Over the past few months, interns at The Pluralism Project have been attending and writing about events that serve as civic responses to acts and attitudes of hate and bias. Join us in reading their summaries and learning about recent events that build solidarity between Muslim, Sikh, Jewish, Hindu and Christian communities in the Boston area. This work is made possible by a grant from the Open Society Foundations’ initiative, Communities Against Hate.
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Celebrate Nowruz, A Persian New Year Celebration
March 20, 2018
Sponsors: Harvard GSAS Iranian Student Association, the Harvard College Iranian Association, and the Harvard Semitic Museum
On a blustery day in late March 2018 the Harvard community came together at the Semitic Museum to celebrate Nowruz, a New Year festival celebrated in Iran and communities of Persian descent throughout the world. The event was hosted by the Harvard GSAS Iranian Student Association, the Harvard College Iranian Association, and the Harvard Semitic Museum. A man greeted people at the door and prompted them to jump over a fake fire made of yellow and orange fabric. He explained that this and many other Nowruz rituals have Zoroastrian origins. Once inside attendees headed to the museum’s third floor where they were greeted by refreshments and a haft-seen table, a table laden with symbolic objects. At six pm, a half-hour into the event, one of the event organizers gave a brief lecture on the history of Nowruz and the symbolic significance of a few of the objects traditionally placed on the haft-seen table. After the organizer’s speech a musician played Persian music while attendees ate and mingled for the duration of the event.
Islam and Toleration Conference
March 1 & March 2, 2018
Sponsors: ShariaSource, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program
The annual Islam and Toleration conference was held on Harvard’s campus during a record-breaking rain storm in March 2018. The conference was sponsored by the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program at Harvard University and featured speakers from Harvard and other universities around the country. On the opening night of the conference, Harvard Professor Emeritus Thomas Scalon delivered the keynote address. (Khizr Khan, the keynote speaker originally slated for the conference, had dropped out last-minute.) Scalon’s remarks only briefly touched on the topic of Islam or Muslims. When questioned about his generalizations of Muslims and Muslim-majority countries, Scalon quickly admitted that he was not very familiar with the subject matter. The following day, three panels were held, each followed by extensive question and answer sessions. Despite the bad weather, approximately thirty people showed up to each panel. In keeping with the tone set by the keynote’s question and answer session, many audience participants pressed panelists on their broad generalizations and lack of contextual specificity.
Eliminate the Muslim: Science, Religion, and the Future of Brown
February 12, 2018
Sponsors: Science, Religion, and Culture at Harvard Divinity School
On a Monday evening in February Harvard Divinity School was packed with students and other community members excited to hear Science, Religion and Culture Director Professor Ahmed Ragab’s lecture “Eliminate the Muslim.” An eye-catching cartoon of the Marvel Comic book hero Dust, a mutant woman who wears niqab, was featured on the event poster. One HDS student attendee remarked that it was the most diverse crowd he had ever seen assembled in the Sperry Room, the Divinity School’s central lecture hall. Ragab began his talk by analyzing Dust’s character. As the lecture progressed, Ragab spoke more expansively about portrayals of Muslim characters and characters of color in comic books and science fiction and the real-world repercussions of these representations. Ragab invoked “brownness” as a contentious category, one that is produced by colonial encounters but that can also be used as a means of self-identification and empowerment. Based on the respondents’ remarks, the Q&A session, and the casual reception conversation that followed, Ragab’s speech was received well by the audience, although select attendees voiced concern by the looseness with which he used terms such as “brown” and “queer.”
Muslim Bans, Refugee Bans, Ending DACA: A Threat to Our Freedoms
December 5, 2017
Sponsors: CAIR Massachusetts, Muslim Justice League, Jewish Voice for Peace Boston, Harvard Islamic Society, and National Lawyers Guild- Massachusetts chapter
On a rainy December day Hauser Hall at the Harvard Law School was buzzing with excitement. The event advertised that it would educate the audience on “Threats to Our Freedoms,” including the travel ban (referred to colloquially and throughout the lecture as the Muslim ban) and the discontinuation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA). The crowd was largely white, but included several South Asians and a few Arabs and Latinos. The attendees largely represented two demographic groups: law students and young lawyers in their twenties and thirties, and middle-aged concerned citizens in their fifties and sixties. Panelists for the event included Rachel E. Rosenbloom, Professor and Co-Director, Immigrant Justice Clinic of Northeastern University School of Law; Ayesha Kazmi, Organizer for Roxbury and Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center; Saher Selod, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Simmons College, Maheen Haider, Doctoral Candidate in Sociology at Boston College; and Nazia Ashraful, Government Affairs Director of CAIR Massachusetts. The presenters attempted to humanize the issues they spoke about, educating the law school audience about the historical, sociological, and emotional aspects of the conflicts in question. The event ended with a very brief question and answer segment, with most of the questions inquiring as to how attendees could get involved.
Building Meaningful Relationships with Elected Officials
November 5, 2017
Sponsors: CAIR Massachusetts
The CAIR Massachusetts Government Affairs Director, Nazia Ashraful, led a training for a group of twenty-five Muslims on how to build relationships with and contact their local officials. The training required attendees to work in pairs to identify their elected officials, from the executive branch to state representation, all the way down to their local school board members. Many participants were shocked to learn that they had such direct representation, and that it is within their power to communicate with their elected officials. The event also provided a forum for participants to voice their general anxieties about President Trump and the current political environment.
“I’m Not a Racist, But…”: Examining the White Nationalist Efforts to Normalize Hate
October 18, 2017
Sponsors: Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School
On October 18, 2017, Harvard Kennedy School hosted a panel examining white nationalism, featuring the following speakers: Professor Khalil Muhammad, a professor of history, race and public policy at Harvard Kennedy School; R. Dereck Black, a former white nationalist activist; and Elle Reeve, the correspondent for Vice News Tonight whose coverage of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville went viral. The respondents addressed the white nationalist agenda to make America a white country and unpacked the rationalization of that agenda through FBI crime statistics and revisionist history. Black explained that white nationalism’s terrifying aims are not as far-fetched as they may initially appear. Many white Americans already spend their time in majority white settings, and enjoy doing so. The goal of white nationalists is to get people who are already comfortable being in all white spaces to intentionally adopt the position: “I love America and America is a country for white people like me.”
Interfaith Book Club
October 15, 2017
Sponsors: Islamic Center of Boston Wayland
On a warm evening in October over a hundred people attended the Islamic Center of Boston Wayland’s second interfaith book club discussion. People came from all over the area including Wayland, Framingham, Waltham, and Lexington. About twenty percent of the attendees were Muslim, and the rest were Jewish or Christian. Participants worked in small groups to answer discussion questions such as: “What is your favorite thing about your tradition?” and “What resources does your tradition have for interfaith work?” At the end of the night the small groups shared their plans for increasing interfaith understanding within their own communities. The action items were impressively detailed and ranged from individuals pledging to hold their family members and neighbors accountable for their speech, to congregations deciding to hold Islam 101 sessions, to a plan for a teen interfaith gardening club.
Professors Say: Our Students Are Here to Stay! (DACA Rally)
September 7, 2017
Sponsors: Boston area educators
Professors from the greater Boston area staged a rally to protest the dissolution of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration program by the Trump administration. The rally began in Harvard Yard. Several professors and one student spoke to the crowd, including Professor Ahmed Ragab and Professor Jonathan Walton from Harvard Divinity School. After the speeches, the professors stood in the middle of Massachusetts Ave with their arms linked together in an act of civil disobedience. The crowd followed the professors on to the avenue and cheered them on as they were arrested and removed by police.
A mere week after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA, another alt-right rally was scheduled to take place in Boston, MA. Mindful of the public perception of Charlottesville the organizing group, the Boston Free Speech Coalition, sought to distance themselves from white supremacists, going so far as to publicly disinvite several of their more fringe speakers. However, the coalition maintained its alt-right affiliation. Only 50 protestors showed up to the event, and they were met by 35,000 counter-protestors. The event was largely peaceful with only thirty or so arrests and no serious injuries, but the accompanying debates over the nature of police conduct were fierce. Boston’s Mayor Walsh applauded the counter-protestors. In response to the overwhelming numbers of counter-protestors, sixty-seven alt-right rallies that had been scheduled for the following weeks around the country were canceled.
In response to the second attack in the summer of 2017 on the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston, the Jewish social justice group IfNotNow organized a vigil. Three hundred people attended. The event and the event’s Facebook page prompted deep question of the nature of Jewish American identity and the need to stand up against all forms of injustice. The programming involved singing, in both Hebrew and English, and speeches from IfNotNow members which spoke of the dangers of anti-Semitism and white supremacy. At the end of the event, the crowd formed a line and slowly walked through the memorial together.
On July 25, 3017, approximately 250 people gathered at Temple Isaiah to learn about Islam, about being a Muslim in the USA, and what they can do to work against bigotry and discrimination. The crowded event began with a conversation between Rabbi Howard Jaffe and Sameer Naseredden, Muslim American Society Youth Program Director of the ISBCC, about Naseredden’s own experiences as an American Muslim. Rabbi Jill Pelman then lead a panel discussion with Stephanie Marzouk, an attorney and founder of the Muslim Justice League, and Nadeem Mazen, a Cambridge City Councilor and founder of Jetpac Inc., on the political, economic, and societal impacts of certain governmental policies on the American Muslim community. The event was defined by its self-awareness and humor: while highly informative and serious, the audience always felt engaged, with audible sighs when segments ended. The event ended with time for reflection with one’s neighbors.
Program on Interfaith Peacebuilding by Boston and Jerusalem Teens
July 24, 2017
On the evening of July 24, 2017, approximately 110 people of different ages and faiths gathered at Temple Emunah to hear the stories of Kids4Peace Boston and Jerusalem students. Four of these 10th graders shared personal stories about their experiences getting to know the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Kids4Peace Boston and Jerusalem students over the past four years. The students proved the success of Kids4Peace in fostering meaningful interfaith connections as they eloquently shared their captivating stories, and comfortably interacted with each other. The event was hosted by Temple Emunah and co-sponsored by Temple Isaiah of Lexington and Hancock Church. The audience experienced a combination of observance and discussion with the students of Kids4Peace, enjoyed a performance by the two-woman band Emma’s Revolution, and feasted on a dinner of pita bread, hummus, and falafel. The conversations at the event focused on how these students worked across bias and disagreement to foster a supportive, constructive, and friendly environment for making change.
MIRA’s Citizenship Workshop
July 21, 2017
Sponsor: Massachusetts Immigrant Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA)
On Friday July 21st, 2017, the Massachusetts Immigration and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA) organized a citizen workshop that offered free naturalization information and application assistance to eligible green-card holders. There were about 35 volunteers present at the workshop, some who had done this several times and others for whom this was their first time. About 40 applicants came to MIRA for support, and the process went relatively quickly, as each volunteer helped one or two people. It was clear that this was something that MIRA did frequently and without much difficulty. Everything ran very smoothly, and applicants seemed very satisfied and confident about their applications.
In late July the Boston chapter of the Women’s Initiative for Self-Empowerment (WISE) put on a self-defense workshop for approximately twenty Muslim women. They appeared to be from diverse backgrounds, but most were young professionals in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties. The event was hosted at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center (ISBCC). The workshop facilitators focused on how to escape an attacker, and taught participants about pressure points and how to twist away when being grabbed. One move that was heavily emphasized was how to pull away from a hijab grab, a common attack against women who wear hijab. The facilitators stressed that the class was an important first step in learning self-defense, but that participants would have to continue practicing on their own at home.
On Sunday, July 9th, The Humanist Hub hosted “Greg Epstein: Humanism in the Age of Trump” at its Cambridge building. It was attended by approximately 60 people, including several longtime members of the community as well as first-time attendees. Hub Executive Director Greg Epstein was the event’s speaker and he addressed the issue of how to be Humanist within the era of the Trump regime. He spoke extensively about the work that people within the Humanist community could do, and the possibilities of their outlook in creating a better world. He also touched on the importance of creating communities that are willing to work together to combat what he referred to as the “darkness of our time.” Drawing from his experience as a new parent, Epstein mused on our responsibilities as inhabitors of the world, and encouraged the audience to use their energies for good.
On July 6, 2017 from 12 pm to 1:30 pm (EST) the Anti-Defamation League held its eighteenth annual Supreme Court review in Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center. Held before a live audience and streamed to viewers across the country, the panel discussed key cases from the 2016-2017 judicial year that touched on civil rights and the separation of church and state. Laura Jones, Assistant Director of Legal Affairs at ADL, moderated the panel, which included Erwin Chemerinsky, Frederick Lawrence, and Dahlia Lithwick, all leading lawyers, academics, and journalists on Supreme Court civil rights issues. After discussing Court dynamics in the “term of eight,” the panelists moved on to discuss six Supreme Court decisions and two groups of cases making their way through the lower courts. Most attention was given to a Supreme Court decision on a church claiming religious discrimination and lower court cases grappling with the Muslim travel ban.
The community meeting for Philando Castile was organized by Black Lives Matter Cambridge, and took place at the Union United Methodist Church on Wednesday, June 20, 2017. The event was attended by about 60 people from different parts of the city and though people sat scattered in the pews, there was a strong sense of community. Speakers approached the microphone one by one to share their reasons for coming to the event as well as their fears and hopes in light of the Philando Castile verdict and the Black Lives Matter movement. Several of these speakers were emotional as they spoke and emphasized feelings of despair and sadness. While the sentiments that were shared were heavy, there was also an emphasis on community and relationships, and some commentary on “the way forward,” especially for white people who desired to challenge racism within the United States.
Standing Against Violence: Boston Vigil #JusticeforNabra
June 20, 2017
Sponsor: Women’s Initiative for Self Empowerment (WISE)
After the brutal murder of Nabra Hassanen in Virginia on June 18, 2017, communities in cities across the country gathered to mourn her tragic death and honor her life. Such a vigil was held in Boston on Tuesday, June 20, 2017, in Copley Square at the Boston Public Library. A crowd of over a hundred people gathered as members of the community expressed their sorrow, solidarity, and determination to honor Hassanen’s life by continuing to fight against injustice and to work with one another.
“Arranged” Film Screening
June 14, 2017
Sponsor: The Boston Synagogue
On Wednesday, June 14 at 7pm, nine people, largely middle-aged and senior adults, gathered at the Boston Synagogue to watch and discuss the film “Arranged.” The screening was part of the Downtown Boston Jewish Film Festival, which in spring 2017 has focused on “love and romance in Jewish films.” The film “Arranged” tells the story of the friendship between a Muslim young woman and a Jewish young woman who meet as teachers in the same school and bond through the experiences of arranged dating and marriage. After the film, a congregant led a discussion for about 20 minutes, asking attendees for their reflections on the film.
The Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center invited interfaith and civic leaders in the Boston area to come together for a night of community building and breaking fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Before the dinner, attendees had the opportunity to participate in a neighborhood cleaning, or a tour of the ISBCC. Afterwards, guests gathered in the third-floor reception hall to hear remarks from several speakers, including Suzan El-Rayess (ISBCC Director of Civic Engagement), Senior Imam Shaykh Yasir Fahmy, the Neighbors2Neighbors Team, John Robbins (Director of the Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations), and Shaun Kennedy (Executive Director of Jetpac). The event concluded with the presentation of the Public Service Award, posthumously awarded to Mayor Thomas M. Menino. He was given the award for his unwavering support to establish and construct the ISBCC amid controversies over its creation.
The Interfaith Dialogue and Iftar Celebration was hosted by the Common Street Spiritual Center, a Christian-based worship center that is open to welcoming and engaging with people of all faith traditions and spiritualities. Their fourth trialogue event, part of a series that began in fall 2016, was themed “Classical Heroines and Contemporary Women” and focused on the impact and role of historical female religious leaders within each of the Abrahamic faith traditions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Following the presentations, the audience participated in small group conversations about the information and reflections shared, and each group shared a summary of their discussion. Afterwards, Muslim participants gathered to perform evening prayers, after which all guests partook in a potluck and catered dinner.
JOIN ROAR! Training
June 11, 2017
Sponsor: Jewish Organizing Institute & Network (JOIN) for Justice
On Sunday, June 11 from 9am-5pm, JOIN (Jewish Organizing Institute & Network) for Justice held “ROAR! A Jewish Leadership Training for Resistance, Organizing and Resilience.” The organization has held similar trainings in cities across the country in response to increased interest in social activism following the 2016 presidential election. Most of the approximately 30 attendees at the Boston event were Jewish, and the group represented a wide age range and varied levels of previous social justice experience. Two facilitators used a variety of methods, including story-telling, case studies, discussion, interactive activities, and frontal presentation, to address various subjects throughout the day. Topics covered included power, engagement, campaigns, and working across lines of difference. The facilitators hoped that the training would leave attendees better equipped to organize for social change.
On July 11, 2017, members of the Lexington community gathered in the historic Battle Green to stand in solidarity with the local Jewish community and against anti-Semitism. A few weeks prior, while Lexington High School was performing Rags, a musical about Russian Jews immigrating to the US in the 1900s, swastikas had appeared in the school. Later, a letter purporting to be from the high school principal deriding the hate incidents circulated within the community. In response, the Lexington Interfaith Clergy Association organized the rally, which brought together 100 people. Town officials and leaders shared personal stories about how hate and intolerance have increased in the last few months while a local rabbinic intern lead the participants in songs such as “We Shall Overcome” and “One Day.”
Boston March Against Sharia
June 10, 2017
Sponsor: ACT for America
Roughly forty protestors and twenty-five counter protestors attended an anti-sharia rally at the Boston Common organized by ACT for America. Protestors and counter-protestors intermingled throughout the event. The protestors were decked out in patriotic and pro-Trump gear, and a few wore helmets. Several members of the alt-right militia the “Oath Keepers” circled around the protest, keeping guard. Several of the counter-protestors self-identified as part of the anti-fascist movement. Only two of the people present identified themselves as Muslim. One of them was Cambridge City Councilman Nadeem Mazen. Mazen argued with protestors throughout the entire event, pausing only for a press interview. The question of what exactly sharia is and who supports it came up frequently in conversations between protestors, counter-protestors, and passersby. Throughout the morning, Mazen and his companion frequently argued that Muslim Americans enjoy their religious liberties and have zero interest in installing sharia law in the United States.
On a Saturday morning in June, approximately 30 people gathered at Bethel A.M.E. Church in Forest Hills, Boston to attend a bystander intervention training hosted by GBIO and facilitated by Quabbin Mediation. Suzan El-Rayess of GBIO and the ISBCC opened the workshop by explaining how it emerged out of the ISBCC’s “Out of Many, One” event in December 2016, where attendees had asked to learn how to be “upstanders.” The day’s training sought to instruct people in how to transition from passive to active bystandership. The program began by emphasizing how everyone has been a target and a harm-doer, as well as an active and passive bystander. Facilitators instructed participants in what inhibits and promotes active bystandership while underscoring that active bystandership is about standing with the target, rather than targeting the harm-doer. Particular attention was given to learning how to gather allies and develop one’s moral courage.
Safe Communities Act Hearing
June 9, 2017
Sponsor: Joint Committee of Public Safety and Homeland Security
The event was put on by the Joint Committee of Public Safety and Homeland Security, and attended by individuals of various professions, community organizations and religious groups from Massachusetts. The rooms were so packed that several people listened from the hallway and sat on the floor. In order to give their testimonies, participants had to sign up in another room. Speakers who came in groups often represented an organization, such as the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, Agencia ALPHA, the Jewish Relations Community Council and the Center for Immigrant Research. While individuals and groups gave passionate testimonies as to whether the act was to be accepted or rejected, it was clear that the majority of the audience was in favor of the act. There were so many speakers and testimonies that the event wore on past its scheduled end time of 3 pm, and finally ended after 8 pm.
On the afternoon of May 7, 2017, members of Temple Shir Tikvah, members of the Islamic Center of Boston – Wayland, and other interested community members gathered together to celebrate their traditions and religions with music and food. Attendees were encouraged to bring people of all ages, —including children—in order to advance interfaith knowledge and understanding at a young age. They enjoyed performances from Cantor Beth Levin of Temple Shir Tikvah, who performed a selection of Jewish music, and visiting musicians, who performed classical South Asian Islamic music. After the concert, attendees enjoyed a potluck feast comprised of non-alcoholic and vegetarian hors d’oeuvres and desserts from the different traditions represented at the event. This social hour coincided with the sun setting over the pond adjacent to Temple Shir Tikvah— a beautiful end to a meaningful, inspiring, and captivating event.
On Saturday, May 6, 2017 over 200 concerned members of the community gathered together at MIT’s Wong auditorium to address issues of local racism and to denounce recent hate crimes. Co-sponsored by the Massachusetts chapter of the Indian American Forum for Political Education and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the event featured a panel discussion comprised of members from different walks of life, in order to foster a broad understanding of how different organizations respond to these horrible incidents. The panel included leaders such as Commissioner William Evans from the Boston Police Department and Genevieve Nadeau, Chief of the Civil Rights Division at the Office of the Attorney General of Massachusetts. Mainly geared towards South Asian community members, the panel focused on strategies for community members to learn about their rights, reach law enforcement officials when necessary, and live lives without fear. Following the panel discussion, attendees mingled together to discuss community action plans during the event reception.
Boston Chain of Peace
February 10, 2017
Sponsor: Boston Chain of Peace
Shortly after noon on February 10, 2017, a bitterly cold winter day, 150-200 residents of the Greater Boston area gathered in front of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury to form a “Chain of Peace” to show solidarity with the local Muslim community following a string of hate crimes and rising intolerance in the United States and Canada. Participants arrived in time to welcome Muslims arriving for the weekly Friday prayer before taking up positions around the perimeter of the ISBCC. During the service, participants stood silently in the cold, holding signs that said “We Have Your Back” and “You Belong.” Following Friday prayers, the imam came out to say a word of thanks to the participants before inviting everyone inside to warm up and drink hot beverages.
The Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) worked with several different Boston faith communities in order to put on the event, “Out of Many, One.” The intention of the event was to show solidarity with Muslim Bostonians. It was also an opportunity for the city to come together after the divisive 2016 presidential election in a show of unity and tolerance. The event was hosted at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center and had an enormous turnout with approximately 2,600 people in attendance. The speaker list was long and diverse, ranging from high profile politicians such as Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren to local activists and committed community members. The event was successful enough in sparking dialogue between communities that it became the basis for an ongoing GBIO initiative that aims to provide programming in order to increase tolerance and understanding between Boston’s faith communities.