Alarmed by the sense of mistrust of Muslims she felt after the 9/11 attacks 10 years ago, Pakistani-American Samina Sundas started American Muslim Voice.
The organization, which now has chapters across the United States, works to build bridges across religious and cultural divides, in meeting rooms and at dinner tables.
Breaking bread together
Sundas’ Palo Alto, California, home is frequently filled with crowds of people from assorted backgrounds and ethnic groups. They mingle in a welcoming atmosphere Sundas learned from her parents in Lahore, Pakistan.
“They did not treat a rich person or a poor person differently. If somebody walked in our house, regardless of who they were, they were considered guests and they were respected equally,” Sundas says. “That’s where I learned my social justice. My parents did not preach a lot of Islam, but they practiced a lot of Islam every day. So all that made me who I am today.”
College-educated in Pakistan, the young Muslim woman came to the United States in 1979 to join her husband, who was studying in California. After they divorced, Sundas supported herself by running a daycare center. However, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, demand for her services dried up.
Sundas felt parents were responding to anti-Muslim sentiment in the country. “There are always two ways you can look at it. You can get mad or you could just look at the problem and find another solution.”
That’s what Sundas chose to do.
“I looked at the problem, I understood the magnitude of that and then I decided that, ‘OK, my fellow Americans really don’t know us. So the best way to deal with this problem is to just really focus on providing first-hand contact of Muslims to my fellow Americans.’ And that’s when I founded American Muslim Voice.”
Her organization’s goal is to build bridges across religious and cultural divides. It hasn’t been easy.
“The Muslim community is afraid. They want to hide and American Muslim Voice is telling them to come out. Do just the opposite,” she says. “And while they’re afraid of just losing their identity, we’re telling them just mix up with your fellow Americans and fellow Americans are very afraid of Muslims.”
Sundas looks for opportunities to ease those fears. She works closely with other groups which advocate peace, justice, interfaith cooperation and nonviolence. She attends numerous meetings and has traveled to Washington to speak with members of Congress.
She often hosts large dinner parties at her home, believing that people who break bread together cannot be enemies. Those gatherings also provide a chance for inter-religious dialogue and education.
Neil Penn, one of Sundas’ Jewish friends, says she’s always looking for similarities between people, rather than differences.
“She communicates, in very concrete and tangible terms, a sense of valuing other people and creating an atmosphere of inclusion,” Penn says. “By the way she treats others, her attitude and the projects she works on takes from the depths of her faith tradition that peace and reconciliation and human dignity are not just abstractions but something that she is trying to make real in day-to-day life.”
For Sundas, her work is about moving communities from fear to friendship.
“I think the beauty of American Muslim Voice’s work is that we have brought people together that otherwise would not have come together. Our organization is the only one that says, ‘Don’t remain separated. Don’t just remain me, mine and I. It is us. It is we. It is ours.’ So that is something that we have done.”
Sundas knows she’s set a difficult task for herself. But after eight years, she is beginning to see some progress.
Members of her mainstream mosque have become more willing to support her work, putting aside the traditional resistance to female leadership. People now turn to her if they need a voice for understanding and reconciliation, and she is happy to provide one.
Sundas’ latest campaign – as she told her guests at a recent Iftar meal – calls on all Americans to open their doors on the first Sunday of each October, starting this year on October 2, to share a meal with a neighbor or someone they want to know better.
“All the horrible things that are happening in this world today, they’re happening because people don’t know each other. That is the only reason,” Sundas says. “Once you break bread together, once you will have my meatballs and eggplant and all that, you would never hate me. I can guarantee you that. That is very, very simple. Open your doors, open your minds, open your hearts, open your souls. Let each other in.”