“Can Muslim women lead prayer?” “What is Sharia law?” Can you be gay and Muslim?”
These are but some of the questions Muslim panelists are asked during monthly Ask a Muslim gatherings co-hosted by The Markaz Arts Centre for the Greater Middle East, an Affiliate of The United Religions Initiative (URI) North America in Los Angeles.
Once a month, this collaboration with Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV), invites members of the public to listen to, and engage with, a diverse group of Muslims responding to a variety of prompts, such as “Islam 101,” “Women in Islam” and “LGBTQI and Islam.” Participants are encouraged to ask clarifying questions without the fear of feeling ignorant. Ask a Muslim seeks to counter the islamophobia presented in the mainstream US media by putting faces and stories to the life experiences of Muslims in the United States and beyond.
Co-organizer Jordan Elgrably, founder of The Markaz, describes these events as conversations and safe spaces that foster “an ongoing open dialogue for debate and understanding around today’s pressing questions about Islam.” The vision for this program came from a real need Jordan identified within his community and beyond.
“In this country, we don’t talk about race, religion, politics, with great depth – we need safe places for public conversations,” he said. “We need to peel away our onion layers with each other and talk honestly about our fears and confusion.”
Los Angeles is not the first place this series has taken place. This past summer, Ani Zonneveld, founder and director of MPV, brought Ask a Muslim to the Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva. During her time at the HRC, MPV hosted tables for passerbys to spend a moment with the Islamic scholars and Imams who traveled with MPV as part of their “ImamsForShe” initiative. This project facilitated meaningful, one-on-one connections between strangers and helped break down barriers that had previously existed between people.
The Ask a Muslim series employs the age-old peacebuilding tactic of using open and honest conversations as a tool for dismantling stereotypes and challenging implicit prejudices. It aims to change people’s hearts and minds about Muslims by creating a space where participants are encouraged to reach within themselves and ask what is truly on their mind – free of judgment from other participants.
All across the US and Canada, grassroots interfaith groups are making strides to break down these barriers and create safe spaces for the deep conversations of which Jordan speaks. The Love Your Muslim Neighbor panel discussions hosted by the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County CC facilitates crucial conversations, within a variety of church congregations, regarding some of the major misconceptions regarding Islam and Muslims, with up to 200 participants. Additionally, InterfaithWorks Cooperation Circle, based out of Syracuse, NY, hosts an Interfaith Dinner Dialogue series, wherein participants gather over a free meal to discuss questions posed by a facilitator and share their experiences regarding faith and spirituality with friends and strangers alike. Examples of such events continue with: Kashi Ashram Cooperation Circle, an interfaith intentional living community hosts “Listening Circles,” the Arizona Faith Network Cooperation Circle, hosts community discussions on local issues, their most recent one being on Environmental Racism, and the National Peace Academy‘s “Truth Telling Project” aimed at implementing and sustaining grassroots, community-centered truth-telling processes to share local voices, to educate America, and to support reconciliation for the purposes of eliminating structural violence and systemic racism against Black people in the United States.
By intentionally creating spaces conducive to open and honest dialogue, each of these initiatives creates opportunities for people, from a variety of different backgrounds, to show up, engage and take ownership of their learning.
Anissa Abdel-Jelil joined the URI North America as the Communications and Outreach Coordinator in May 2016, after a seven-month fellowship with the organization. She brings with her a passion for social justice and storytelling. Her international and interfaith upbringing, paired with her academic journey, opened her eyes to the community-based peacebuilding work taking place all over the world. Her experiences in the fields of international human rights and humanitarianism, health, wellness and intercultural bridge building have equipped her with a hybrid lens for problem solving and clearly communicating complex information. Anissa’s combination of work and volunteer experience and language, graphic design and social media skills will allow her to make a meaningful contribution to the URI North America team. Throughout her time with us, she hopes to emulate the creativity and resilience she sees throughout URI’s network.
Jordan Elgrably is an award-winning social entrepreneur, producer, writer, editor & the founding director of The Markaz, Arts Center for the Greater Middle East, in Los Angeles. A curator and producer of public programs, Jordan is of Moroccan and French heritage. He has been passionately committed to strengthening Arab/Muslim/Christian and Jewish relations for many years. In addition to The Markaz, which he co-founded in 2001 as the Levantine Cultural Center, he founded the New Association of Sephardi/Mizrahi Artists & Writers International in 1996 and Open Tent Middle East Coalition in 1999. He was a producer for the Dalai Lama’s World Festival of Sacred Music in 1999, 2002 and 2005. As well, he has launched several original initiatives, among them the Sultans of Satire: Middle East Comic Relief; Beirut-LosAngeles.org; CelebratePalestine.org; and New Voices in Middle Eastern Cinema, with funding from the Golden Globes/Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Jordan attended the American University of Paris (formerly ACP) and was based for a number of years in Paris and Madrid, where he worked as a journalist and associate producer for TF1. His essays, articles and stories have appeared in many anthologies and periodicals. He is a member of PEN Center, the international advocacy organization for writers and journalists, the Los Angeles Press Club, and the Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association. In 2008, the L.A. Weekly featured Jordan Elgrably in its People of the Year issue and he received the Local Hero Award from the Foundation for World Arts and Culture; in 2011 and 2014, he was an Annenberg Alchemy Fellow; in 2013 and 2015 he was nominated for the James Irvine Leadership Award. In 2014 he received an American Express Award and in 2015, the Rachel Corrie Conscience and Courage Award from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. He is a 2016 Ariane de Rothschild Foundation Fellow. Jordan lives near San Luis Obispo with his wife and son.
Ani Zonneveld is founder and President of Muslim for Progressive Values (MPV). Since its inception, Ani has presided over MPV’s expansion to include chapters and affiliates in 12 countries and 19 cities. She has organized numerous interfaith arts and music festivals, participated in many interfaith dialogues and is a strong supporter of human rights and freedom of expression. She is the brainchild of Literary Zikr – a project that counters radical Islam on-line and co-editor of MPV’s first book, an anthology titled “Progressive Muslim Identities – Personal Stories from the U.S. and Canada”; she has contributed to many forewords and numerous anthologies too many to list; is a contributor for HuffingtonPost, OpenDemocracy and al-Jazeera, and recently gave her TEDx talk titled – Islam: As American As Apple Pie; and the subject of a documentary title “al-imam” featuring Ani’s activism works. As an award winning singer/songwriter, she utilizes the power of music and the arts in countering radicalism as she speaks-sings her message of social justice and peace from a progressive Muslim woman’s perspective, and is the first woman to release an English Islamic popalbum in the U.S. in 2004. Born and raised Muslim from Malaysia and based out of Los Angeles, Ani spent a good portion of her formative years raised in Germany, Egypt and India as an Ambassador’s daughter. Her exposure to different politics, religions and cultures has shaped her inclusive worldview.