Clearing up misconceptions about Islam, being good neighbors to Muslims.

Words from the Founder

The pinnacle of Salaam’s Three Step Process from Fear to Friendship is Cultural Awareness Travel. When we leave the security of familiarity and find ourselves surrounded by exotic foods, unintelligible languages, and different customs practiced by very interesting people, we are in a perfect place to have our minds expanded and to experience profound change. It was my time in Kazakhstan that changed everything for me. I love being able to provide this opportunity to others.

I’m ecstatic to announce that we have partnered with Holy Land Trust and Harmony Pilgrimages to offer Salaam’s first ever Cultural Awareness Journey:  Israel and Palestine Cultural Tour, with excursion to Jordan – June 15-29, 2020

While most travel tours to this part of the world focus on Holy Land Tours and Christians visiting holy sites, Salaam’s Israel and Palestine Cultural Tour will be unique in that our focus will be cultural, not religious:

  • You’ll be traveling with a multi-cultural,, interfaith group from various faiths as well as the non-religious. We are reaching out to a very diverse group and are excited about the lasting bonds that will be formed within the team.
  • We’ll curate experiences that will give you a full spectrum of cultural exposure. You’ll meet Israelis, Palestinian Arabs – both Christian and Muslim, Druze, and Jordanian Arabs.
  • You’ll also get a firsthand look at some the realities facing the residents of this region and meet peacemakers from all sides.
  • We’ll have periodic small group discussion times to interact about and process our experiences.

For trip details, FAQs, and to preregister, please click on the button below.

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Why Do They Hate Us? Countering Islamophobia Tour

With the release of my book at the end of July, I launched a North America tour to talk about the book and engage Americans and Canadians about the topic of Islamophobia – the fear of Muslims. I’ve traveled up and down the coast between San Diego and Vancouver, BC three times now, with stops in Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco, Corvallis, Seattle, and Bellingham. I’ve had a lot of one-on-one conversations and spoken to a lot of groups. Here are some highlights:

We had an amazing book release party on a sun-drenched patio in Vancouver, overlooking the labyrinth of ocean passageways below and enjoying a colorful sunset. We heard the story of a young Muslim woman who had been raised in the shadow of 9/11 – in fear. Her parents taught her to hide her faith out of concern for her safety. She married a non-Muslim in hopes of being able to live a normal life without fear. She finds she feels safer about practicing her faith in Canada.

After giving a talk at a Mennonite gathering in Corvallis, I was able to buzz up the Oregon coast an hour to rendezvous with my daughter and her husband, who were enjoying a family vacation with three generations from his side. After a wonderful dinner of clams and crab caught the previous day, we wandered to the ocean and enjoyed some peaceful moments watching the sun set. This was an unexpected treat.

As I approached the LA area after a long day of driving, I got a call from my publicist asking me if I could be in San Diego by 6 AM for a live TV interview on KGUN-TV, a CBS affiliate. Now, instead of a quiet night with my host in LA, I was driving through the middle of rush hour on the 405. I got to Carlsbad by 11 PM, had a short night, did some prep for the interview, and made it to the studio by 6. I was VERY nervous, but had a wonderful interview with Stella Escobedo, who, as it turns out, was actually born in Uzbekistan, the neighboring country to Kazakhstan, where I spent 5 years. Click on the image above to watch the full video.

A couple of days later, got another call, this time to be on the morning news at KTLA in the heart of Hollywood. The KTLA Morning News is the most watched morning news program in Los Angeles. As I sat in the green room nervously waiting, a famous producer and his star actor got up and went on the set for their interview. When it was my turn, the producer came and got me saying, “this should be a piece of cake, we are just going to follow the script.” We had given them our key talking points and I knew them in my sleep. But from the very first question, we were off script and I was scrambling. I was seated behind the desk with the two anchors, who took turns asking inflammatory questions about President Trump, and were showing clips of his twitter feed while I was talking about my peacemaking work. It was sink or swim now. Somehow I instinctively knew to pivot on the questions: “I don’t know about that but I can tell you this.” Mostly pivoting from questions about political leaders to answers about what I have learned about everyday Muslims. Whew!! Intense!!!! You will be able to see if you watch the video that I was so nervous I was actually rocking in my chair.

On my final leg back up to Vancouver again, I had the wonderful opportunity to speak to a large group in a mosque near Oakland. It brought flashbacks from my time in Kazakhstan. After my talk, I signed books till I couldn’t remember my name, conversed with wonderful friends, was treated to Afghan dinner, and had a wonderful night’s sleep in the home of a gracious host.

In the last event before arriving in Vancouver, I did a book talk at a huge Barnes & Noble in Pacific Place, a shopping district in the heart of downtown Seattle. A multicultural group showed up for the talk when the manager made the announcement. We had a lively discussion which included some disagreement, and some moderation and redirection on my part. I LOVED it. A random public conversation between some non-Muslim Americans who had some misconceptions, with a multi-generational Pakistani family, all of who just happened to be in the store when my talk was announced. Awesome.

I’m currently in Vancouver prepping for the next phase of the tour, getting some planning time with Salaam board member, Siddika Jessa, and reaching out to other local leaders.

World’s Largest Annual Public Gathering Takes Place this Saturday

Do you know what it is?

On Saturday, Oct. 19, as many as 20 million Shia Muslims will converge on the city of Karbala, Iraq to commemorate the death of Imam Hussain, who was the son of  Mohammed’s cousin and 4th successor, Ali. In honor of this important Shia holiday, we have invited guest blogger, Kenly Stewart, to share the background around this day.

The vast majority of the world’s Muslims are Sunni Muslims, representing 80-90% of the total number (1.5 billion). Shias are the second largest group with 10-20% (170-340 million). With this size difference, what we know about Islam tends to be from the Sunni perspective. However, this leads to viewing the diverse and complex 1,400 year tradition of Islam as a monolithic entity. We’ll take advantage of the important Shia holy day, Arbaeen, to learn the history of the Shia tradition.

Following Mohammed’s death in 632 C.E., divisions started in the ummah (community). Sunnis affirm the first caliph (successor) of the Prophet was his father-in-law and good friend Abu Bakr. Shias hold that the first true successor was Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet. Shias believe that before he died, the Prophet designated Ali his successor in his final sermon. Ali chose to pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr for the sake of unity. Eventually Ali assumed the office of caliph in 656 C.E, and was known as a just and wise man. But he was surrounded by men who did not share such traits. One was the powerful governor of Syria, Muawiyah (hereafter nicknamed “Mu” so you don’t have to keep repeating this name in your head).

Steve Slocum offers a summary of what happened on page 71 of his book Why Do the Hate Us? Making Peace with the Muslim World:

“Having grown up under the tutelage of the Prophet, Ali did his best to smooth things over with minimal violence and liberal forgiveness. But he was unable to avoid a multi-faction civil war. Ali’s brief tenure played out like a Greek tragedy. One of his own allies ultimately murdered him, angry that he had accepted truce terms rather than finishing off the rebel forces.”

Ali’s eldest son and successor Hasan made a peace-treaty with Mu. Mu was declared caliph, and in turn, Mu promised not to name a successor and allow a vote for the next caliph. Hasan was poisoned and died and his brother Hussain took his place as the Imam of the Shia. Mu soon died as well, but before doing so, he declared his son Yazid caliph. On his death bed he advised Yazid not to harm Hussain even if he did not give him allegiance. Yazid not only assumed leadership by breaking a treaty, but he was known to regularly ignore the tenets of Islam. Yazid governed as a tyrant and dealt harshly with potential rivals. Being assured of support and safety in modern day Iraq, Hussain gathered his household and seventy-two companions to leave Madina.

Tragedy struck when this small band was ambushed, at a place now known as Karbala, by thousands of Yazid’s forces. Despite overwhelming odds, Hussain refused to surrender. He had complete faith that even if he suffered martyrdom, in the end, the “wrongdoers will not succeed” (Surah 6:21). Submitting to Yazid would legitimize the rule of a tyrant, and demonstrate that fearing the wickedness of man triumphed over keeping faith in God.

Hussain gathered his companions and encouraged them to leave Karbala, but they refused to abandon their beloved leader. On the Day of Ashura in 680 C.E., Hussain and his men fought bravely but it was a massacre. Most of Husain’s group was killed, including his six month old son Ali. Their bodies were mutilated and Husain’s was beheaded in what can only be described as a tragedy.

Husain’s martyrdom has inspired Shia for centuries, and they are not alone. Gandhi once said “My admiration for the noble sacrifice of Imam Hussain as a martyr abounds, because he accepted death and the torture of thrust for himself, for his sons, and for his whole family, but did not submit to unjust authorities. I learnt from Hussain how to achieve victory while being oppressed.” The famed 18th century British historian Edward Gibbon, known for his disdain of religion, wrote “In a distant age and climate the tragic scene of the death of Hussain will awaken the sympathy of the coldest reader.”

Karbala houses the tomb of Hussain; for Shia it is a sacred city like Mecca. This Saturday (Oct 19) is Arbaeen, Arabic for forty, the traditional period of mourning. Arbaeen is forty days after Ashura, the day Hussain died. As many as 20 million people will make a pilgrimage to Karbala this Saturday, making it the largest annual gathering in the world (Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca Muslims make once in their life, had 2 million in recent years).

Many of the pilgrims will begin in Najaf about 46 miles away from Karbala. Others will start 435 miles away in Basra. Over a twenty-day period, some will walk for almost two weeks. The fact they can make the pilgrimage is precious to Shia, because for thirty years when Saddam Hussein was in power, it was banned. Even in the face of attacks from ISIS, millions have made the journey to Karbala in recent years. Shia will be joined by many others (Yazidis, Christians, and some Sunnis) seeking to pay respect to Hussain. Thousands of local Iraqis will set up tents to provide food, drink, accommodations, and medical assistance to the pilgrims, who usually carry nothing except their clothes and shoes. Everything is provided for free. By blessing those honoring Hussain locals believe they too will receive a blessing.

This joruney is rightly called the Walk of Peace or Love. It brings millions of people from every gender, race, and nationality together, serving, loving, and yes, grieving together in the name of justice and Hussain, who embodied it.  As a religious person myself, I think this is what heaven must be like; My hope for our Shia siblings is that they know they are loved. I encourage everyone to join me in remembering, reflecting, and thanking God (if one is religious) for the example of Hussain and the Shia who keep his memory alive.

Sunnis regard Karbala as a tragedy and respect Hussain, but they do not mourn like the Shia for which it forms a central part of their faith. Non-Muslims should still avoid the “Sunni vs. Shia” trope. This became cliché in America by viewing 1,400 years of Islamic history through the conflict in Iraq, or framing the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia in religious identity, instead of competing authoritarian governments.

This is a very basic summary of the background around this incredible pilgrimage. We hope you take the opportunity to visit a Shia community near you and see firsthand the passion surrounding this powerful day. And make some new friends while you are there!!

Kenly Stewart is in the final year of study at Wake Forest University School of Divinity where he will graduate in May with his Master of Divinity degree. He has come to see Muslim-Christian relations and countering Islamophobia as his unique ministry. Divinity school has allowed him to take courses in Islamic history/theology, Muslim-Christian relations, and Islamophobia. Kenly spent five weeks as the only Christian in an intensive Islamic studies program near Washington D.C., and has travelled to Egypt. He is an Episcopalian and is a North Carolina native.