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Peacemakers in Caux

Peacemakers in Caux

Issue 61 October 2009

I have been dreaming of bringing together a number of young Muslims from across Europe to train and develop their understanding and commitment to peace. The inspiration came from a simple advice of the blessed Prophet Muhammad when he said, “Spread peace.” I was therefore honoured to help organise a programme called “Learning to be a Peacemaker” with a Christian friend of mine. We brought together 70 young Muslims from seven European countries to one of the most picturesque locations in Europe - a palace   the mountains of Caux, Switzerland. We had a breathtaking view of Lake Geneva and parts of the Swiss Alps.

 I knew from experience the major fallout from such gatherings is the different interpretations of certain religious practices, so the first lecture was on the “Ethics of Disagreement”.  Ahtsham Ali from the British Prison Service spoke. Everyone found the session fascinating, but it was not long before differences were causing agitation amongst the participants. Some wanted to combine their prayers as travellers; others wanted to pray separately as normal. One group started holding parallel prayers with only people of the same school of thought! To listen to music or not became another issue of contention. Some were vociferous in their opposition to music, whilst others were happily listening and singing away.

Following a speech I gave on the meaning and application of jihad, one young man asked me what I thought of ‘martyrdom operations’ that included strapping a bomb around oneself. “You mean suicide bombing?” I asked bluntly. “In my view it is not allowed. God does not want us to kill ourselves this way. If one is looking for a shortcut to heaven, there is none. Going to heaven requires us to live Islam and struggle in life.” There was protest in the audience. Some said the Palestinians have no alternative: they are being occupied and bombed. My response echoed the Qur’an, “We must side with justice at all times and stand up against injustice regardless of who perpetrates it. Even if it means we have to go against ourselves, our families or friends. We must never sway from serving justice because of our hatred of people.” There was silence in the room.

Every evening a session on spirituality and inner peace encouraged people to examine their inner self. It became apparent that many people found it hard to reach inner peace because they were holding onto feelings of hurt or were unable to manage their anger. “Anger is one of the most destructive elements of our nature and if not managed well it could consume us,” I advised.

One of the evenings was designated for entertainment. There was music and song, poetry and reflections. One of the participants left the hall as soon as he saw a guitar in the hands of one of the performers. Fifteen minutes later he came back, joined us, and stayed until the end. He had changed his mind about the whole issue.
I wanted the participants to not only learn Islamic texts on a particular issue but also be able to translate that knowledge into practice. They were now discussing rights and responsibilities as citizens. They were exploring how best they could contribute to their locality while remaining conscious of global issues. They were torn between the countries of their ethnic origin and countries where they now lived. One young woman was extremely disturbed when I said that as European Muslims we must make all efforts to contribute to the well being of our fellow citizens, especially our neighbours. She wanted to send all her donations to her country of origin, and when I challenged her, she was uncomfortable. I said she should give her zakat to her local community in the Netherlands, where she lived and not to Indonesia where she had left. She was not happy with that.

The participants had been through a very intensive programme and for some of them it was very uncomfortable. However, they were now listing types of activities and projects they could develop and deliver that would benefit all people. Citizenship was now seen by them as an empowering status, while being called a foreigner was seen as a label of segregation. “We do not want to be tolerated, we want to be accepted. We are not foreigners, we are here to stay,” I announced during one of my speeches and they agreed with me. There was a newfound confidence in the air. There were 70 Young European Muslims who knew where they belonged. They belonged to Europe.

Part of the programme included helping with cooking, cleaning and serving food so that they could put into practice their skills of listening, negotiating and wishing for others what they wanted for themselves. At the last dinner, one of my strongest critics came up to me and said, “I am beginning to like you,” and walked away. I was touched by his change of heart.

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