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Speaker answers hard questions about Islam

March 02, 2009

Before Sept. 11, 2001, Daisy Kahn had a successful 25-year career as a designer, and was a woman who thought about herself as a Kashmiri, an American – and someone who happened to believe in Islam.

After that fateful day, however, things changed drastically for Kahn in ways she could never have dreamed about.

Kahn, now executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA) in New York City, told the story of her evolution from corporate worker to activist as the 2009 Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Speaker on Religion and Conflict, sponsored by the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict.

In the lecture, titled "Private Faith/Public Faith: Religion and Government," Kahn addressed questions about how Americans perceive Islam and what Muslims believe about violence and the relationship of faith and government.

"After 9-11 people started thinking of me as a Muslim woman," she said. "This made me re-think what it means to be a Muslim."

A week after the crash of the planes into the Word Trade Center, Kahn's husband, an imam, was invited to appear on "60 Minutes." He was asked, Kahn said, 'Why do Muslims hate us?'"

Other questions were posed in the weeks and months following 9/11, many revolving around the perceptions that “Islam is a violent religion,” “women are considered second class,” and that “Muslim leaders are not speaking out.”

As Kahn’s husband was invited to talk to more and more groups, Kahn began to take over some of his speaking engagements, once she realized that she knew what to say.

Soon, she realized that her calling was no longer to the corporate world, but to help bridge the gap between Islam and the post-9-11 West.

Her work has evolved into two areas: an interfaith dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims, and the empowerment of Muslim women.

But one of the first questions people ask her is "Why is Islam so violent?"

Her answer is that Islam is not a violent religion, and that extremists who carry out suicide bombings and kill in other ways are doing so in the name of politics, not religion. They are murderers, not martyrs.

Kahn said many Muslims are "ready to come out and condemn these acts, and others such as beheadings, but the media is not covering their efforts. It's not sensational news. But there are a lot of people speaking out."

Many Muslims yearn for economic and political freedoms such as she enjoys in America, she said. "Around the world there are many people who feel disenfranchised. But in most countries, the separation of church and state does not exist. There is no way to bring about change. They believe that what their governments are doing is un-Islamic.

"The separation of the mosque and the state is the unfinished business of the Muslim world."

Kahn said Islamic law, called sharia, is similar to law in Democratic countries, but "no Muslim country has lived up to this and this is why we are in the pickle we are in. Sharia is resonant with Western law. There is no place for beheading or the chopping off of hands. That is not sharia."

Part of the difficulty in dealing with extremists is that there is no central leadership in Islam – no "pope" or "bishop" to call for and oversee change. But Muslim leaders from around the world are now meeting to discuss leadership and how the Koran is to be read. "It's a work in progress. You just don't see it yet," Kahn said. "They are trying to fast-forward these things globally."

Kahn has appeared on numerous media outlets, such as CNN, Al Jazeera, and BBC World’s Doha Debates, and 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."

She is a weekly contributor to the Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog and is frequently quoted in print publications such as Time Magazine, Newsweek, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the Saudi Gazette, and the Khaleej Times. 

For more about Kahn's organizations – ASMA, Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow (MLT) and Women's Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equity (WISE), go to