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.

What things did the European Muslims learned from the American Muslims, and vice versa?

What American and European Muslims Share
There was this sort of deep regret from the European Muslims that the American Muslims are so well-adjusted. The difference was not intellect, because most European Muslims are educated. But their socioeconomic spectrum and the policies of their local governments have prevented them from becoming fully integrated citizens in their country. So, maybe some of the European Muslims will push for some reform within their own societies, because now they see how American Muslims are different than them.

The lessons for American Muslims were that they’re not alone in the challenge of being Muslim in the West--it’s also being shared by European Muslims. And the recognition of that commonality will help Muslims to create a rapid change. We have some shared concerns, such as that we want to be viewed differently as a community. We want to be viewed as a community that is contributing to Western societies. Muslims are not outsiders anymore. What were the major themes that emerged in the conference?

The biggest theme is that in order to reshape the perception of Muslims in the West, this generation actually has to be effectively engaged in it. They understand the culture of their own countries and the concerns of their religious communities. They are almost a perfect bridge between the two. The recognition that this generation has to step up to the plate and lead the reshaping of Western perceptions of Muslims became very clear and very serious to them.

How will the participants spread the message of what they’ve learned at this conference?

We are asking them to set up local Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow chapters, where they will invite people from diverse viewpoints so we can have conversations about the shared concerns that we have so that we can advance our community’s concerns. Because only then are you representing the Muslim community. Otherwise, you are representing a singular voice within the Muslim community. And this is what has created the biggest problem we have--why does one person speak for me?

And in the absence of having a major religious authority, this is about the best thing that we can have right now: Small groups of people who represent the mosaic of the Muslim community. But it’s important that these small groups know that they represent a collective body of the Muslim community.

Are there any plans to expand this conference to other parts of the world, to move the focus away from Western Muslim leaders of tomorrow?

This conference represented the Ummah (Muslim collective body) in the West. We wanted to launch it in the West first because we wanted to address the concerns of Western Muslims before we went far and wide. Now we have decided expand the MLT conference around the world and take this idea of a collective consciousness to create a global Ummah.

This conference came on the one-year anniversary of the London bombings. Was it a reaction to that, and to the Danish cartoon?

The conference was not a reaction to anything. It was not a memorial for anybody. It was not an apology for the [Danish] cartoons. It was none of that.

We used these incidences as a backdrop for why we Muslims feel that we need to be very proactive in our actions. Because our community is being held responsible for certain negative actions. The reason why we chose this place and this time was to show people that an incredibly constructive movement is happening within Islam and within the Muslim community. Of course, there is deep regret for what has happened and deep regret for what continues to happen in the world. But we cannot apologize for everything that’s going on in the world, because many of us have nothing to do with any of that.

But as civil-society leaders, we can create a deeper understanding amongst our faith communities about what is right action and what we consider to be wrong action.

How do you reconcile the exhilaration your feel after such a gathering with news of more violence, like the Mumbai blasts and the fighting in the Middle East?

Well, I just heard from somebody saying that thank God they had been to this MLT conference because, had they not, they would have been shaken up by what happened in the world right after we all returned home. But there was a certain kind of empowerment and a feeling of hope in the community. So when a catastrophic world event unfolds in front of you, you don’t get shaken up, because you know so many other people who think like you, who are doing their best to reverse this trend. And that hope overrides your distress over what happened.

This is probably the one unexpected thing that you can’t account for when you are planning these conferences.

How can Muslims retain hope and pride when their religion is frequently being maligned?

Using New Media to Fight Islamic Extremism
I think it’s a matter of holding on to your principles and continuing to do constructive work. We don’t have control over these world events that are unfolding. We know there are political agendas behind most of these actions. And the misuse of Islam as a framework to further that agenda has become clear to Muslims the world over.

And the fact that people can openly speak about how extremists use new media and use violence to further their agenda was a very lively debate at our conference. We had this panel discussion called “Extremism Within New Media,” that focused primarily on how people are recruited through the Internet, and how extremist rhetoric is kept very simple. Young minds are basically being brainwashed with mediocre rhetoric--a scholarship that is not even recognized as scholarship.

Many people were speaking from their own country’s viewpoint about how they are trying to push back extremism by creating blogs and websites, by engaging youth by bringing them into the fold, and by recognizing that there is an attack on identities. And as long as you are responsible for building a healthy community, then that’s what gives you motivation and hope, and prevents you from losing hope.

Who do Muslims look to for guidance in defending their religion and reaching out to the youth, and helping fight against radical groups that?

Where Muslims Find Guidance
Most Muslims feel very strongly that ultimate guidance comes from their relationship with God. And that is how people feel a sense of empowerment, that there is a direct relationship between God and the creature. There is no intermediary. But the main role model for Muslims is the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), who actually was a man, who was a husband, who was a political leader. He had all the different components of what we call a societal leader.

People can actually model themselves after the Prophet. And I think this is why when so many people were so upset about an attack on the Prophet [in the political cartoons published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten], because an icon that they relate so strongly to was insulted.

Muslims also get their guidance good scholars, who are like the messengers of the messengers of the messengers of the messengers of God. But another thing that I noticed at this conference was that people were being guided by each other. This was the power of companionship, and this is something we know very well in Islam. The Prophet was always surrounded by his companions, and they all were empowered by each other.

What inspires you to important work that you are doing?

I Aspire to One Thing
I only aspire to one thing, and that is to bring peace and harmony to the world by trying to instill a peaceful atmosphere amongst people, because I believe that peace--at the end of the day--is Islam. Islam is peace through submission to the will of God. I genuinely believe that God has created all of humanity, all six billion of us, in different forms, in different religions. And we are all different rivers leading into the same ocean, and the ocean represents God Almighty.

Bringing together people of divergent views who are all headed to the same ocean is something that guides me every day. It’s what I think about. It’s what I sleep with. It’s what I get up with. It’s a great motivating factor for me.

Is there a favorite prayer that you have?

My Favorite Prayer
There is a Hadith in which the Prophet says believers are like the bricks of a building. They hold each other. And I believe that a good society is created by all believers, not only of one religion, who represent the different bricks of a building. I would like to impart to people this beautiful thought of the Prophet, who invited people to think like a collective body, like one house where a foundation is being built by different believers coming together.

This is my aspiration for people. And this is my prayer for people: that we should think of ourselves as different bricks of a building that are there to build this beautiful House of God.

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