A Muslim scholar who has harshly condemned Islamic State militants will headline a central Ohio interfaith conference that seeks to open paths of communication and increase community service among people of varied religious backgrounds.
Sheikh Muhammad Al-Yaqoubi is to speak at a Feb. 19 banquet as part of the conference titled “Divinity and Diversity: Building Our Beloved Community Together.”
The free three-day conference, Feb. 19-21, is presented by the Noor Islamic Cultural Center in Hilliard, the Safe Alliance of Interfaith Leaders of central Ohio, the Washington, D.C.-based Shoulder to Shoulder campaign and the Indiana-based Islamic Society of North America.
“The diversity in Columbus is pretty massive compared to other Midwestern cities of this size,” said Imran Malik, chairman of the board that oversees Noor and vice president of the Safe Alliance. “There’s a lot of diversity, and there’s a lot of international traffic, and because of that, there’s a lot of hunger to learn about each other.
“There’s so much hunger, there’s so much prospect that people are ready to embrace diversity as our strength rather than weakness.”
Al-Yaqoubi, a Syrian exile, represents a moderate scholarly voice to rebut the “very unfortunate misperception” of Muslims created by Islamic State and other extremists, said Ahmed Elhattab of the Islamic Society of North America, which is funding the conference banquet. Still, he said, the focus of the event will be positive.
“We have the strong faith that together we’ll move past this kind of misfortune,” Elhattab said. “Interfaith and diversity is a source of strength and a source of hope.”
The banquet, expected to draw about 350 people, also will feature musical performances and awards honoring Malik and Safe Alliance’s president, the Rev. Stephen Smith, the rector of St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Dublin.
The conference will include appearances by Joe DeMott, manager of the Inclusive America Project at the Washington, D.C.-based Aspen Institute; Sheryl Olitzky, co-founder of the New Jersey-based Sisterhood of Salaam/Shalom that unites Jewish and Muslim women; and filmmaker David Washburn, who is to present a screening of his An American Mosque.
The agenda includes other speeches and workshops and a youth service project to close the event.
Central Ohio is an ideal place for such a conference because its religious diversity is representative of the rest of the country, Smith said. “So let’s celebrate that diversity and invite others to celebrate it as well.”
Catherine Orsborn, campaign director of Shoulder to Shoulder, said this is the first conference of its kind for the organization, a network of about 30 Christian, Jewish and Muslim organizations formed to stand against anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. She expects that it will serve as a model for other conferences.
Participants will learn about people of different faiths as well as the common issues they face, Orsborn said. They will take away skills for facing common challenges and building interfaith networks in their own communities.
The conference will address barriers to forming such networks, including misunderstandings about others and a fear of losing one’s own religious identity, she said. “A lot of people do have a fear going into interfaith work, not only from not knowing other people, but will they be asked to compromise who they are and form one identity … one faith community. That’s not the reality.
“Interfaith work can often make your own religious identity and your own faith stronger. Certainly, it can change the way you see certain things. But certainly, it can strengthen your own commitment.”
Al-Yaqoubi led prayers last year at the Indiana funeral of an aid worker slain by Islamic State. He has written to the militant group, often referred to as ISIS or ISIL, and said it is a sin for any Muslim to join. He was not available for an interview with The Dispatch this week.
In November, he told PBS’ Margaret Warner that Islamic State is responsible for a savagery never before seen in modern history and for distorting the image of Islam.
“In Islam, we have never seen any group as extremist as this group. This is the most dangerous and serious group that existed ever in the history of Islam,” he told Warner. “It constitutes a threat not only to the Syrians and the region but to the whole world.
“Muslims and Islam carried mercy to the world, and this is totally against the very nature of the message of Islam.”
Teaching others about the differences between religions and cultures is both a personal initiative and a responsibility of the community at large, Malik said.
“We really cannot make much difference globally, but at least the difference we can make and the impact we can make is here locally and socially in our own circles,” he said. “We are hoping that these impacts will create ripple effects and — just like all the negative happening is creating a bigger impact — this positive can also create a countering impact as well.
“This is a very important and necessary effort that we all have to commit ourselves to.”
Divinity and Diversity conference events are free but registration is required. Most events will be held at Noor Islamic Cultural Center, 5001 Wilcox Rd. in Hilliard; the banquet will be held at the Makoy Center, 5462 Center St. in Hilliard. For information or to register, visit http://www.eventbrite.com/e/divinity-diversity-conference-tickets-15273380091. Sponsorships or donations to support programming are being accepted.