The other day, I had the opportunity to attend an interfaith iftar put on by my local mosque.
To those of you who don’t know, we are currently in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which is most well known for being our month of fasting. Muslims abstain from food and drink (amongst other things) during the hours that the sun is up. Iftar is the meal you eat to break your fast every night (it’s really just dinner). If you’re interested in learning a bit more, check out this post I wrote a little while back about fasting during Ramadan.
More importantly, Ramadan is a month where Muslims around the world focus on their commitment to their religion, to God, and to goodness. Think of it as a reset, with heightened importance placed on patience, conscientiousness, charity, and self-awareness.
So, an interfaith iftar at a local community center is a pretty great way to spread the Ramadan love, to those within the Muslim community and to those outside of it.
After all, what better way to make friends than with food?
Dr. Craig Considine was one of the speakers at the event. Dr. Considine is a sociologist and professor at Rice University, and a Catholic. However, he’s become an active and important voice for the Muslim community. He’s currently working on a book that focuses on Muslims in America, and he regularly discusses issues involving misconceptions of Muslims in society. He’s a trooper, and one we’re glad to have on our side.
Dr. Considine’s brief speech at the dinner struck a chord with me, as he spoke about some things that I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately. The basic question he posed was,
“How do we deal with diversity?”
It’s a good question and one that we’ll never be able to get away from. It’s the nature of this world we all live in. We’re not the same, but we’re not supposed to be. Still, while it’s easy for Megyn Kelly to dismissively pose the age-old and completely out-of-touch question, “Can’t we all just get along?” it’s never that simple of a solution.
Obviously, it’d be nice if we could, but centuries of human interaction will tell us that this is easier said than done. In the United States of America, diversity is the backbone of our nation and we still haven’t figured it out. With the world becoming more “global” in the sense that there is more and more movement of people and ideas beyond their cultural and geographical borders, addressing diversity is becoming (or already is) a critical point for many nations and groups.
Dr. Considine outlined three different solutions to the issue of diversity:
Segregation is the idea of keeping each group separate from one another. This isn’t ideal for several reasons, not the least of which include the fact that there is no spread of ideas. There is no growth of national identity between groups, and there isn’t a collective narrative that’s being contributed to.
This may not sound like a terrible thing, but think about what would happen if we saw different communities retreating within themselves while still living in this country. The result would be several groups benefiting and suffering from institutions and legislation without contributing back and without being represented in their society or government. They’d have no viable voice.
In a way, this isn’t too different from the way the country has been run up until this point. Our federal government is not diverse in the least. Only recently have we started seeing more diverse members of Congress. For example, we currently have a record number of female Senators – 21 of them – and while it’s not a huge victory, it’s progress in the right direction.
So then, assimilation. Assimilation is better, but it’s not all the way there. There’s a key component missing here that I’ll discuss in a bit. What this basically is, though, is a group making more of an effort to fit themselves into the local culture and voice. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re an active part of the community, but they’re basically trying to fly under the radar. They’re not making waves; they’re not making noise. They’re just happy to be where they are.
Again, this isn’t really a bad thing, but think about what assimilation means for the group trying to assimilate. It means sacrificing a significant part of their own cultural, religious, or whatever identity and adopting one foreign to them, or at least appearing to do so. While yes, this will inevitably happen to a certain degree, and yes, it’s a good thing that a degree of assimilation exists, it’s still not the solution we’re after.
As the daughter of immigrants, this is kind of personal for me. My brothers and I were born and raised in the US, but our parents’ culture is an incredibly large part of the people we are today. It’s a part of me that I love and cherish. Still, my brothers and I are not Guyanese. We’re American. And unfortunately, I know my Caribbean/Indian culture will be further washed out once I have children of my own.
And that brings us to integration, the gold standard for dealing with diversity. According to Dr. Considine, integration means “working with difference” and being bonded through community. And therein lies the missing factor from the other two proposed solutions. Integration not only acknowledges differences, but it celebrates them. It understands that there is wisdom to be gained from embracing different groups. It understands that there are valuable contributions to be made from a diverse bunch of voices, talents, skills, and perspectives.
The key factor of integration is that it’s dependent on solidarity. This means being granted a sense of belonging from the community around you. It’s the feeling that the other people care about you and actually want you in their community. It means being appreciated for your contributions, however big or small. You become a part of the narrative, even if that means changing it up a bit, instead of simply accommodating it.
So the question now is this:
How do you create inclusion amidst diversity?
I know this is a common theme that keeps coming up with me, but we’ve got to listen to one another. There is beauty and insight that can only come from listening to those who are different from us. But as it turns out, I’m not the only one who feels this way.
Dr. Considine brought up an interesting point. He stated that God (yes, the same god that the Muslims, Christians, and Jews all worship) created us differently for the purpose of helping us learn to accept, tolerate, and love. It’s the biggest challenge of our world. Every war, dispute, or disagreement to have ever plagued our society has been based on differences in looks, ideals, opinions, etc.
But imagine if we could focus on what unites us all as people, rather than on what divides us? We all want similar things – to be loved, accepted, and appreciated. Most of us want (or at least feel an obligation) to contribute, in some form, back to the society that benefits us. And we all want to live in the best possible society, even if that means taking the best ideas from the best of us and finding a way to integrate them into our everyday.
Those are the principles that make us unique as Americans. Those are the ideals that propelled this nation to become a world power in the few centuries of its existence.
I’ll leave you with a quote from the Broadway musical, “Hamilton.” I think it about sums everything up:
“America, you great unfinished symphony…a place where even orphan immigrants can leave their fingerprints and rise up.”