for the CCMS Muslim Community Fellowship.

The Muslim Community Fellowship was developed in 2018, as a means for young Muslim leaders to meaningfully engage and impact their communities. Early on, the Fellowship’s design team met with Elder Sempúlyan of the Musqueam and Squamish nations, to hear his advice and stories from the land. Over the following year, the fellows held regular dialogues and each developed individual community projects. Focusing on their relationship with unceded land, projects included: community workshops on Non-Violent Communication and Mental Health First Aid; The ZamZam Well, an online database of Muslim feminist, decolonial and intersectional thought; an exploration of folk music in South Asia through a screening of “Indus Blues”; an intrafaith mosque tour; Muslim celebration and healing events; support for Vancouver’s first Afrocentrism conference; and a nature walk connecting Muslims with environmental stewardship.

For their final event, the Fellowship opened a public dialogue to share reflections on engagement with difference, holding space for community and learning within diverse communities. The organizers met again with Elder Sempúlyan who welcomed attendees alongside his nephew Dezmyn, Shauna Sylvester, Director of the Centre for Dialogue, and Amal Ghazal, Director of CCMS.

Moderated by Aslam Bulbulia, CCMS Community Engagement and Outreach co-ordinator, the dialogue centered the voices of the Fellowship’s young Muslim leaders in both the discussion and the physical space. They reflected and commented on their experience holding space for engagement and difference within Muslim communities, sharing a bit about their journey with the Fellowship and the learning they encountered along the way.

"I was looking for a space to explore my identity. I was able to find that space through the Fellowship," said fellow Azlan Nur Saidy. Fellow Doaa Jamal emphasized this—"I am now in control of my Muslim identity, it is not imposed on me.”

Fellow Munifa Ahmed shared a particularly impactful poem she wrote on her learning experience. An excerpt:

I learned that I am different, I am not only Muslim, I am also a vocal woman, spiritual, climate advocate, tech-savvy

And I refused to be grouped based on my skin color, immigration status or education level

And I kept asking where I belong, and I heard from above, I am Yours

Just be kind and humankind will connect

I finally found a space for my voice and that is in connecting community.

While each experienced the Fellowship uniquely, they shared value in the opportunity to reflect on one of the Fellowship’s recurring themes, being Muslim on unceded land, and in building relationships with one another. As remarked by Ahmed, “Before the Fellowship, I did not feel I was accepted or appreciated by my own community".

Following the Fellows’ reflections, guests discussed together at their tables what they had heard and their personal experiences involving differing opinions. Considering the significance of food as a shared experience and an important connector across difference, the dialogue made space for conversations that could only happen over food, with a dinner catered by Tayybeh, a company run by Syrian women chefs who had arrived here as refugees. The table discussions brought together attendees from different backgrounds, allowing them to find similarities despite their different experiences.

Muslim community Systems Map

With the diversity of people in the room, we didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity to draw on the collective wisdom present. Attendees of the dialogue were invited to engage and add their voice to a Systems Map of the local Muslim community. This additional project was developed by newcomer and social innovation student Hadeel AlAbkari, who connected with SFU students Hussein Elhagehussan and Janani Ravikularam, finalists in the global Map the System Challenge. This map will continue developing for the collective understanding of the community’s diversity.

The largely migrant population making up Vancouver’s Muslim community and represented at this event recognized the traumas that many have lived through, carried out in the name of a politicized religion, or Islamophobia. The dialogue also considered how this complexifies ways members of the Muslim community connect with their faith and religious identities. Participants considered the possible limits of inclusivity, questioning how the process of endorsing diverse voices may still find other voices left out or marginalized. Non-Muslim community members present in the space witnessed the complexity of a community often depicted in homogenous ways.

Older members of the Muslim community expressed their hope for the community’s future. “When I moved here in the 70’s I couldn’t have imagined that an event like this could happen downtown, at SFU and our stories heard,” one attendee reflected. The community showed a deeper level of diversity appreciation. New voices set the agenda for conversations rather than being invitees to a conversation where the agenda has already been set.

Interested in being a part of the Muslim Community Fellowship? The next cohort begins Summer 2020. Visit our webpage for more information, or sign up to the CCMS newsletter for application updates as they become available.