November 21, 2002

Ramadan Banquet Discusses Diversity

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Eating the traditional dates and roohafza (rose water), 250 members of the Cornell and Ithaca community broke the daily Ramadan fast at the second annual Iftaar Banquet yesterday at Trillium Dining Hall. The event consisted of speakers, food and prayer with the goal of fostering a dialogue of commonality in an inter-faith community.

Although this was not the end of the holy month of Ramadan, organizers wanted to educate and include other community members in the breaking of the fast. Ramadan began on Nov. 6 this year and will continue until Dec. 5.

The event was organized by the Cornell Society of Islamic Spirituality (CSIS) with a wide range of co-sponsors including the department of Near Eastern Studies, Dean of Students Office, Cornell United Religious Works, Muslim Educational and Cultural Association and Cornell Dining.

“We are trying to bring together different communities and this kind of event will improve our understanding of each other,” said co-organizer Ali Gokirmak grad.

The speakers that Gokirmak and co-organizers Shaffique Adam grad and Prof. Shawkat Toorawa, near eastern studies, brought to the event demonstrated the importance placed on dialogue and inter-faith awareness.

Salih Yucel, director of the Boston Dialogue Foundation, began the evening with remarks on the importance of inter-faith discussion.

The purpose of dialogue is to “decrease the tension between faiths,” that is so rampant in today’s society, Yucel stated. Terrorism is incorrectly equated with the practice of Islam, according to Yucel.

“All mankind, not just Muslims, should be brothers with each other,” Yucel said.

To do so, Yucel outlined the four pillars of dialogue: love, compassion, tolerance and forgiveness.

With these ideals established, the event broke for prayer and dinner. The seat assignments were pre-assigned so as to foster a variety of dialogue among the attendees, Adam said.

At the tables community members expressed their views on the importance of such an event.

“This is a real opportunity to learn about a different culture,” Ben Towbin ’06 said.

Furthermore, with such a diverse crowd there is chance to “clear up some misconceptions about Islam that some people may have,” said Manata Hashei ’05.

Misconception was the primary topic addressed by the keynote speaker of the evening, Prof. Farid Esack, University of Hamburg, who is also a South-African Muslim Theologian, academic and activist. In a speech entitled, “Understanding of God: Islam, between Authoritarianism and Compassion,” Esack discussed the authoritarian roots of many Islamic societies, the “obsession with justice” and the role of the marginalized in Islamic faith.

“Our tradition is one that is very often stifling to the human spirit,” he said, “but this is not peculiar to Islam, nor the only face of Islam.”

Esack discussed the role of religion as both an answer to and source of problems throughout modern history.

There is a tendency amongst many to reduce God to “our level,” he said.

“Not only do we imprison God in our countries and our fetishes but we also imprison Him within our religion,” Esack said while explaining how different groups often look to God to support their own distinct causes without regard for a higher purpose of humankind.

“What we claim that Western society is doing to us, [Muslims] we are doing to our women in our own homes,” Esack said. Hence, Esack stressed the importance of universal justice for humans.

“Our understanding of justice must go beyond self interest: it’s not about you and its not about me, it’s about what kind of world we are trying to create,” he said.

His speech, described as “very interesting and very provocative,” by Toorawa, segued into discussions of fasting in the Jewish and Christian faiths.

The remarks of Prof, Jane Marie Law, religious studies, in her discussion of “Fasting in the Jewish Tradition” expressed the sentiment of community.

“[We have] activated the power of difference to bring us together,” she said.

Archived article by Liz Goulding