Thursday, March 30 at 7 p.m., the City Club of Corvallis will host a night with Soraya Deen at the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library. Deen, the founder of the Muslim Women Speaker’s Movement and co-founder of Peacemoms, has made it her life’s work to promote interfaith dialogue through storytelling and community action.
“My understanding is that behind every judgment is an unmet need. There are people who are afraid and they have questions. I’m really open to answering them and hearing them,” said Deen.
The Conversation That Started It All
A spiritual activist, lawyer, and certified Non-Violent Parent Educator, Deen has been helping people have difficult conversations for about 10 years. It all began on the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11attacks, when her son asked a very painful question.
“Mommy, are we terrorists?”
He was seven at the time, and already Deen’s son was feared and bullied simply because he was Muslim. It was this moment that prompted Deen to social activism. She realized there was a lot of fear, that people did not understand or truly know the Muslims in their community.
“There’s not one Muslim and there’s not one Islam. I really wanted to address the fear because poll after poll really reveals that about 60% of Americans don’t know a Muslim,” said Deen.
The goal of the Muslim Women Speaker’s Movement is to show the diversity of the American Muslim. Deen points out that this population is the most religiously and ethnically diverse community in the United States today. Through storytelling, Deen not only highlights the uniqueness that exists among Muslims, but also what similarities connect individuals on a basic human level.
“Personally, for me, when I told the story of my son, I always felt a sense of deep love and concern from everybody. Then I thought how nice it would be if we could all tell our stories. I think stories really bring us together,” said Deen.
This simple idea has grown into a powerful movement. Last October, Deen organized the first Interfaith Women’s Leadership Conference in Los Angeles. In addition, Deen has also made it a priority to educate our youngest citizens.
The Children Are Our Future
When Deen first came to the United States, she found a welcoming community in Michigan. It was there that Deen met Nadyne Parr, a Christian woman who would become a lifelong friend. Eventually, Deen and Parr would each have a daughter of their own.
“They just get along so beautifully,” Deen said.
Through Peacemoms, Deen and Parr share non-violent communication methods with parents and teach them how to have conversations in their own homes. The goal of Peacemoms is to make interfaith dialogue a family norm. If done right, Deen believes this will lead to less brokenness in communities. Citing Frederick Douglass, Deen sees truth in the idea that it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.
“[We can] empower mothers to really have conversations at the dinner table—to be compassionate to all communities,” said Deen. This idea prompted Deen to write a book,PEACE MATTERS: Raising Peace Conscious Children.
How to Stay Hopeful
Deen knows this work is more important than ever. The xenophobia demonstrated by our own president is not making life any easier for Muslims. People are truly afraid and the narrative spun by the administration and certain media outlets is perpetuating this feeling.
“There’s a lot of violence directed towards Muslims—burning of mosques—and there is a prevailing sense of fear. I see, from within my community, we are also very reactive,” Deen said.
She wants everyone to know that the Muslim community is just as concerned about the safety and security of America. To hold all Muslims accountable for acts of terror committed by an isolated few is unfair and doesn’t tell the whole story.
“I always say, talk to us, not about us. We’re not being invited and engaged in the conversation. This blanket indictment that we don’t care and that we’re responsible is challenging and we want people to know how much we’re doing on the sidelines and in the community,” Deen said.
She remains hopeful by focusing on one person at a time. If Deen can change one heart and bring understanding and dialogue to people who are truly afraid, she has made a difference. To stay vigilant, Deen practices self-care like meditation; this helps her remember the thoughts and feelings that truly drive us.
That’s not to say she doesn’t get angry. She just reminds herself of the Buddha’s teachings, like the idea that holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.
“I’m an Eastern girl; a lot of Eastern values and traditions. I bring that to my country now and I want to share those possibilities,” said Deen.
What she is really saying is that no one is truly separate from what’s happening in the United States. What happens to one of us affects us all. If you don’t get a chance to hear Deen speak, do the next best thing: go to a mosque, start a conversation with someone who’s different from you, share your story and encourage others to share theirs.
~By Anika Lautenbach