Young advocates of religious and political freedom take up the challenge
(Fatema Haji-Taki/UUSC photo)
Muslim activist Dalia Ziada from Egypt and Jewish tour guide Raphael Elmaleh at the Morocco interfaith conference.
Fatema Haji-Taki is a resident of Arlington, Mass. and a program associate with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee in Cambridge. She traveled to Morocco where she and three other Boston-area civil liberties activists are leading a series of workshops intended to build interfaith and intercultural bridges in several countries across the Middle East.
By Fatema Haji-Taki
May 5, 2009
IFRANE, Morocco -- For the past five days, a group of Moroccan students and young-adult activists from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait, Lebanon, Tunisia and Algeria have been working intensely together in workshops building bridges among themselves and improving skills for creating interfaith community programs in their own countries.
From working to ease interfaith tensions in Egypt and Yemen to advancing women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, these activists are dedicated to sharing their expertise and acquiring new skills on how to effectively plan events, launch campaigns, and secure funding for their field work to promote religious and political freedom in their countries. The workshops emphasize how to translate their online activism to real-world organizing and leadership skills that participants can put to work in practical ways in their home communities.
Ironically, some participants were unable to attend because their visa applications were not approved in time, or, in the case of a prominent Baha’i activist from Egypt, it became too dangerous for her to travel. The empty seats were a stark reminder of the lack of religious and political freedom in most Arab countries.
Jesse Sage, Nasser Weddady and Lauren Murphy from Hands Across the Middle East Support Alliance, a Boston-based nonprofit, and I organized and are facilitating the conference, “Interfaith Leadership Seminar: From the Virtual to the Real World,” at Al Akhawayn University, an English-language college in Ifrane.
Jewish in the Arab world
During the conference the participants met Moroccan Raphael Elmaleh, believed to be the only Jewish tour guide in the Arab world. He is also a founder of the only Jewish museum in the Arab world in Casablanca. Elmaleh’s passion in life is to research the Jewish heritage of Morocco and restore the synagogues and other sites that were left behind by the Jews more than 40 years ago.
“I’m proud to be a Jew in an Arab country,” he says. On Sunday, all the participants had a chance to visit Fez while he showed us the old Jewish Quarter and the cemeteries and the synagogues left behind. For many, this was the first time they had been exposed to the Jewish heritage in an Arab country. By the end of the day, the bond that he created with the rest of the group was heartening.
At first, he acknowledged he was nervous talking about his work to a group of Arab young people from across the Middle East whom he had never met before. But working with the group for two days has changed his mind and he is excited to talk about how Jews and Muslims coexisted peacefully in Morocco and what that means for the future. During dinner yesterday, all of the participants gave him a standing ovation for his dedication while the Moroccan students sang the national anthem. The expression on Elmaleh’s face was invaluable.
Freedom of the press in Yemen
Unfortunately, on Monday, we also learned that an independent newspaper run by one of the Yemeni participants, Abdullah Abdulwahab Naji Qaid, was shut down by Yemeni authorities. Abdullah is a founding member and the General Activity Supervisor of the al-Tagheer Organization for Rights and Freedom Defense, an NGO based in Yemen. He has previously participated in seminars on religious freedom which addressed discrimination against Yemen's Zaidi community.
(Fatema Haji-Taki/UUSC photo)
Yemeni journalist Abdullah Abdulwahab Naji Qaid
When the news broke, the mood among all of us turned solemn. It was a grave reminder of the difficult circumstances these activists work in and the challenges ahead of them after they return home. As the night wore on, the solidarity between all of us for Qaid’s work was palpable. Many are working to organize a campaign for him while others are planning to spread the word through Facebook, their blogs and other online networks.
As a non-Arab Muslim-American human rights activist, I am humbled by the work of my peers. Through the last few days, I’ve seen them work together, debate their differences, sing and dance together. They have created a support network for each other. They are all invested in each others’ success because they all are committed to religious and political freedom in the Arab world.
What they have experienced together as a team will stay with them for the rest of their lives. As they go back, they will face obstacles and there will be times when they will want to give up. My only hope is they will remember the solidarity they experienced this past week and keep soldiering on because they are the future leaders of the Arab world.
For more information about UUSC’s Civil Liberties Program, visit www.uusc.org/content/civil_liberties. To learn how you can contribute to the Passport blog, contact the Globe's assistant foreign editor, Kenneth Kaplan, at firstname.lastname@example.org.