Photographs of Salwa “Sally” Kader rubbing shoulders with leading politicians and spiritual and religious leaders of the world adorn her office walls. These include photos with former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, teenage Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousufzai, Buddhist monks, Vatican representatives, and top US and UN officials. Kader, who is of Lebanese descent, is based in New York and heads the US Federation for Middle East Peace (USFMEP), which promotes — among other things — interfaith dialogue to foster understanding among the world’s religions, and thus contribute to world peace.
In an interview with Weekend Review, Kader explains that the USFMEP is a bipartisan, non-profit and non-governmental organisation that has 13 chapters around the world, including the New York headquarters.
“I was born in Beirut. I obtained a bachelor’s degree in history and archaeology from the University of Lebanon and came to the US in the late 1960s to pursue higher education. I obtained a master’s degree in history from Central Missouri State University. I also participated in courses in comparative religion, communications and conflict resolution,” she says.
Describing herself as a “peace activist”, Kader organises USFMEP programmes and events at the UN in New York and around the world. “The USFMEP, formed in October 2001, seeks to educate the Muslim world about America and Americans about Islam ... By explaining facts and trying to remove misconceptions on both sides about each other, we try to bring them closer. I was head of the UN Women’s Guild. I used it as a platform to invite people from various countries and faiths to speak under the aegis of the UN.”
Her office, nestled in a building that overlooks the UN headquarters on New York’s 1st Avenue, also displays neatly framed certifications and citations acknowledging the work she has done to promote peace. These include the Millennium Development Goal Award, The Alexandria Culture Award from the Alexandria Library in Egypt, The Women’s Empowerment Award and the Sinai Peace Award.
She claims that interfaith dialogue can help overcome distrust and resentment between people of various cultures because “most people are judged by their religion”.
“Interfaith dialogue is the vehicle to promote understanding between people of various faiths who, despite their different beliefs, have many things in common. I like to make it clear that religion has nothing to do with violent acts, as wrongly perceived in some circles. I try to educate people and open their minds. Indeed, all religions preach the same thing ... religion teaches us how to treat others and not to hurt others. But people, because of their ignorance and prejudices, do not pay attention to what other religions embody. We invite people and ask them to speak about their religions so that they can see the points of commonality among religions. Islam is the most misunderstood religion ... we try to show this to others.”
One can’t be “partial” in terms of religion, Kader says. All-round tolerance is needed to move ahead in harmony. “We believe in respecting others just as we expect others to respect us. We explain to Christians and Muslims, for example, how many times Jesus Christ is mentioned in the Quran and that the Quran also speaks about Muslims’ respect for Abrahamic religions. A true religion tells you to respect the religion and beliefs of others. Contrary to the general view, people are surprised to learn that Muslims do not hate other religions. We have even spearheaded an interfaith dialogue for women at the UN in March and Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and Muslims were all invited. The audience, the majority of whom were women, came from 173 countries. We are organising women’s interfaith dialogue every year.”
The spiritual leader of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), Bhakti Charu Swami, was invited in the past to speak at a discussion on “Exploring the Practice of Reconciliation: Muslims’ and Hindus’ Vision of Understanding, Tolerance and Peace” hosted by USFMEP at the UN headquarters. This event sprung from an earlier meeting between Swami and the UN’s Committee on Spirituality, Values and Global Concerns on identifying commonalities between people of various faiths through spirituality and consciousness.
At the event, Kader paid homage to the victims of the November 2008 Mumbai terror attack, which claimed more than 180 lives and left more than 300 injured. Swami, in her speech, gave a moving tribute to the tragedy. “This problem is particularly difficult to deal with because it is happening in the name of religion, which is actually meant to establish peace and harmony, love and trust, understanding and sympathy,” Swami said.
Kader has organised meetings in India, China, Singapore, Malaysia, France, Sweden and Lebanon, among others. She organised an interfaith Buddhist-Muslim dialogue on September 8 at the UN. A similar dialogue is also being held for the youth who appear to be “highly confused”. “The young people want to know where they stand amid the confusion you see in today’s world,” Kader says.
But, she says, it is not a “one-way traffic” as far as her activism is concerned: she is not just talking to Americans about Islam and the Middle East. She also speaks to and updates Muslim countries on the developments in the US and educates them about American culture and tradition, stressing on the generally peaceful nature of the American people. “We work towards strengthening relations between the US and the Arab and Muslim worlds by removing common misconceptions and by promoting mutual tolerance.”
Kader’s background in archaeology also serves her well in her endeavours. She has been supporting the preservation of archaeological digs and cultural artefacts in countries such as Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia and Morocco. This also afforded her opportunity to interact with the leaders and important figures in these countries. Issues pertaining to women and the youth are important to her because they have the tenacity and resolve to bring about positive change in the world. “I have organised several side-events for the UN Commission on the Status of Women [CSW] on various topics, such as women in Islam, trafficking of young girls in the 21st century, rights of Muslim women between Islam and tradition, the role of women in creating a counter-balance to extremism, and women in peace-building between the Middle East and the West.”
Women’s issues have been a strong motivation, a passion, for Kader. She champions and works towards the empowerment of women and uplifting their status in civil society.
She claims to be actively involved in several initiatives, including hosting interfaith discussions between women representing various faiths, raising awareness on the trafficking of young girls, promoting women’s role in the media and encouraging women to participate in society, politics and decision-making. Some of her work has included helping refugee Palestinian women and hosting international conferences, including one on the “Role of Immigrant Women towards International Peace” held in Stockholm.
Kader says she has a soft corner for children and sees herself as an activist working in the fight for greater recognition of children’s rights. She has promoted youth empowerment through events such as the Montessori Model United Nations Conferences in April 2011 and 2012 and youth interfaith dialogue events, in addition to hosting several panel discussions on trafficking of children.
Kader says her interest in supporting youth education has led her to speak to university students in many parts of the world, including at the University of Wollongong in Dubai (December 12, 2010), University of Saint Mary in Leavenworth, Kansas (September 2007) and Georgetown University (November 14, 2005). She has sought to inspire and educate students about peace-building and has held youth interfaith dialogues to promote tolerance and mutual understanding.
“I have been attending and organising sports events and international tournaments for youth because I believe that they can channelise their energy in fields such as sports, education and creativity.” After all, it will be the young generation that will contribute to nation-building in the future, she says.
Manik Mehta is a writer based in New York.