Peace Depends on Us Getting to Know Each Other
Samina Faheem Sundas is the founder and Executive Director of the American Muslim Voice Foundation. Her focus is on eradicating Islamophobia by fostering friendships among all Americans and walking on the path Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. paved for us. She is an advocate of civic engagement through volunteerism, with a particular interest in empowering young women to become the leaders of tomorrow. She believes that through education and social interaction we can build an inclusive and beloved community where all of us feel safe and at home. Samina lives in Palo Alto, California with her daughter, son, nephew, niece, sister, a rabbit, and a Jack Russell terrier.
Why do you call yourself a peace person, Samina?
It is a title I earned from my fellow Americans during the past decade as they witnessed the work of bridging the gap between all communities. I believe it is my commitment and dedication to our mission that has earned me this title. I have dedicated my life for the cause of creating peace and harmony in our world.
American Muslim Voice deeply believes in fostering friendships among all Americans by bridging cultural and religious gaps. Every day we promote new relationships and nurture the old ones because our country’s safety, security and peace depend on us getting to know each other.
In my home, growing up in Pakistan, my parents did not preach a lot, but they practiced Islam and lived their lives according to its tenets. The word Islam means peace and they lived peace. They also taught me by example how to have confidence in myself as a woman. I was a soft-spoken child, so I learned to sit close to my dad whenever there was a large family gathering. He would know when I wanted to say something and ask the group to be quiet so I could be heard.
We as human beings need to be connected, become friends and understand each other’s struggles and whatever issues each community has. Getting to know each other is the first step toward building the beloved community. Breaking bread together, having eye contact, always keeping the dialogue open: That’s what will bring us together as one world. Peace is equality, social justice and harmony.
Peace and justice go hand in hand. Some people want to talk about peace in isolation. I am crystal clear about how we achieve it, and that’s by pursuing social justice.
What strategies do you use to achieve this?
Sincerity is most important of all. The best strategy can fail, but warm hospitality will always prevail. That’s the heart of American Muslim Voice. It’s a very simple program: Just open your door to strangers and friends.
You do have to be brave. When people think too much, they can always come up with something that will prevent them from doing good. Take the leap of faith. In Islam, intentions are very important. God rewards good intentions, whereas nothing good comes from bad intentions. My intention is for myself and others to open our homes for luncheons, Iftar dinners and Eid brunches during the holidays. That’s the only way people will learn who we are. There’s no propaganda―just conversation in a safe environment.
If people have concerns or questions, we answer them. When we open our doors, our homes, and our hearts, we send a message that we trust you. By accepting our invitation, our guests send the same message. That’s how we build trust. There’s only one rule: Don’t sit with someone or talk with someone you already know. We provide a safe, fertile environment to foster the seeds of new friendships. We also hold Peace Picnics outdoors, since people who are not ready to join us need a visual. They need to see that people of different ages, cultures, faiths can be together, have fun and build friendships.
We want our fellow Americans to join us in a new campaign we started in 2011, National Invite Your Neighbor to Dinner Day, on the first Sunday of October. All our work is inspired by the Koranic verse 49.13, Surah Al-Hujurat: “Oh humankind, we have created you from a single cell and divided you into nations and tribes so you may get to know each other, not despise each other.”
Do you ever find other Muslims unwilling to take part in your programs?
No, I have not experienced that. Once they understand the intention of creating a beloved community they are excited about it. If they are reluctant, it is for the same reason my fellow Americans are reluctant: fear of the unknown and inability to take a leap of faith. The results are always positive once they give each other a chance. Too many Americans focus on what divides us rather than what binds us. As you know well, ignorance breeds fear and person to person contact relieves that fear.
How long have you been doing this work?
I have been working for peace for 12 or 15 years but I founded American Muslim Voice in 2003. It has spread from Palo Alto to San Jose, Woodland, Sacramento and even New York City. If I had funding for two staff members, I believe we could take it national and one day, global. But even little by little, it will continue to grow. Six other organizations now join me in promoting Peace Picnics.
What has been the best thing, the most rewarding thing about your work?
It’s the relationships. People ask me why I’m not burned out. My parents knew what kind of work I was going to do, so they trained me well. When choosing a path, they taught me, never focus on the end result. Enjoy each step along the way. Each person I meet, every relationship I build is immensely satisfying. It gives me internal peace that billions of dollars could not buy. I know I am part of a greater scheme, following the will of God. I have beautiful relationships with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, Peace X Peace, Code Pink, Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice, Friends of Human Relations, and too many other organizations to list, and I build on them every day. When we’re in trouble, like with the massive NYPD-CIA infiltration surveillance program that was exposed in August of this year or the scariest provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act that appears headed for President Obama’s signature, we send them an email and ask them to sign on our letter knowing they will. That shows deep trust and friendship, and I cherish each one of those relationships. We only raise about $25,000 a year, but we’ve had enormous success because of our friendship, coalitions and alliances.
Our organization is not just for Muslims; we have a Japanese-American on our Board. I invite everyone to join us.
What was your low point?
Getting started was hard because the typical image of a leader is a man with a Ph.D. At first people couldn’t see me as a leader, but now I have paid my dues, and they see I’m not going away.
In January, we’re starting Muslim Women’s Leadership Training, funded by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, with a group of 12 women ranging from high school to a 55-year-old. SVCF is providing a skilled consultant who will give four hours of training each month. The women are excited and I am too. The foundation saw that this fills a gap―as I said a minute ago, most women are not seen as leaders and don’t see themselves as leaders.
I know from my own life that when you learn something at an early age you will keep it, no matter how busy you become. When a girl receives respect, confidence, trust and empowerment from the men in her family the way I did, she becomes a leader. If not, these are things she can learn, and the earlier the better. All my life I have been blessed with wonderful teachers and friends. Providing that for these young women is a sustainable plan for building peace.
Also in this edition of PeaceTimes
- Race, Class, Partnership, and Peace
- Go Where the Energy Is
- Kim’s Corner: A Good Year for Women
- Generation Peace:Join the Mentorship for Peace Class of 2012
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