Maham Khan

Maham Khan in Palatine, Illinois

“We can find peace together, or we can be left desiring.”

Maham Khan was in her first year at Harper College in Palatine, Illinois in 2001. At the time, her Muslim faith was very private to her and she didn’t speak about it publicly. As a new student, she recognized the need to gain leadership experience and decided to join the Muslim Student Association, which had been somewhat dormant for years. At the first meeting, she was elected president. It was that fall, 9/11 happened and she found herself leading “one of the most important organizations on campus.” It was that year that she began leading interfaith dialog sessions to help people enter meaningful conversations to build understanding. It is an effort she continues today.

“The whole idea was to get people comfortable with interfaith dialogue and interfaith cooperation. They wanted to understand the other, so they said, “We’d like a Muslim to come in and speak.” That comes with great pressure because then you’re the one person speaking for a multimillion faith-based group. You come in, and we had this beautiful talk. At the end there was a Q&A. A gentleman gets up and says, “You’re very charming. You’re very charismatic. You’re a lovely young lady, but what about all these Muslims in the Middle East or what about this country? Can you deny that that’s the true face of Islam?” I just looked at him, and I said, “Why can’t this charming beautiful face be the true face of Islam?”

Why must we say it’s one of the other? That’s the reality of faith and of existence. We cannot define what is right, what is true, what is real, because I’m a Muslim, but I’m a lot of other things too. They either make me a good Muslim or a bad Muslim. I’m rebellious, so that makes me a bad Muslim.

All of my life, my identity as a Muslim had been very private. I didn’t know a lot of other Muslims in high school. All my friends were pretty much white. I didn’t really talk about my faith, and I kept it very private.

I go out to people who may have never really talked to Muslims before, or people who had never really had an honest conversation about what makes them comfortable or uncomfortable about different religions. I try to put myself out there and make myself this available source of information, or at least a first point of contact.

There are people who have never really sat down and had a conversation with a Muslim about what they believe. I think that’s in part a problem of our institutions because we are taught political correctness like crazy. You don’t talk about religion in the workplace. You don’t talk about religion anywhere. You don’t ask someone what culture or identity or where they come from. In turn, it limits our ability to have honest conversations with people, or to become aware of another’s style or ritual.

We fear that which we do not know and understand. The only way to know and understand is to expose, but we aren’t allowed to expose because political correctness tells us not to. We have this sort of institutional problem, and I try to break that barrier.

I say, “To hell with political correctness.” If you’re uncomfortable being on an airplane with me, that’s fine. Let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about why. I bet we have a lot more in common than you think. I think people are terrified of having honest raw conversations about race and religion and gender issues because real honesty reveals some unpleasant things about ourselves. We may not want to confront what we discover.

When we stop resisting it, that’s when we find peace. We’re at peace with our differences. We’re at peace with the fact that we don’t have to agree with everything, but sometimes you have to make yourself uncomfortable. You have to push the boundary, you have to have this confrontation. It may not be so pretty, but we talk to one another.

We’re really lucky because we live in a country with freedom of speech, and we are a country that can express a free marketplace of ideas. But we’re also a country that sets up a 1,000 rules for, “You can’t say this on television. You can’t say that.”

I think it’s idealistic to believe that there will be a peace that takes over the world. I think there will always be conflict. It’s inevitable. But I think one person at a time focusing on relationships can create a peace between two people, which is contagious. It’s like an epidemic. I think trying to reach peace is an epidemic. Once you create a relationship that is really strong and there is peace between two people, that is surely something that can spread.”

Maham Khan full podcast

Discussion Questions

  • What is the extent of your experience with interfaith dialogue?
  • Is there a “true face” of Islam? Of Christianity? Of any religion?
  • Maham says “We fear that which we do not know.” What do you fear? Why do you fear it? Have you ever had the opposite experience, where you fear what you do know? What is the reason for that fear?
  • What do you think of Maham’s idea that peace is like an epidemic? When is an instance in which peace was contagious for you? When have you spread peace?
  • What does it take to “submit to the fact that the person across from you might be hungry too?”

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