Organizational Meeting

Betsy Wiggins sent this letter reporting on the first organizational meeting of 20 women and anticipating the upcoming meeting to which 80 women had been invited.

Dear Friends,

It’s been a crazy time for me (I imagine for you) since we met October 7. Thanks to all of your expressions of encouragement, support and enthusiasm, we have an extremely interesting opportunity to come together with women of all faith communities of Syracuse in response to the world-shaking events since September 11. I feel as though my head is one of those little glass globes of a winter scene you shake to make snowflakes swirl around. It seems with each passing day since September 11, my mind has been shaken by either a news report about some new or suspected act of terrorism, or collateral damage of innocent people by not very smart bombs, or the successive unveilings of how US policy in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Israel and Palestine have culminated in the religious, political and economic turmoil we are all now living with. When I turn on a radio or TV, read email and newspapers, or talk to a friend, my thoughts and emotions are sent swirling around and around looking for reason.

This has been running through my brain since our first meeting October 7 and as I anticipate our next meeting this weekend.

First, it was terrifically affirming to hear every single one of us state that the idea of getting together and learning more about each other was a welcome idea, as well as how sincere and candid we tried to be with each other. We shared the reality of living in the US in this extraordinary time since 9/11/01.

This was a group of women from the US, Jordan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Algeria and Egypt who want a deeper understanding of religious diversity locally and worldwide and represented the faith communities of Sunni Muslim, Shiite Muslim, Judaism, Zen Buddhism, and various Christian faiths. Catholic, Nation of Islam, Mormon, Orthodox Christian, Bahá’í, Sikh, Jain, Native American, and other faith communities of Central New York were not represented. We are actively pursuing ways to include other faith communities through women who attended this first meeting.

Apart from the common concern of learning more about our diverse faith community, women participating in this first meeting discussed how Muslims of different sects of Islam follow the Qur΄an and apply its instruction to practicing acts of daily living. We discussed women’s issues concerning financial independence and responsibility, owning property, the right to vote, access to education, professional development, as well as care and education of children. These women are thoughtful, full of care, connected and respected in diverse areas of our community such as education/ESL (English as a second language), religious studies/clergy, literacy, health care, religion, counseling, arts, journalism/law, community politics, and writers.

As I listened, I became aware of a dynamic at work that I had not previously considered. The women from the mosque were all well-acquainted, eager to share their personal stories and feelings about events related to 9/11, their families and faith—specifically the Sunni faith tradition of Islam. The non–Sunni Muslim women, one of whom was Isma΄ili Muslim, were not all previously acquainted with each other, though all were known to me and were present because they felt it important to learn more about Islam and other faith communities in Syracuse. The exception was a scholar of history who was Isma΄ili with as different a viewpoint on Islam compared to the Sunni women as Catholics are to Baptists. Non-Muslim women listened to the discussion and realized that the religion of Islam is as diverse as Christianity. Much of the discussion involved Sunni Muslim women explaining the way they interpret the teachings of Islam directing their lives in a personal sense, and how other Muslim communities nationally and worldwide choose to practice the religion of Islam. As a group we decided it was important to focus on two issues:

•   Community education regarding the many sects of Islam and how women (and men) in this community adhere to practices for daily living that differ between sects.

•   Identifying common concerns of all of these women regarding issues of harassment—in schools, at work, regarding travel, financial issues related to renting or buying real estate or cars, discrimination (purchasing/rental of housing, cars, employment, student/work visas), social services such as unimpeded efforts to donate to the needy (international contributions of goods).

We are all listening, watching and reading local, state, US and international news on the radio, newspapers, TV and the Internet and trying to get a fuller sense of this story of US actions and their result in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, India and Malaysia. It is a disturbing, disillusioning and relentless education of opportunism and blind neglect in this country as events unfold. Because we represent a multi-faith group of intelligent women engaged in our community we have an opportunity to critically listen, learn, understand common concerns and act in ways we feel will address immediate and anticipated needs.

I have learned there has been very little awareness of Islam in traditional American society. The American experience is one of complete freedom of conscience and practice, and constitutionally guaranteed in the first article of the Bill of Rights. We are belatedly in the process of learning about the great tradition of Islam as yet another form of expressing freedom of religion in this country. Concurrently, Muslims are in the process of learning how to be one religious tradition among many, and this is a mutual educational necessity. Respecting all and privileging none is now being denied of Muslims, regardless of how different they may be from each other, just as the US has long had to deal with the enormous variety of Christians and the significant differences among Jews.

I think we should attempt to continue to critically evaluate enormously complicated political, social, economic and religious issues that confront us in a world of new fears that challenge us to look beyond our personal experience to the immediate and long-term future needs of both our local and world community.

Please let me know if you plan to participate in the meeting for this Sunday, October 21, at 2:00. It will be here at 305 Carlton Drive. This message is being forwarded to some new participants who I encourage to call or respond by email. We want to continue the dialogue, identify common concerns and develop community projects. If you are unable to come, please let me know.

                                                                  Again, thank you.

                                                                      Betsy Wiggins