Five years after 9/11, Muslims continue to find themselves in a defensive position, with violence by and against Muslims continuing to escalate around the world. The London bombings of a year ago, the Danish cartoon controversy, the recent bombings in Mumbai, India, and the current fighting in the Middle East have prompted Muslims to search for answers to the problems plaguing Islam in its relationship with the Western world and other faiths. Muslims are also trying reconcile the varying ideologies within their own faith.

To explore these vital issues, Daisy Khan, founder of the American Society for the Advancement of Muslims, held the first Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow conference in July, which brought together more than 100 participants from around the world. Over three intense days in Copenhagen, Denmark, the young Muslims hashed out questions about their identity, their varying ideologies, and how they can reconnect with other young Muslims and create positive dialogue with the West. Dilshad D. Ali, Beliefnet’s Islam editor, spoke with Khan about the conference.

What did you hope to achieve with such a gathering?

I wanted to gain a nuanced understanding of what the Muslim community is--that it is not monolith, that it has very divergent views. That was one of the biggest lessons for most conference participants. Some people felt deeply stretched because their thinking was being altered as they were listening to other views.

And any time there’s knowledge transference then you inevitably adjusting your thoughts to understanding the best practices of the Muslims and their struggles within the West. That was probably the best thing we achieved: We brought people from extreme points on the spectrum--all the way from absolute progressives to literalists. We were able to bring them to the center where they could listen to each other.What were the challenges and concerns identified by the conference participants?

The Difference Between American and European Muslims
The biggest concern for everybody was that they don’t feel they are respected in the West. And we discovered a very big difference between American Muslims and European Muslims: The integration issue for American Muslims was almost a non-issue, whereas it was the most important thing for European Muslims. How does a religious community that is so God-centered reconcile with a society that is so secular?

And this is a challenge that American Muslims don’t face at all. We don’t feel under attack as a religious community; we feel under attack because--due to world affairs--people have a negative perception about how Muslims are.

What advice did conference participants have for each other’s unique problems?

There was some sharing of best practices. All the conference participants are beginning to create partnerships with other Muslims around the world so they can invite each other to come and speak in their countries.

For instance, we had a session called “The imam circle” with six imams from different countries. These were Western imams who were young, who are extremely modern, but who are very thoughtful and deeply religious leaders. These imams gave the group an air of hope. We all wanted to bring these religious leaders to their communities and get advice from them on how to energize Muslims.

Since this first conference was for Western societies, the imams all hailed from the Americas and Europe (though some were of Middle Eastern, Turkish, and South Asian descent. We had an imam from California who, even though he had an appearance of a conservative person, turned out to be a speed demon with his car. That was a very humanizing thing that people talked about that endeared him to people--to see that side of religious leaders that they hadn’t seen before.

People commented that their faith has been renewed, or that they have hope in the Muslim community now, or that they feel spiritually uplifted just by the presence of the open-minded people there.