The Atlanta Interfaith Manifesto Leads to the “Beloved Community” by Soumaya Khalifa

Thoughts From Soumaya Khalifa, Executive Director and Founder of the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta

At the recent Atlanta film screening of “Newtown” at the Lovett school, an audience member made a comment that we need to build community and to care for each other if we are to stop gun violence. His statement made me think immediately of the Atlanta Interfaith Manifesto. The Manifesto is all about building community, caring for each other regardless of our diverse faith traditions, standing up for each other, and simply being the “beloved community.” The principles of the Manifesto are: advance interfaith cooperation, marshal religious diversity, celebrate Atlanta’s broader significance, and take a stand. Interfaith understanding is the civil rights movement for the 21st century.

One would say that my personal journey in the interfaith work started with the establishment of the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta (ISB), but actually it started long before. I remember as a very young child attending French Catholic school in Alexandria, Egypt, that was run by nuns. The school offered a church service during school time. I remember going to the church service and going home to tell my mother that I went to church. My mother would try to explain to me that we are Muslims. I agreed with my mom by saying “I pray to God at home as a Muslim and sing to God at church”. I believe that was the beginning of my interfaith journey.

In August 2001, along with a group of metro Atlanta Muslims, I started the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta with a vision of building bridges of understanding between the Muslim communities and the wider community and having American Muslims speak on their own behalf. It was a simple vision with a lot of opportunities. We started by training those interested in being part of the ISB on the First Amendment, because we are an educational organization where we “teach,” rather than “preach”. Education and knowing about the “other” is a first step in building community. As human beings, we fear what we do not know.

My journey with the ISB has been a life enriching experience. I have had the opportunity to work with people of different faiths and no faith. We started the Jewish Muslim Baking Group early on where Jewish and Muslim women would come together to bake something but it was really about getting to know each other, learning about our many similarities, and also our differences. Through the work of the ISB throughout the years, I had many opportunities that not too many people have. These opportunities include attending a Ramadan Iftar at the White House hosted by the President of the United States and participating in Christian Muslim dialogue at the World Council of Churches in Geneva. From the beginning, the ISB has been and continues to be about recognizing our partners through a number of initiatives including the Building Bridges Award, and working to change the narrative about Islam and Muslims through the “100 Influential Georgia Muslims” and the “40 Under Forty Georgia Muslims,” which showcase the incredible contributions of American Muslims to the state of Georgia in many areas including medicine, science, law enforcement, legal profession, philanthropy, and much more.

At the ISB we saw a need to also educate about other faith traditions. We collaborated with the Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta (FAMA) to create the Interfaith Speakers Network (ISN). There are six religions represented by ISN: Hinduism, Buddism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam. and Sikhism. Each faith is represented by people practicing it. This gives authenticity to our panels.

Over the years I have heard concerns raised about interfaith work including (1) it will make me compromise my faith, and (2) I will be bringing the “lite” version of my faith to be accepted. The answer to both of these concerns is a definite NO. Interfaith collaboration makes one study their own faith tradition more so that they are better able to engage with others. Interfaith conversations start off with finding out what we have in common while realizing that there are also differences. Differences are discussed after trust has been built.

My challenge to myself and others is to take our interfaith engagement to the next level. We need interfaith collaboration and understanding today more than ever. The Atlanta Interfaith Manifesto provides a structure for all of us. May we all be agents of positive change in our communities and work together for our Beloved Community.