In response to the Quebec City mosque attack on Jan. 29, Conversations with Muslims was an open discussion between Muslim volunteer speakers and primarily non-Muslim participants. By organizing the event, international Community Action Network Executive Director at the McGill School of Social Work Amal Elsana and Egyptian Canadian Coalition for Democracy Chairman Ehab Lotayef sought to show that Islam isn’t inherently violent. During her opening speech, Elsana conveyed the need to organize this event following the shooting.
“It was the day after the tragedy in Quebec City where I felt we have to do something,” Elsana said. “As a Muslim woman coming from a conflict zone in the Middle East, I believe deeply that ignorance breeds fear, fear breeds hate, and hate leads to violence. If we don’t meet, if we don’t know each other on a personal level, then we will miss the point.”
The audience split into small groups, each with one Muslim volunteer and two moderators. Once everyone had introduced themselves, participants took turns directing questions towards the Muslim volunteer. Volunteers expressed their desire to answer questions in order to break down myths about Islam and to make the Muslim community more relatable.
“What I hope people take from this is that it is important to push the hatred to the side and accept our differences,” said Adham El-Khouly, U2 Engineering and volunteer speaker at the event. “To become more compassionate and accepting of others, and to try to relate to other people as much as we can.”
Most of the speakers present were McGill students who wanted to describe their personal understanding of Islam. Elsana did not look for experts on Islam when creating the event. The volunteers answered broad questions about Islam to the best of their abilities, and designed the discussion to be a window into the life of a Muslim student.
“I came here because I felt that I had a duty to come here, that I had a responsibility,” said El-Khouly. “There are people out there [who] are misrepresenting my religion and there are horrible acts that are being done in my religion and I think I have a responsibility to be here and present the other side.”
Moderators, who mainly consisted of McGill faculty and alumni, ensured that the discussion remained both inclusive and constructive. Associate Professor in the School of Social Work and moderator Lucyna Lach believes that open dialogue is key to fostering cross-cultural acceptance and understanding.
“I am concerned about students,” Lach said. “We should be teaching students to seek out alternate perspectives and understandings. To be able to take a stand, to choose a position and defend it.”
Both Lach and Elsana hope that if people are allowed to ask questions in a non-judgmental setting, this will deepen their understanding of other cultures.
“When disparate groups come together with different beliefs, a greater understanding can be reached,” Lach said. “Ideally, we could eliminate these binary positions that we sometimes operate from, that are not that helpful. I hope that anyone in attendance here was able to deepen their understanding.”
Elsana believes that open discussion and communication is the first step to building trust and understanding between individuals of different backgrounds. After a turnout of over 80 people at Tuesday’s event, Elsana hopes to organize more discussions in the future.
“I believe that the nature of a person is full of love and I want people to experience that,” Elsana said. “I saw it in the room today. I saw all of these people of different backgrounds coming together, talking and asking questions, and I felt the room was full of love.”