By Jordan Bowman and Jessica Opatich
In an unconventional display of openness and religious diversity, men and women, some in suits and some in colorful hijabs, some wearing yarmulkes, turbans, or kufis on their heads and others not wearing any religious garb, placed their shoes on a rack and filed into the mosque.
Of the approximately 250 people in attendance, some were scholars, others were religious leaders, politicians or ordinary community members, but they all were at the Islamic Center of Long Island (ICLI) in Westbury on Sunday, October 25 to celebrate the inauguration of Long Island’s first Interfaith Institute.
The institute endorses religious pluralism and harmonious co-existence between those of different faiths, President of the ICLI Dr. Isma Chaudhry said. “We have to be each other’s keepers.”
The mission of the Interfaith Institute is to engage Muslims and non-Muslims by promoting the values and teachings of Islam and other faiths to promote interfaith harmony in a multicultural environment, founding ICLI member and former president Dr. Faroque Khan said.
The vision of the Interfaith Institute has been a long time in the making, Khan said, but it’s more important now than ever. “There is so much misunderstanding, so much misinformation,” Reverend Mark Lukens of the Bethany Congregational Church in East Rockaway said.
“The community doesn’t have a voice. There’s an event somewhere in the world and you see front page coverage of bloodshed, beheadings, drowning and that’s not the faith. That’s a group of people who are pushing their political agenda under the umbrella of the faith,” Khan said.
Khan has a long history of reaching out to other faith’s on Long Island, which is home to 12 distinct faith groups that includes Islam, Baha’i, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, and Sikhism. More than 25 years ago, Khan reached out to Rabbi Jerome Davidson of Temple Beth-El of Great Neck and created the event American Muslims and Jews in Dialogue.
“It was an acknowledgement of the importance for the growing Muslim population, and the Jewish community, to become more aware of each others’ presence and to acquire the beginnings of understanding of each others’ faith,” Rabbi Davidson said.
That tradition continues in the creation of the Interfaith Institute. Throughout the day, guest speakers affirmed the importance of interfaith education. “The Institute proves that people of good will are able to maintain traditions without demonizing others,” Dean of Hofstra College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dr. Bernard J. Firestone said.
Although the extension to the ICLI that will serve as the Interfaith Institute is not officially open because it does not yet have a certificate of occupancy and certain plumbing and electrical approvals, ICLI board member Sajid Shah said, the vision for programming and outreach has not stalled.
The institute plans to work with neighboring school districts like Westbury, Hicksville Herricks and Jericho and “any place that will have us,” Khan said. He also is looking to partner with local colleges and universities to develop a formal course on interfaith dialogue. It’s as much about reaching other faith communities as it is about reaching young Muslims.
“How are we going to combat the social media campaign of ISIS?” Khan said. “I cannot go over there and fight them, but I can do something here so that a youngster from here doesn’t get brainwashed. So we can give them the real thing.”