Being a Muslim in today’s world is extremely difficult. ‘Being a Muslim’ means having highly idealistic moral values and being tolerant of all others; and emulating the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) who would have dialogue and alliance with people of different faiths. Yet, being Muslim today means we must search for who we are in the turbulent 21st century: where is our place and what does our religion mean in a world where terrorism and hatred are rampant and where a small number of so-called Muslims go around blowing up others. The majority of Muslims, of course, are innocent, good people, but are still forced to carry the burden of blame for these terrible actions leading to Islamophobia. Islamophobia — the distortion of Islam and fear of Muslims — is one of the great challenges of our time, as this evil demonises and dehumanises the Muslim faith community en masse. So in order to answer and begin to address some of these challenges, the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies based in Abu Dhabi organized a conference entitled ‘Global Peace and the Fear of Islam: Roadblocks on the Road to Radicalism. The conference had some of the who’s who of the interfaith world. Kings, Sheikhs, Imams, Rabbis, Academics, Civic Society, and leading American and European scholars actively participated in the proceedings. Some of the top leaders present included Mufti Emeritus Dr. Mustafa Ceric, the former Grand Mufti of Bosnia and Herzegovina, His Excellency Adama Dieng, Special Advisor to the UN Secretary General, Rabbi Bruce Lustig of the Washington Hebrew Congregation in Washington, DC, Rabbi David Saperstein, Dr. William Vendley, Secretary General of Religions for Peace, Dr Aisha Gray Henry a distinguished American convert to Islam who heads a brilliant series of publications on Imam Al Ghazzali with Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, Aisha al Adawiya of Women In Islam, Inc., Rashad Hussein and Arsalan Suleman, the former American Special Envoy to the OIC, Dr Ann Wainscott Senior Fellow of Religion and Inclusive Societies Global Practice and Innovation from the US Institute for Peace, and so many distinguished others. The conference, under the patronage of Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the United Arab Emirates and organized and driven by the Associate Secretary General, Sheikh al Mahfoudh Bin Bayyah and the Executive Director Zeshan Zafar, a dynamic and intelligent British-Pakistani, forced all of us to grapple with some of the most challenging questions facing peacebuilders today. The visionary of this conference is the President of the Forum, the respected religious scholar Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah, aged 83 and master of all four schools of thought in Islamic shariah, and architect of the 2016 Marrakesh Declaration, a document that highlighted the protection of minorities in Muslim majority societies, which was met with high acclaim in the International community. He drove the dialogue, constantly emphasizing the inclusiveness and tolerance of Islam and the need for Muslims to remind themselves and others of these core values. He emphasised his keenness to promote tolerance between all countries and peoples in the UAE and beyond, noting the importance of promoting dialogue in opposition to the Clash of Civilizations. The Shaykh also guided those who talked in their speeches of ‘us’ and ‘them’ to reconsider their framing, emphasizing that it was noble to be open and to perceive others in a positive light because the world was made up of different people of good intentions. ‘Don’t let the enmity of others make you unjust because all human beings are one and no one is superior over another.’ It was a wonderful concept put into practice by the young Minister of Foreign Affairs, Shaykh Abdullah bin Zayed, who in his opening speech at the inaugural forum, highlighted that the Forum is a free place where ‘scholars’ work will not be interfered with, however, we will be enlightened by it.’ At the end of the conference he showed his kindness, respect and humanity by holding the microphone to the lips of the elderly Shaykh for the duration that he talked at the special dinner. The former Grand Mufti of Bosnia, Ceric, talked about the human heart, which he said is not just an organ, “but the seat of alternative intellect and love. Today, the human heart is hard and non-responsive. There is no spirit. It has no concern for others, but a heart is that which has feelings for others.” The Grand Mufti had seen much suffering in Bosnia, as a mere 20 years ago, his people faced genocide because of their religious identity. Ideas and strategies were put forward on global peace and how to confront the problem of fear of Islam. The Shaykh pointed out that, “Terrorism and extremism is not limited to one religion. It sometimes has its roots in poverty. Men and women regard that which is unknown to them as a threat. The unknown is even seen as satanic. Indeed, the fear of Islam indicates this.” Some scholars noted the rampant ‘fabrications about Islam and Muslims’ in the world today and explored how this affects ordinary immigrants in the West. Some also argued that the fear of Islam and Muslims was exacerbated by negative media representations of Islam and Muslims, which result in discrimination. The Shaykh said that, “Poor Muslims must never be a scapegoat. It was important to monitor the violence against Muslims in order to prevent it.” The Shaykh was worried too about how Muslim countries are being portrayed in the West, especially Pakistan as it was constantly unjustly targeted and labeled. It was not possible or logical that two hundred million ordinary Pakistanis were anything but normal good people. But despite rampant Islamophobia, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, a prominent Muslim scholar in the West, said that, “these are the best times to be Muslim.” He explained there were thousands of mosques in the US and remarked, “We practice our religion freely in this binary world.” He told of how Islam came in a time of jahiliya (ignorance) and tribal wars in Arabia, and said the faith brought peace and calm because it focused the struggle not so much with others but with the self — one’s own ego. The Prophet (pbuh) avoided wars and his grandson Hassan called two different groups of Muslims to make peace. Umar the Caliph prayed outside a church in Jerusalem so that his people would not overtake the church and respect the holy site. Shaykh Yusuf continued, “We have forgotten the gentility of Islam. We need an intellectual discourse, not a political Islam. Our religion is based on civility of adab. We have forgotten to forgive. The human soul is sanctified and we have to protect our women and children who are the victims of wars. We need to combat terrorism and extremism. We must turn our initiatives into institutions.” The organisers said in planning the conference, “We are here to put out a road map to deal with Islamophobia and we are trying to fight radicalism. We must tidy our internal home.” Shaykh bin Bayyah emphasised that God in the Quran — the book of Mercy — forbids and abhors corruption and bloodshed. And peace is what all human beings desire. But “peace is a mere term if not confirmed by action — peace — is not limited to life, honour, intellectual harmony, only through truth and a respect for humanity will we achieve peace. Before peace comes a living conscience.” It is worth noting too that in the Shaykh’s book, he tells of how accusing a person of being kafir (disbeliever) is like killing a person, so the accusation cannot be taken lightly, and thus revealing how seriously he takes the creed of teaching others about Islam and its peaceful core. Extremism can be defeated by promoting and developing architecture, culture, dialogue, and art. This has worked in other places, such as Abu Dhabi To the audience comprising of scholars and religious leaders from across the world, Shaykh Bin Bayyah said, “I acknowledge your concerns and salute your efforts towards global peace and coexistence.” He added, “Effective education is the right way through which we can show the great religion of Islam that calls towards knowledge and respect towards all. Islam cherishes mutual consultation and to practice religion with humility and love. We have to work with everyone including, and especially, the poor who do not have economic opportunities. On the opening day His Excellency Adama Dieng, UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide, announced that the UN and the Forum for Peace will be working on an initiative to advance religious education in Muslim societies with the plan of ten workshops to be held globally. Many speakers raised the question asking how we can promote “a culture of tolerance” in our societies and throughout the world. This was possible, said Shaykh Bin Bayyah in response, by “work(ing) together in combating division, discrimination, and fighting hatred, racism and terrorism. He also told speakers and attendees, “I hope your discussions will find ways to get rid of stereotypes and inspire writers, thinkers, the media, and universities, and that these ideas are shared with everyone including Muslims so that we live together in peace.” The conference also gave Abu Dhabi an opportunity to exhibit how they are carrying out these values of inclusiveness and acceptance in their own society. In their speeches, each Emirati presenter talked about their own emirate — Abu Dhabi — as “this noble country”: “The leaders of this noble country always emphasize to us that peace and dialogue is the only way forward for prosperity.” Built in no less than forty years with world-class infrastructure, education and medical facilities, they added, “This pioneering country of the United Arab Emirates provides new evidence in progress of society and communication between people of all cultures [and] mutual understanding and stability in all parts of the world. Peace is the realization of prosperity,” and many speakers acknowledged that this was due to the efforts and leadership of late Sheikh Zayed al Nahyan. The seriousness with which the Emirati leadership takes these values was demonstrated to me during a lunch conversation with UAE Ambassador HE Yusuf al Hassan who has written thirty five books and had been the UAE Ambassador to Washington DC. He shared with me that there were people from 70 nationalities in Abu Dhabi. Initially in Abu Dhabi, illiteracy rates were as high as 90 percent; now there is 100 percent literacy for men and women. Furthermore, the cabinet consists of 25 percent women. This, he said, was because of the positive leadership in the UAE, particularly Shaikh Zayed and his family. It was a pleasant surprise that in the middle of the conference, a small group of women were selected to visit and have lunch with the wife of the late Sheikh Zayed, Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, who is referred to as the ‘Mother of the Nation’. The food was exquisitely prepared and the Sheikha Fatima and Sheikha Lubna al Qasimi were hospitable and cared about what we did and how they could help improve their world. In fact, Sheikha Lubna was the former Minister of Tolerance and the first female state Minister, and I had a chance to sit down with her and discuss both her work and mine. I was impressed by how down-to-earth she was. This conference was a call to the people of intellect and determination to work towards a vision of peace — one in which the true narrative of Islam is shown and to present this not only to Muslims, but to humanity at large. The reality of human beings should be reflected as in the true picture of each religious community should be presented and not a fabricated distorted image. The forum’s aim was to promote love and peace between all people. After all, the word Islam comes from salam, which means ‘peace’ and the greetings ‘as salaam’ is a greeting of peace. And as a distinguished Coptic Egyptian priest who received a peace award at this conference pointed out, “Allah (God) is the King of Peace.” As a way forward in the conclusion of the conference, it was said that there was a need to create spaces for global peace-building dialogue in curricula in universities and schools, include these ideas in the media, and involve policy makers. The organizers of the conference stated, “We are moving from thinking and planning to initiate.” The next conference is already planned in Washington DC by the name of ‘Alliance of Virtue’ following on from the fourth Peace Forum held in Abu Dhabi which highlighted the need to overcome the fear of Islam, and how to encourage peace by building bridges between Muslims and non-Muslims. At its heart, the conference served to teach how to coexist while being truly respectful of each other. This was a theme I myself have been involved in over the last few years and in trying to institutionalise it. In a time when terrorism is seen as a pervasive threat and many people in the west ask where are the Muslim voices condemning terrorism, here the voices of humanity (Muslim included) were loud and clear in condemning extremism and terrorism. Extremism would also be defeated the spirit of development in architecture, culture, dialogue, and art that is so present and inspiring vibrant in Abu Dhabi… I was impressed by this Forum’s potential for building peace and presenting a counter narrative. The writer is the Executive Director of Markaz-e-Ilm, the Centre for Dialogue & Action (CD&A) based in Islamabad. She can be reached at email@example.com Published in Daily Times, January 31st 2018.