Interesting reflections and ideas emerged at the international conference, Muslims and the West: Living Together - But How?, held recently in Vienna.
The conference was organized by the Vienna-based NGO, Women Without Borders (WWB), in cooperation with the US Embassy in Austria and the US Mission to the European Union. The one-day event was a follow-up of a 2006 survey by US-based Pew Global Attitudes Project. The survey had found most Muslims living in Europe worrying about their future but with their concern being more economic than religious or cultural.
The panelists at the conference included US State Department representatives Ambassador Shirin Tahir-Kheli, and Senior Advisor Farah Pandith; Malaysian Minister of Women, Family and Community Development, Dato' Seri Shahrizat Binti Abdul Jalil; Chairperson of the Arab International Women's Forum, Haifa al Kaylani; Director of the FATIMA Women's Network (UK), Parvin Ali; author of 'The Islamist', Ed Husain; member of the German Muslim Summit and university professor, Z'mr't G'lbay; and founder of the Right Start Foundation International, TV personality Amr Khaled.
The conference was a launch pad for voices of Muslim women and men from across Europe to talk of the great divide between themselves and those they live with; and a golden opportunity to share their dreams with one another.
"We created a female-dominant panel because we believe women are determined to change the future with words and not with weapons," said Dr Schlaffer.
"There are 25 million Muslims in Europe today. What Muslims must remember is that they are a minority here. If they want to be respected they have to learn to respect others," said Z'mr't G'lbay, whose Turkish parents migrated to Germany when she was two years old. G'lbay, who calls herself a Mediterranean German, is today a professor of corporate and international law at the Anhalt University of Applied Sciences, Germany. According to the young professor, who disagrees with those who resort to violence, citizens should address their grievances within the framework of existing laws.
Parvin Ali, chief executive of Fatima Women's Network, was of the opinion that the existence of young people of Asian origin living in Europe is often schizophrenic. Dedicated to bringing about a positive change in the lives of women and, in particular, of those from diverse communities and disadvantaged backgrounds, Ali pointed out that non-Muslims look to Muslims to demystify Islam. To do this, Muslims will have to first know their faith and understand themselves better, she added.
According to Farah Pandith, Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, US Department of State, it is a myth that America is at war with Islam. "The success that millions of American Muslims have achieved in my country is a daily rebuke to those who try to drive a wedge between my nation and my religion," said Pandith.
Shirin Tahir-Kheli, Senior Advisor for Women's Empowerment, Office of the Secretary of State, US, stated that despite having been in America since 1959, she could not recall a moment when she was forced to choose between her religion and her country.
Malaysian Minister of Women, Family and Community Development, Dato' Seri Shahrizat Binti Abdul Jalil, regretted that the covering of the head by Muslim women has been reduced to a symbol of oppression and primitiveness. This is not true she said, drawing attention to herself. Stating that September 11, 2001, would always be considered a tragedy by all decent human beings, the world over, the minister felt that it was time for the world to move on as the future was important.
Haifa al Kaylani, Chairperson of the Arab International Women's Forum, spoke to the gathering on the widening of opportunities for a greater participation of women in the area of business. She pointed out that economic injustice and disparities within the Muslim world were also responsible for the increase in violence and restlessness.
Ed Husain, 32, author of 'The Islamist' (Penguin, 2006), was once a radical Muslim and jehadist. For a good part of his youth Husain admitted to have sat through weekly sessions of Koran recitation, religious discussion, anti-Semitism and good food without complaint and without challenging the Islamist resumptions of the hatred of Jews, Hindus, Americans, gays, the subordination of women. While at Newham college, London he did everything along with fellow activists to divide the student body along religious lines, antagonize non-Muslims and inflame other Muslim students. Husain said that he was attracted to the mosque as a teenager - a phase when the mono-cultural ghetto had made him feel at home, and secure. He reminded Europeans that Muslims of Indian origin, like him, are not guest workers here who will return home one day. "We are born here and this is home for us," he said, adding that Islamism - the political ideology - is a problem; but Islam itself is the antidote.
According to Husain, it is the duty of Muslim scholars and thinkers across the world to think this over and to see that women scholars interpret texts in ways true to tradition and relevant to the times.
Founder and Chairman of the Right Start Foundation International, Amr Khaled, spoke about the need to empower young Muslims to be law abiding, honest and responsible citizens of the world. A popular preacher on television channels, Khaled dreams of starting a renaissance in the Muslim world and to see that it coexists in dignity and peace with people of Western countries.
Dr Edit Schlaffer, leading Austrian feminist and founder of WWB, said that the world would be a better place if there were many more men, like Khaled, who practiced what they preach.