Muslims and Jews - Leaning in with Compassion
Aziza Hasan: Breaking New Ground
by Ruth Broyde Sharone
Aziza Hasan is one of the most admired Muslim women in Los Angeles. She is a graduate of a small Mennonite college in Kansas, where she studied conflict resolution and mediation. For two years she served as a member of AmericaCorps. More recently she served on the Advisory Board of President Obama’s Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in Washington D.C.
Aziza is married to a Pakistani-American, and they have two young sons, aged 3 and 6. A frequent keynote speaker, today she heads a dynamic organization named NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, based in Los Angeles. Her enthusiasm and friendliness are contagious. She seems perpetually energized, perhaps because she’s doing what she loves best: helping to build a new world in which civility, respect, and good will prevail.
When asked about the current political climate in the U.S., she says she is a realist. She has no illusions about the contemporary challenges facing Muslims and minorities in America. But she has an innate advantage that uniquely qualifies her to serve as an interfaith advocate and grassroots activist: being the child of an interfaith marriage, with a Christian mother and Muslim father.
Raised in a Christian-Muslim Home
Aziza was born and raised in Amman, Jordan. Her mother never converted to Islam, but her parents agreed to raise the children as Muslims. The eldest of four, Aziza went to a private school in Jordan where she would regularly attend both a mosque and a church.
Aziza was able to find a home in both places: “We rarely experienced religious conflict in our home because our parents focused on living values, faith in action.”
Her mother was highly involved in philanthropy, constantly making things, selling them, and using the money to fund projects across Jordan. Her dad, a civil engineer, believed in teaching people “how to fish,” giving people loans and helping them with business plans and then, she recalled with a smile, forgiving the loan. She speaks about her father with fondness and a sense of loss. He died 22 years ago of a heart attack, at age 50.
After her father’s death, Aziza’s mother moved the family to Kansas and began working double shifts at K-Mart to make ends meet. Her mother honored the promise to raise the children as Muslims back in her native country. But she soon discovered that doing so in America would not be a simple task.
One fateful day, Aziza’s younger sister, Annie, came home from high school, her face red and puffy from crying. “Annie’s teacher had said something negative about Arabs and Muslims and my sister was very upset. We had been invested into giving back to the community, but suddenly none of that seemed to matter,” Aziza recalled. “We felt isolated and helpless. My mother’s response, however, was definitely not one of helplessness.”
“We’re going to school in the morning,” her mother announced.
The next day her mother spoke with a counselor who then pulled the teacher in for a conference. The teacher was horrified to realize he had caused Annie such suffering and, as a result of the incident, not only changed the way he presented material about the Middle East but also became a mentor to Annie and her two brothers. Learning there was no father at home, the teacher did his best to provide a positive male role model for the boys, coaching basketball games and even helping them proofread essays for college and scholarship applications.
“He is really a great Christian man, grounded in his own faith,” Aziza emphasized. Last year he invited Aziza to come back to Halstead High to speak to the entire school about her bridge-building work, and to let them personally meet a Muslim.
When asked to describe her interfaith upbringing while her father was still alive, Aziza conceded that there were problems, but not because of conflicts between her parents. Conflict arose from the world outside. “I resented sometimes that my parents were from two different religions. One day I came home from school very agitated, but I wouldn’t tell my mother why. Finally, after much prodding, I confessed to my father that one of the kids at school said my mother would never go to heaven because she wasn’t Muslim.
“I prayed for her soul every day.
“But then, when I went to college in Kansas, I had Christians praying for my soul because I wasn’t a Christian! Either way we had people praying for us,” Aziza chortled, now able to enjoy the irony of having two different religious communities praying to pave the way for her and her mother to get to heaven.
Turning back to the the current situation in America, Aziza pointed to what she termed a “sense of exceptionalism and exclusionism” that the Muslim community is experiencing. The question we need to ask, she said, is about what it means to have an inclusive society.
This question extends to the Middle East as well, she continued, where Muslims desperately want to be seen as human beings. “They have wants and needs that are not being fulfilled. For example, Jordan is very much a tribal society, a phenomenon I observed while I was growing up. I couldn’t help but notice tension between people from the city and people from the farms. They are distinct in their mentality, but what they share in common is that they all believe you must protect your own people, that is, your own tribe.
“If someone is wronged, the elders have to be involved, and they have to make a visit to the home of the person who was wronged and listen to the complaints and acknowledge them. And then there has to be some form of retribution or compensation. It is essential that there be some form of restitution. That’s how society operates there.
“At the end, everyone sits together and drinks a cup of coffee. So often I find people here don’t understand the ritual aspect of restitution and making good again.” The Quran, Aziza said, emphasizes the importance of how you listen, how you respond, and how you seek restitution. “If we don’t do that, we’ll all be stuck in a righteous victim mentality.”
Aziza’s interfaith background and life in Jordan afforded her a unique perspective, which she seamlessly channels into her work as executive director of NewGround.
“We always work with an even number of professional young Jewish and Muslim men and women that we pair up. We try to push our participants to be more honest in dialogue than they’ve ever been – to intentionally get uncomfortable. They sign a commitment to meet twice a month for a total of 14 sessions (each one lasting three and a half hours) and attend two weekend retreats sharing a room with a person of the other faith. They’re only allowed to miss two sessions. We mean business!”
What she loves most about NewGround is that it convenes conversations that are not being held elsewhere. Despite the feelings of solidarity these conversations create among young Muslims and Jews, she acknowledges that there is still a lot of work to be done.
“We are constantly trying to figure out how to amplify and expand our work. Our biggest challenge is how people continue to develop deep meaningful relationships after the program is over. Currently we’re looking at and experimenting with a number of different models, trying to figure out what comes next. By 2043 we’ll be a country primarily of minorities, and a struggle for power is destined to occur.”
Aziza believes the NewGround partnership is effective primarily because they stress curiosity over assumptions, and relationships before politics.
“The facilitators set up the program, but we fully acknowledge that the success of the program depends upon the relationships among our fellows. Every single person is given a chance to explore his/her own story. After they have shared, we then urge them to challenge their assumptions head-on.”
Surprisingly, the topics they discuss do not primarily revolve around Middle East politics or Muslim/Jewish relations. The Israel/Palestinian issue is only one very small part of the conversations.
“Muslims and Jews in the U.S. have multiple interests. They are not a homogenous group, and their concerns are not all related to the Middle East. Furthermore, we often note differences within the same faith group,” Aziza remarked.
“Our program focuses on truly living out pluralism, really engaging in what it means to have different ideas. We urge the fellows to learn, to build, to challenge themselves and other people. This is an opportunity to engage with people with whom we disagree and to be able to ask the tougher questions, but mostly to learn how to communicate effectively. Our primary goal is to help them learn to lean in with compassion when there’s disagreement.”
“One thing is totally clear to me,” Aziza concluded. “If we don’t learn how to communicate with one another and how to enter each other’s hearts, nothing will change.”
Header Photo: Twitter, 72 Virgins