On the Issues Episode 23: Daisy Khan
My latest guest is Daisy Khan, Executive Director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA), a New York based non-profit organization dedicated to strengthening an expression of Islam based on cultural and religious harmony, as well as building bridges between Muslims and the general public. At ASMA, Daisy Khan has created a number of groundbreaking intra- and inter-faith programs. She has led numerous interfaith events, such as the theater production, Same Difference, and the Cordoba Bread Fest Banquet. She continues to mentor American Muslims on assimilation issues, balancing faith and modernity, the challenges of living as a minority, and intergenerational questions. To strengthen the voices of women and youth within the global Muslim community, she created two cutting-edge programs of international scope: Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow (MLT) and the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE).
Khan regularly lectures in the United States and internationally. She has appeared on numerous media outlets, such as CNN, Al Jazeera, and BBC World’s Doha Debates. She often serves as an adviser and contributor to a variety of documentaries, including PBS’s Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet, National Geographic’s Inside Mecca, and the Hallmark Channel’s Listening to Islam. Khan is a weekly contributor to the Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog and is frequently quoted in print publications, such as Time Magazine, Newsweek, Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Saudi Gazette, and the Khaleej Times. Born in Kashmir, she spent twenty-five years as an interior architect for various Fortune 500 companies. In 2005, she dedicated herself to full-time community service and building movements for positive change, both in the United States and around the globe. In recognition of this important work, Khan is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Interfaith Center’s Award for Promoting Peace and Interfaith Understanding, Auburn Seminary’s Lives of Commitment Award, and the Annual Faith Leaders Award. She was also selected by Women’s eNews as one of the 21 Leaders for the 21st Century.
Alon Ben-Meir: I’m Professor Alon Ben-Meir and this is On the Issues. My guest today is Daisy Khan, Executive Director of the Women’s Islamic Initiative for Spirituality and Equality. Formerly, Daisy served as Executive Director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, where she spent the last 18 years creating groundbreaking interim and interfaith programs based on cultural and religious harmony through interfaith collaboration. You can find her full bio on the page for this episode. So thank you so much Daisy for taking the time. I’m really delighted to have this conversation with you, and I know that whoever will listen to it is going to learn something from you for sure.
Daisy Khan: Thank you Alon for inviting me. I’m really excited to be here with your audience.
ABM: So anyway, I know that you have a number of very important focuses on which you’ve been talking, writing, doing a great deal of preaching, and your voice has been heard quite well in many places. But let me begin by asking you something about this specifically, especially important to you, and that’s the role of women in conflict resolution. And I know you’ve been talking about it and trying to promote the whole notion that women’s role is critically important, and I think you and I agree that it has not been fully utilized yet in the search for a resolution to specific conflicts. What is your take? Where would you start? What would you like to advance in order to make people, listeners, those who specifically deal with conflict resolution, understand that a woman is a great asset that has not been fully utilized, and that something has to change. What is it going to take?
DK: Yeah. Well I think, Alon, sometimes we have to look back in history to move forward. And that’s what I did with my own work. I had to find sources and historical references in my own faith tradition to see what women had done before me, because as modern women living in contemporary societies, we think that the work we’re doing today to advance women is actually just uniquely to our situation. But the reality is that women from the earliest of times, from all of our faith traditions, have been very active in the communities. You know, [unclear] communities, right? So, creating progress, but really fundamentally at the core level, a woman has always been one half of society, and the other half she raises on her laps. And so the responsibility of a woman to bring up a right kind of children and give them the right sort of, what shall we say, ethic of building peace and nurturing them, is what makes us natural peacemakers. It’s because we know how to reduce conflict in the home, because whenever conflicts will rise, a mother is usually a good person who is trying to calm things down between warring factions within the family. So I think that we just inherently are trained and have this ability to reach across, and trying to build peace within the home. Why women have not really been taken seriously to play this role actively in politics and in conflict resolutions, I think that has to do with pretty much why there’s a glass ceiling for women in other areas as well, because maybe traditionally people thought that women should not venture out. You know, her role should just be in a home, it should not be on the outside. I think that’s changing, because more and more people like yourself and many men in our community have recognized the role that we play and are actively supporting people like us now. And the moment people see us emulating something and we are recognized for that role, I think more people will recognize that women need to be given a seat at the table.
ABM: But the question today though, and I agree with you 100 percent – we look at various conflicts today raging in the Middle East and other places, and we see a very limited role that women are playing in the search for solutions. Men by and large have taken charge and continue to take charge of these issues. And you don’t hear voices coming from Syrian women, we don’t hear voices coming from Iraqi women or Yemenite women, or even women from Western countries crying out for solutions, crying out for getting that, the sensitivities, the need that women can project. And men have really been unable to do just that. And like you just said, whereas the women were dedicating themselves by and large to their home, to resolving issues within the home, raising the kids, providing them with the kind of culture and belief system, that was essential to raising a healthier and better community. But it has not been taken beyond that.
ABM: And what we want to do now, what I am preaching certainly, is that time has come to move beyond the women’s role at home. We have to take it further because it’s a significant asset. And in the search for a solution to the conflict, women need to play a role. You remember very well the role of women in finding a resolution to the Northern Ireland conflict, when finally they said enough is enough.
DK: Right. Right.
ABM: So what would you do? What are the things that you would like to promote, in order to awaken men and women alike that the time has come for us to do more? Because look at these intractable conflicts consuming us just about everywhere, and women are still silent.
DK: Well I think that there are a couple of things going on. First, men have been largely responsible for creating peace treaties, because they are the ones that are sitting at these tables where peace treaties are being made and governments are negotiating terms of peace agreements. And there’s a lot of power behind that, because there is an entire institution of a country behind that. But women have always played a role in reducing conflict to begin with. So in other words, women have been doing it, but it’s at the grassroots level, and it’s almost unseen. And they are attenuating, making sure that conflict doesn’t arise, and they’re trying to calm the waters. This work has been going on. I can cite so many women that are doing this work in Muslim countries all over the world. I mean, you talk about Yemen, you know we had Tawakkol [Karman], who was a Nobel laureate. We had this young girl in Egypt, Asmaa Mahfouz, who was the first one who called for the revolution in Egypt. She barely got any notice, and the Google guy got all the notice, right? In Afghanistan, I know women who are putting themselves on the front lines to make sure that their children are getting the education, and they are taking survivors of rape and war and giving them a chance at life. This work is going on all over the world, but it’s not taken seriously because it’s very much at the grassroots and it’s not at the bilateral decision.
ABM: Exactly, it’s on a micro level.
DK: Yeah. So people think that the government-to-government is more important. But really what’s important is the societal piece is equally important. So it has to be taken just as seriously as the other one.
ABM: Exactly. But the question is why is it not taken so seriously. That is, women are, like you just suggested, many women in various countries are active, very much active in these areas, in the search for a better community, more harmony, more peaceful, and they’re doing this legwork behind. But in the final analysis, by and large men are sitting at the negotiating table.
ABM: Ninety eight percent of the time. Occasionally you see women sitting at the negotiating table. And so the input of women are not being felt at these negotiating tables, albeit the men may be consulting their wives or girlfriends behind the scenes, but nevertheless it is the men who are speaking. It is the men who are representing their country, their society, or whatever it is that they represent. And although what you just said is true, how do we take that? What I’m fighting for, and what I want to see, I want to see women charging in the street. I want to see the women saying ‘enough is enough,’ like I’ve been advocating with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And I think, ‘where are the women?’ Israelis and Palestinian women ought to be going out to the streets by the tens of thousands and say, ‘for how much longer can we keep this bloody conflict going on?’ Why can’t—
DK: There are women. There are women. The problem is, they’re not getting the kind of resources that they need to mobilize and to create the kind of army that you’re asking for. So, a very good example of this was women who took charge in Liberia. You know the war in Liberia that was going on, that raging war where children had become child soldiers and everything else. And this Christian woman, devout Christian woman had an epiphany, something came from God. She had to do something.
DK: And then she didn’t know what she was going to do, so she asked her mother, ‘I want to do this’ and her mother said, ‘well, why don’t you also ask your Muslim sisters? See if maybe you can get some ideas.’ And they paired up together and they came together as a group, and they just basically sat there and put up these peace signs that said ‘We want peace.’ They didn’t demand anything other than peace. And little by little, this little army that was literally like no more than 20 women grew to be an entire football field, and then eventually overthrew Charles – I don’t remember his last name – and brought in and voted for [Ellen Johnson] Sirleaf.
DK: They voted for a woman president. They all voted for her, and they asked the children to give back the guns, and this was the power of women coming together. But it was really their motivation and their guts that they went out. They barely had any money, and they did it with a force, but they were very strategic. They were very smart, because they were being led by a very strategic woman who made sure that they had a friend in the media, who was actually reporting on what they were doing. So every day this woman friend, who happened to have a radio show, was announcing, and this announcement was getting out there into communities, and more women were joining them. And they had a friend in the police department who was constantly telling them, ‘your enemies are coming to attack you,’ so they would disperse. So they actually were very strategic in making sure that they were protected, that they were not hurt. So that is an example. She did win the Nobel Peace Prize, she was awarded for that. But I think more stories like that, gradually people are beginning to see that women need to be at these peacebuilding tables or peacemaking tables. And I for one, in the Muslim world, I don’t know why more women aren’t being taken seriously, because we have a lot to offer. I know from my own experience.
ABM: Well of course, yes.
DK: In Afghanistan, the work we have done and the work I’m about to do is going to be a very good indicator of how women can do this in very creative ways. You see we don’t—also women do things in a very creative way.
ABM: Well, let’s take the example you just cited in Liberia, and there was a success story of women rising to the top and making a real difference. Now what were the advantages or the circumstances or the conditions that existed, that made it possible for her to do what she’s done? And if these conditions, circumstances, requirements exist elsewhere where there’s conflict – I mentioned Israeli-Palestinian, or in Syria and elsewhere. So is there something unique about the Liberian conflict where it gave rise to women to say, to do something about it? Why is it missing elsewhere? Albeit they share pretty much a similar culture.
DK: Yeah, yeah. And I think that the cultural context is really important. So you cannot have one size fits all, because it doesn’t, right? In different societies, the conditions of women are different. So in the Liberian situation, at least this is what I took away from the movie that I saw and after meeting this woman, Lima I think, that the role of the African woman is considered to, you know, it’s a matriarchal, you know.
DK: It may be a patriarchal society, but a woman commands a lot of respect and can demand certain things. You know, they’re very strong, they’re committed. I mean, they were the ones who called the child soldiers over and said, ‘Come over here, give me your gun,’ and the child soldiers were shaking in their booties. In fact, it was the U.N. that was trying to take the guns away from the children, and it was the women who actually succeeded in getting the guns. So then the U.N. realized, ‘Oh my God, the women are really good at this. How are they doing this and we’re not able to disarm people?’ So the women would just say, ‘come over here.’ You know?
ABM: This is this. But in your capacity—
ABM: And this is really what I’d like to – what it is that you can say, preach, talk about, write, that’s going to create a greater awareness. I know you’ve been doing this kind of work, but for someone like myself, I’ve been dealing with conflict resolution for more than three, almost four decades. To me, this is one of the issues that has really been bothering me for so long. And when I speak in conferences, meetings, where are the women, the women’s role, it’s so critical, where are they? And so, what would you do? What is it going to take? Let me just say, I wrote a piece a while ago and I said, just imagine if 50,000 Palestinian women, 50,000 Israeli women walk in the street. And—
DK: If they did what Liberian women did.
ABM: Yes. No guns no clubs, nothing.
DK: Just a peaceful—
ABM: Just walk. Or, for the Palestinians, walk and sit down on the roads that lead to various settlements. What would Israeli soldiers do? Women in Israel will do the same. Why is it not happening? Is there less motivation by these women, that are not less motivated than the Liberian women? What is missing? Is it the conflict doesn’t matter? Is the issue, is there too much complacency? Where is the difference, why does it matter? Why is it something like this can happen in Liberia, but it’s not happening in places where such conflicts have been raging for so many decades?
ABM: What, from your perspective, what is missing there? Why aren’t we seeing such women movements in these areas to say, like I said, enough is enough, we’re not going to take it anymore. We don’t want to see our children die for no reason.
DK: Yeah. Yeah. I think that some of it may have to do with what they think they will lose. In other words, they might lose more than they can gain. I think it’s a question of—
ABM: Meaning what?
DK: Well, so, if they have nothing to begin with, will they lose? Will there be an attack on them, on their families? The fear of the repercussions might be looming so large in their minds that they don’t feel that they can do anything, that they really can’t make a change. So the only way you can do it is if you create solidarity to such an extent that they really, genuinely believe – and that is why the organizing element has to come into this, because numbers do matter.
ABM: Well of course.
DK: In the case of Liberia, when they were like 18 women or so, this Charles, his army walked by and they started laughing at the women. They said, this is supposed to be a threat? These 18 women or whatever, they are sitting out there. And then when the numbers grew, they were like, ‘oh my God, what’s going on over here?’ And they were able to take them seriously, and I think that— But somebody was funding that organizing. There was money coming, and T-shirts were being bought. Somebody was saying, ‘we’re behind you. Go ahead.’ So people, although they might be leaders that genuinely know and care – and I have met Palestinian and Israeli women, they have actually come right into this room, I have sat down with them, and their perennial complaint is that they want to do something, but they can’t because there’s a lack of resources and there’s no way for them to mobilize two groups. And these are bereaved mothers, you know, on both sides, bereaved. mothers.
ABM: And the Liberian women have greater resources than the Palestinians and the Israelis?
DK: Well they might, but together they don’t have the resources. In other words, there’s no one big foundation or people who are funding this activity. You need to fund peace; the same way you fund war, you have to fund peace.
ABM: No, I understand that. But you know, look at the rel—
DK: Because once they know they’re secure, their families are secure, they will be able to go out. People are afraid for their children, they are afraid for their livelihood, they’re afraid for their families and the repercussions.
ABM: Well, this may very well be the case. But I personally don’t believe that; I don’t think it’s a question of resources, and I’ll tell you why. Look at, however is succeeded, did not succeed, the revolution in Egypt. There was no leadership, there was no funding, tens or hundreds of thousands, millions went to the streets.
DK: You mean Tahrir Square.
ABM: Tahrir Square.
DK: No, there was funding in Tahrir square. A lot of the funding was going from—
ABM: Who funded that?
DK: U.S. foundations were funding a lot of democracy people.
ABM: Well, but really it was very, very minimal. I mean, really, considering the hundreds of thousands—
DK: It’s true that hundreds and millions did come out.
ABM: Millions actually came out and the funding, given the size of the demonstration and what happened, was truly miniscule. But there, the motivation was different. The motivation was, thirty years or forty years of subjugation is way too long, we’re not going to take it any longer. So, resources is not necessarily the major factor. It helps if it’s there, but it should not in my view, in any event—and I’d love to get your input on this and maybe it does not and should not be impeding these type of efforts, that is the word of mouth. You know, we are not going to take it anymore. What it’s going to take? So, I want to begin to think in terms of, let’s not find it – and I’m not suggesting you have – find an excuse for that because there are no resources. But sitting at this desk where you are, you want to advocate that, you are a believer in that, you want to empower women.
DK: Yeah. I think women can do it. I really, genuinely—
ABM: Can do it, now, let’s find out. If you were to write a manual today, a couple of pages manual, and say, ‘This is what’s going to take to mobilize women.’ Right? If you think in those terms, and I certainly cannot second-guess you, because you know better than anyone else what it takes. What would you be advocating resources, notwithstanding necessary? What are we going to need to think in terms of creative thinking? What is going to get these women to come to the realization as the Liberians did, or Northern [Ireland] did, that we have to do something about it? Because I think current conflicts raging in so many different places, I don’t see how they’re going to come to an end unless we add this, another critically important dimension.
ABM: Women’s voice, women in power.
DK: Yeah. So I think that in my work, the success comes from first defining what the conflict is, what is the source of the conflict. So in other words, you have to do a little excavating because especially long term conflicts, over time you don’t even know what the conflict is about. Because the conflict, the face of the conflict, the name of the conflict, it changes, it becomes something completely different because you have different stakeholders who have stepped in, and you don’t even know what the original conflict was all about. So first, you have to excavate and really go deep and find out what is the source of the conflict, and who’s benefiting from it, and who’s, you know, what are you willing, what can you bring to the table, to that particular conflict? So in the case of Afghanistan, for instance, 30 years of war raging on is having a direct impact on children’s education, having a direct impact on not only education but women’s rights, because women are the first ones that suffer when you have longstanding conflicts. And then, if you look at Afghanistan in the 60s, you had a very progressive, modern society. Same people, same DNA. And then you have a complete subjugation, and you had a society that was very, very progressive and modern. So then, when we look at this conflict, we realize that actually the Taliban are so armed to the teeth, that they have received more armaments. And that the work that we did, the United States, the work that we did over time—one of the reasons why we went into Afghanistan was so we could disarm the Taliban, and actually when we left, they have more arms than they had previously because over the years so many arms have flown into that country. So you have so much armaments that there’s no way we can compete as women, with no arms, no nothing. There’s no way we can compete.
ABM: Yeah but certainly we are not talking about arming women. I mean the strength of women—
DK: No, no, so what I’m saying is that—
ABM: Is in their voice, not in the arms that they carry.
DK: Yeah, it is in their voice. But when they get out there and they put their voices out, they’ll be gunned down in two seconds. What is the point of giving your life for something that you know you’re going to get killed, your children are going to get killed?
ABM: But by whom will be they be gunned down? I mean talking about Afghanistan—
DK: By the Taliban. No, we’re talking about a conflict zone like Afghanistan, a major conflict.
ABM: Well Afghanistan, I mean the status of women there is really dismal. I mean, women there traditionally speaking, and I’m talking about—
DK: No, no, but I’m saying no, it’s not traditionally like that, that’s the misnomer. In the 60s, they were no different than other modern societies.
ABM: Well I mean under the Taliban regime they were totally treated differently.
DK: But that’s what I’m saying.
DK: So you have a group that came in there, subjugated women, took out education because they want power, and they think that the way to maintain power is to get rid of women and to keep women subjugated, because that’s how they can control society. And so you have a conflict that has gotten so muddied that you have to unravel that. So we decided that the best way for us to unravel that.
ABM: But if you leave Afghanistan for a while.
DK: No, but you asked me how do we resolve conflict.
ABM: No, I understand, but because, no on this very issue culturally speaking – and I’m certainly not demeaning Arab societies, I come from one of them. So by all means, the women do not play a significant role in most Arab societies, be that in the Gulf states, be that—the Gulf states more so, but take Saudi Arabia—even more advanced societies, even countries like Egypt, the role of women is not as significant obviously as compared to men. And that’s from a cultural perspective. That’s how it is. So again, we’re going to have to, how do we change that? Can we change that? How do you get the women more involved? Again, and not provide them by providing them necessarily the money or the guns, but what other means by which we can in fact promote the notion that you women have a power, a hidden, inherent power. It’s there, you possess it. Use it. How can we give this power out, exact it, so that the women know ‘I am powerful and I can do something with my voice’? It’s far greater, more powerful than what a man can do with a gun.
ABM: I mean I’d like you to, because you are a force in this area, and I’d like you to see, like you’d like to write, to say ‘here as a man, this is what needs to be done.’
DK: So I think in the case of Muslim women, it’s a very easy case to make with women because we are inherently taught through our scriptures that we are stewards of God on Earth—men and women equally—that we have a responsibility to play an ambassadorial role on behalf of God on this earth. So we are stewards of the environment, we’re stewards of justice, we’re stewards of all things. So Islam does not say that men are the only stewards, it actually says that both of you have been created as my ambassadors and my vice regents. So oftentimes women have forgotten that, that they play an equal role when it comes to that responsibility. Because you know, when you leave this earth and you go back, you will be told, ‘how did you discharge your responsibilities?’ And so this is where my motivation comes from. And this is where women who are faith-based women, who are really fighting the good fight, know that they’re inherently doing something where they are carrying out their responsibility that is endowed upon them. So that is very powerful, when you think that you are doing the work of the divine and that you are inspired and that you have a responsibility. So you’re not just trying to resolve a small conflict, you’re actually doing the work that you were sent to do. It’s your purpose in life. So this is where the motivation for many women is coming from, whether it’s resolving conflict or it’s to lift women, or it’s to—So, this is the power. This is where the power lies.
ABM: Let me reduce it to a practical example that I’d like you to elaborate on. Suppose you, Daisy, have been asked to speak to a group of women in a country that has significant conflict. Pick the country, be that Palestine, Israel, Syria, Iraq, and you’re addressing a group of women. I’m not challenging you; I really want you to have that input. And you’re addressing this group of women, a thousand women sitting in front of you, and you try to instill in them the notion, the idea, you are powerful. You’ve got to do something about what’s happening in front of you, in this society – the bloodshed, the killing, the destruction. What would you say to them to evoke that reaction, to make them feel ‘I have a role to play and I’m going to have to play it’? What it is that you want to impart with them?
DK: Well as I mentioned, this is where my work always goes down to that cellular level of who you are as a human being, and what is it that is your responsibility, and you have to find out what is the mandate of your life, and that every person has come with a purpose, and that you need to find what that purpose is. Because each person has a different purpose, so it can’t be the same for everyone. But women inherently are called the seat of compassion, because the womb is called compassion in Arabic. It’s got the same root word. And it, they bring life into this world. So inherently, they are good at not only bringing life, nurturing life, but also saving lives. So women are the perfect carriers of this of this work. And when I speak to women, I remind them of that responsibility that they have, to be the good steward and to do the work for the sake of the greater good – not just for themselves – because they are equally empowered by God to carry out this work. In other words, if they decide to do this work, they will be helped from all kinds of ways, aid is going to come from all kinds of ways whether, you know the moment you put your mind to it, that you are going to do this work, you will find the right kind of partners coming forward. So in our case, we decided that it’s really important for us to work with people that influence society, and that if we have to really create change within the Muslim communities, we have to really engage people who are influential in our communities, and that’s our imams. So, although we might be women and we can do the work with women, why should we do the work only within women’s groups? Why shouldn’t we reach out to the menfolk in our community and say, ‘you need to come on board with us’?
ABM: Yeah, you can do that. But when you invoke faith here, I have a concern about that. Faith is important, and if you are a believer, a true believer, you can overcome sometimes many difficulties because you believe you can. But when faith is used for the precise opposite cause – used to exploit, used to kill as ISIS has been doing, as the Taliban has been doing, as others have been doing – then faith becomes a liability rather than asset, which in this case it is mentioned here. Yes, women, everybody’s accountable at one point. But if we were just to base there the need for the involvement on faith alone, probably that’s not going to go too far. Not in our current environment. And that’s what I’m telling to you, because, say you know you are a believer, you have to believe the goodness of human beings. You know that killing is not right; you know that torture is not right. You’ve got to do something about it. This is all clear, it’s given this can be preached to the men as well. But what I would like you, if you can help me out, to identify what it is that you tell these 1,000 women they can do tomorrow to begin a process, to begin to take the first step in order to galvanize, make it [unclear], that is a conflict, we cannot continue with it. What would you will tell them?
DK: Well, first they really have to believe that they can do it, because unless they fundamentally—
ABM: Again, I want you tell me that. How do you tell them? Why shouldn’t they believe that? Their kids are dying and getting killed. Their kids are getting hurt and injured, houses are being destroyed, so that they are confronted with this horrible reality day in and day out. So they believe they need, something needs to be done.
ABM: And this is what I find, a person like you who has the voice, I would like to see what it is that you would tell these people—get up, do something. What is it that they can do? How do you motivate them to do it?
DK: Well, sometimes it depends on the context of the person, because like I said, people have to be inspired by role models. And if they know that there is somebody that they can emulate in their work, it’s just a little bit easier for them. So, sometimes I have to tell the stories of women in the past who have really been, who have moved mountains, and people didn’t know that they have this ability. And so, if a woman feels that she is repressed— And I went to a shelter once, I’ll give you a story. I went to a shelter once and I was asked to speak to this. It wasn’t a thousand women, but it was maybe 20 women in a shelter, and I was asked to say something to inspire them. And I looked at these women and I said, ‘this is not the kind of audience I speak to. What am I going to tell these people?’ I’m not accustomed to speaking to people who are so down and out and have been beaten up. So I looked around the room, and there were all these women with little babies on their laps, and I decided that I was basically going to be like a spiritual mentor to them, because I knew that that would be the right approach for these women, because they were looking for something higher than themselves, because they had been so beaten up. So I reminded them about who they were, that they were created in the divine image. And I know that this may not work for everybody who is a secular person, but it certainly works on Muslim people because Muslims inherently are still very committed to their faith. And the language of faith is something that it resonates, and it translates very well and goes deep. So I reminded them that no one can lift their hand and hit you because they’re hitting divinity in the sense that, why would you tolerate that? You know, why would you tolerate anybody hitting you, because your face is that of a divine image. And then this woman asked me, she said, ‘but I don’t know how to take care of myself and I need money for my children, I can’t be independent’, and you know, they have real issues. So I reminded them about how the prophet’s wife was a merchant herself. She was a working woman. And Islam gives all the women the right to own wealth, to accumulate wealth. And why aren’t you doing that? Why aren’t you working? So you know, she told me that her husband told her that she couldn’t work. And I said no, I said, ‘you have been given the right from God to work, to accumulate wealth.’ And I had to literally cite certain verses and explained to her that this was her right, that she could go ahead and start her own business, and do something so she can be independent of this abusive husband. And so I left. I didn’t know if I had any impact. And then in December of that year, I got these little greeting cards in the mail, and they were Christmas greeting cards and they were all made by hand. And these women had started a little cooperative where they had created these little things. And then there was a little sign that said, ‘by the way, we buy a metro card by selling things.’ So it was their path to independence. So in each case, you really have to look at the situation of what’s going on.
ABM: Well of course, I mean that’s why, take a specific example – again, it can be that any kind of conflict, the conflict in Syria, we know what it’s all about. I mean, we know the conflict between, and facing a group of Israeli women, they all have pretty much suffered the same thing. The same problem, same elements, same issues. And so there’s no question, how you address such a group of women from Palestine is going to be different than how you address a group of women coming from Scandinavia, needless to say. But my point here is that, this is precisely what’s missing. That is, women themselves in my view—I could be wrong, please correct me—have not developed perhaps the confidence that they can in fact have that power and they can project it. And we need people like yourself and many others who’ll come out and scream and shout, ‘we’ve got what it takes, let’s exhibit it, let’s get it out of it.’ I think that voice is missing.
ABM: That voice is missing.
DK: Right. I mean, look at America, right? A hundred years ago we didn’t have the right to most anything. No right to vote, no right to higher education, no right to own a bank account. And black women were enslaved, blacks were enslaved, and it was women who stepped into the fray, unafraid, and said, ‘why is a black man enslaved?’ And you know the abolitionist movement began and then slowly and gradually, that grew into the right to vote and grew into the suffragette movement, where women were saying, ‘wait a minute, we’re Christians and we were always told that we were created in the divine image. But yet the state says all men are created equal, and how come we are left out?’ So once again, they looked at the hypocrisy of what was going on in this country. And then the church had been quiet for so many years when it came to slavery. Right? Why was a black man enslaved for so many years? Was this a Christian thing? How is it that Christianity justified enslavement of black people for so many years? But it took these women who were devout Christians, who kind of delved into it very deep, and they got to the kernel of the idea. And they basically said, ‘no more.’ And they started organizing, they started making these mitts where they were talking to each other, like knitting things and saying, and this organizing grew and their husbands who wanted to do something but didn’t know how to go up against the status quo, got empowered by their own wives. They started organizing with other men. And slowly but gradually, the emancipation of slavery happened, and it happened because of women. It would have never happened in this country because no man would have dared to go against it. There were six or seven presidents that were slave owners. They never dared to do anything about it. So the problem is these women get written out of history books because nobody takes them seriously. And how many people know about the suffragette movement except the women that, women like me who study these women to get inspired by them?
ABM: But the question is, why do we take this into, and make it so that everybody understands the role of the women? I mean, this is exactly what you’re saying. How many people actually are fully aware of what you just said? How many women, and men for that matter, unless we studied as many of us did study.
DK: Right. Right.
ABM: That that particular era and what the women have done. What I’m, you know, my focus today being conflict resolution, and I feel like I started with this discussion. I want to see more and more women getting involved in the search for solutions. And that’s why I’m asking this question, is how do you address these women when you tell them, take a specific group, by generally similar culture, similar ideas, and you want to inspire them to do something about it. And this is really where I’m coming from. I’m searching for avenues.
DK: So I’ll tell you something. One of the most powerful things that works with Muslim women, when you were talking about if you’re in front of a thousand people what would you say, is that Muslim women around the world take it for granted that American women have had all these rights for all these years, because America is the vanguard of human rights and we talk about it. And so when I go in there and say, a hundred years ago in the United States women didn’t have this right, this right, this right, this right. And in seventh century Arabia, women got these rights, these rights, these rights, these rights, these rights. So we compare the two, and it’s stunning to women that somehow American women today have attained all these rights that they didn’t have. But yet Muslim women who got these rights in the seventh century, all of these rights have been stripped away from them. So then I tell them what is possible because of what women’s movements were able to do and how they have been able to advance. And so when they see that other people have succeeded, they take strength from that and then they can model their own success around that and model their own initiatives around that. So sometimes people just need to see inspiring stories of what is possible. And especially when it comes to Islam, they look at Christian models, Jewish models, because we’re the youngest faith and it’s always easier for us to look at what the Christian women do, what are Jewish women doing, and what can Muslim women do to model their struggle because the struggles are the same, only the situation is slightly different. And the era might be different but it’s the same exact struggles. So whether it’s women’s rights or whether it’s conflict in societies, I think that women have a significant role to play.
ABM: There’s no question. So, thank you so much. I really appreciate it because, let’s just switch it a little bit to the phenomenon we’re living through now—radicalization and how women are also recruited for this horrifying cause so to speak, be that ISIS and others. Where do you see, from your perspective, what attracts women to join these types of groups?
DK: Yeah. So most people think that women have just one or two factors to join, but our research shows that men and women have similar motivations for them to join, especially millennial women who are growing up in Western societies. They really have grown up with this notion that they can create a change, just like every millennial thinks they can create a change within their society. So some of it is driven by wanting to topple the tyrannies, and like, ‘let’s topple some tyrannies.’ And another factor might be there’s too much injustice around the Muslim world and no one’s doing anything about it, and I can do something about it. And that’s another motivation. The other motivation is, I am oppressed in my own society. I don’t belong here. Everybody thinks that I come from a misogynist faith, and on the other side I’m being offered comfort and sisterhood and brotherhood and that’s where I belong. And another factor is, I don’t have agency. I have overbearing parenting, and I am an individual, and I have the right to do what I want to do. And the other side is offering that you can do whatever you want if you come here. So there are all these different motivations, and they vary from culture to culture or society to society, individual to individual. And it’s very complex, but really the root of it is that people want to create a change and they think that somehow ISIS is offering them a solution, and then they join that group. And when they arrive there, they realize that they’ve made the biggest error of their life. But it’s too late because then there’s no exit for them. So it’s a really tragic story, because these people are getting recruited with all kinds of promises and a wonderful future. But then they discover that when they get there, they’re actually trapped. So this is why we’re doing the work that we’re doing, is we wanted to really unearth this whole phenomenon of how people are being recruited at the ground level and what promises they are being made so we can show people clearly, this is what you’re being told, and this is actually false, with real evidence, with real research, where they can see it for themselves so we can prevent somebody else from joining. And those who are in jail can be rehabilitated, with real evidence.
So, we’re launching a big project called Wise Up: Knowledge Ends Extremism, because we believe that there’s a knowledge gap and there’s a lot of confusion. And with the spread of Internet and social media, it’s very easy to peddle falsehood and make it seem like it’s real, so fake news becomes real news. So people cannot decipher anymore what Islam is and what it’s not because it’s being given to you in bite sized information and it’s being propagandized in such a way that you really think it’s true. So it’s the work of people like me, and the scholars around me, that have to come together to show the truth versus the falsehood, and how this falsehood can destroy your life forever. Not only destroy your life, it destroys your siblings’ lives, it destroys your parents’ lives, it destroys your entire family. So you’re not the only one who’s getting destroyed, because the stigma is so great for a family whose child has gone, that they became isolated from society. So it’s a really, really tragic, tragic situation. But I hope that with this campaign that we’re rolling out nationally as well as internationally, that we’ll be able to at least influence.
ABM: So if you were to describe the campaign in a few sentences, what it is and what you’d like to achieve.
DK: So, we are publishing a book, a 400 page book, which has all the research in it. So one can just – and it’s written in a very easy, accessible way. Then there will be a website that people can go onto so they can find information. There will be a campaign, which we will be doing around the country where we will to have face-to-face conversations with people so people can—
ABM: So who is your target audience?
DK: We have multiple target audiences. The terrorists have all kinds of target audiences, and they message out to different people. So similarly, we’ve also designed this toolkit for multiple audiences, and we have families in mind because families are struggling. We have young people in mind because they’re wrestling with this information. We have the policymakers in mind because they’re making policy. We have religious leaders in mind because religious leaders can inspire people and clarify information. We have interfaith audiences in mind because they are our greatest advocate; they need the tools from us. And we have the general public in mind because the general public, if they perceive that Islam inherently is a religion that has certain issues or promotes violence, they need to be told—
ABM: So you talk about the public, and also talking about the public outside this country, in the Arab world.
DK: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.
ABM: That’s what you’re talking about.
DK: Yeah, well I’m talking about the American general public, but I’m also talking about the general public as in the global community, because I have been traveling and already people are telling me, ‘please, we need to translate this into our language. You know, we really desperately need this.’ So we want to translate it into Arabic, into various languages – French and other languages – where people can take this tool and use it in their own communities. I had a imam in France who told me, ‘this needs to become an application so I can make sure all my kids have it downloaded, so when a recruiter comes they know the difference.’ So this is the level that we need to get to. But we could not have done this by ourselves. We are a woman-led organization committed to peace building, but we worked with 60 other scholars and imams and experts and Muslims and non-Muslims to put this tool kit together.
ABM: Great. I wanted you to speak about this, give it a little promotion.
DK: Yeah. It’s called Wiseupreport.org, and we will be launching on October 26 in Washington D.C., and then we’ll be going around the country.
ABM: Terrific. Thank you so much.
DK: Thank you so much.