I GUESS the journey to Caux in Switzerland began four years ago when, in this space - xanga - I e-met Altaf. A community of us - Altaf
, Shadi, Daniele de Lutzel
, wanderers and do-gooders with interests in Islam and South Asia - emerged. Some deep dynamics were in play. Our dialogues compelled us to meet in person, and I alone met them in Abbottabad, Lahore, Toronto, London, San Jose. Daniele had convinced Altaf to journey from Mumbai to Caux, and the experience proved to be transformative.
Altaf makes no secret that without Daniele's encouragement, he would been floating about from one low-aspirational menial middle-class job to the next within India. He is now a fully-funded UK masters degree student, a Rotary Scholar on an internship in the office of the director of a UN agency which helps Palestinian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon. The world of mediation is at his feet. In the years that I have known him, Altaf has evolved from a curious and friendly but strict Deobandi (ultra-conservative Muslim) into a curious and friendly, non-judgmental, open-minded and humble citizen of the world.
Our friendship developed over the past year and a half with his trips down to London and my trips up to Bradford, where he is studying Peace Studies at one of the best departments in the world. He introduced me to friends he made at Caux, Asiya, a Trinidadian who studied first at Lehigh Univesity in the USA and then at the LSE and is now with the UN, and to Mona, a half-Algerian, half-Gazan human rights activist from a political Gazan family and who is finishing her masters at City University. Through Asiya I've met a number of other people, including Rebecca, a British Bangladeshi SOAS masters graduate who reported for the UN in East Africa, and who I also (unexpectedly) met at Caux.
More recently in the year, I met Daniele and her husband Emmanuel in London when Emmanuel talked inspiringly at Initiatives of Change (the organisation which hosts conferences in Caux) about how he introduced microfinance to BNP Paribas, a leading French bank.
And Daniele and Altaf introduced me to Selly, a talented Senegalese woman who speaks five languages and is doing her PhD in Germany. We also met up again in Caux.
Altaf and Daniele had been encouraging me for several years to apply to Caux, and to apply for a bursary, available if I applied to a particular programme aimed at developing young European Muslim leaders into peacekeepers. Having met and engaged with Altaf's and Daniele's interesting friends, I decided to give it a shot.
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DANIELE texted me to enjoy the train journey up the moutain from Montreaux to Caux. Perhaps she had used the word 'beautiful', or 'stunning', but what I expected was 'pretty'. Having hiked in north Pakistan, Yosemite Park in California, north Cyprus and the Berkeley hills, I wouldn't have expected to alight at Caux with wet eyes. All I could think as the view became progressively more beautiful and breath-taking with the train's ascendancy was, "Oh my God! There is a God!"
Greeting me at Caux station, Daniele walked me the fifty yards to Caux's only building: the Mountain House. The Mountain House is an historic palatial building looked after by an hotel school for most of the year, except for when Initiatives of Change, a century old non-profit with Christian beginnings, takes over to host its summer conferences. It was here that post-World War II people-to-people delegations, industrial delegations and political delegations from France and Germany met and it was, apparently, because of the facilitations held at Mountain House in Caux that the two nations integrated their coal and steel industries within just five years of the war. The Caux Mountain House was, in that sense, the birthplace of the European Union.
Daniele wanted me to eat before I checked-in, and had a meeting to attend, so she sat me at a table with the main organiser of the Learning to be Peacekeepers conference and other participants. We made a round of introductions, an Ethopian Swede told me a story about how lessons were to be learnt from Abysinnia, where Christianity and Islam first met, when I glanced again at the person to my left. It's beginning to become somewhat of a habit, but with good reason. "I haven't seen you on TV, have I?" Ajmal Masroor chuckled, teased and then admitted, after I went into a description of Channel 4's Make me a Muslim, that I had.
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IT WASN'T until the close of our first session that I started having the sorts of conversations I had been hoping to have. The lecturer, unfortunately, was didactically explaining the pillars of Islam, while at the same time asking participants to think of the pillars beyond the literal and think of them in the context of peacekeeping.
I had a burning question. I was in two minds about whether to ask it. It wasn't conducive to a didactic approach, I might make enemies of the organisers (maybe lose my bursary?) and lecturer, who already wasn't best pleased because I had informed him an hour before that I had to leave the conference early. But it was a question that was relevant, and a question that I wanted other young Muslim European leaders to contemplate.
I raised my hand. The lecturer acknowledged me. "Thinking about the pillars of Islam in the context of peacekeeping," I said graspingly, "in particular the first pillar, in particular, the word you used, "conviction" in the Oneness of God, and thinking how "conviction" is synonymous with "lacking humility" and with "chauvanism", isn't the first pillar of Islam an obstacle to peacekeeping?"
The lecturer graciously said that the question was a good one, but regretted that I would have left by the time that he got around to answering it at a later point in the conference. That may have been as far as dialogue on the topic went with the lecturer, but it started many constructive conversations with other participants. First there was Emily, a handsome blond 20 year old medical student at the University of Nottingham whose curiosity in Islam, a relevant religion in Europe with its 20 million Muslims, had been sparked on a holiday in India. Then there was Vanessa who joined us, a very pretty blond 19 year old student of Philosophy and French at Bristol University who had been introduced to Caux by the same school teacher as Emily. The two were called to a meeting by Amna while I was talking with them, and so I went out to explore the Caux night.
Before I got far, Abder Rahmane, a 20 year old Algerian French student of medicine and bioengineering, Fatma, a pretty, slim, hijab-clad Tunisian French student of Economics and Emina, a public law masters degree student, also a good-looking hijab-clad Tunisian French person, asked me to sit with them. Abder Rehmane brought up the question that I asked, Fatma asked whether I was Muslim and very soon we were discussing things I wouldn't have imagined discussing with new acquaintances. I was inspired by how the three students kept open minds, admitted to inconsistencies and didn't get defensive or angry as we discussed relativism and questioned why there would be such injust particular rules within the Quran, a book of broad principles. The students had a humility that I had much to learn from.
We headed to our rooms. I had slept 3 hours in two days, yet Anjum, a 30+ graduate of Wellesley College and McGill University, American Pakistani organiser based in Virginia, intercepted me and reenergised me with her smart remarks. She too had liked my question, and was concerned with chauvanism in the Muslim community. "What is the crime that Satan was punished for?" she asked.
"Exactly. That was the moral of the story of the Garden of Eden. It wasn't Adam who had committed the great sin, it was Satan, who was arrogant and racist. And the story of the arrogance of the followers of Moses is repeated so many times in the Quran, yet we forget these lessons."
The conversation over and contacts exchanged, I thought that it was now safe to assume the night was over. Little was I to know that at 1am, a surprise roommate, a Somali London based activist from, in his own words, a poor background, entered the room and switched on the light. He was adament that we made conversation. It didn't take long before he too brought out the energy in me to dialogue, with stories of his activism and words of truth.
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THE MORNING lecture was given to by Ahtisham, a spiritual consultant to HM Prisons in the UK. He cited example after example in the Hadith how disagreement, within limits, was embraced. There were limits, however, to disagreement. According to al-Ghazali, the oneness of God, prophethood and the afterlife were not issues that could be contended. According to these definitions of limits of disagreements, Ahmadis were Muslims so long as the founder of their sect was seen as Christ returned to earth (Mehdi, or Messiah), as opposed to a prophet who followed Muhammad. He also told story after story of what amusing arguments he had used to reason with fundamentalists. That was the last lecture I was able to attend. A nice walk with Selly, Daniele and Nadia and then goodbyes, light conversation with a Dutch-Indonesian couple, parents of one of the participants as well as their beautiful mixed race daughter who was accompanying them on the way to Montreaux.
AND THEN at Geneva Airport I met Jenia, a hyper Russian, 24 years of age. Several times her warmth and her pushiness leant suspicion. Within a minute of meeting me at Geneva Airport, she wanted us to sit next to each other on the plane to Luton Airport and then on the train to St Pancras. She asked me to help her carry her heavy hand-luggage onto the plane, and even through customs (the one time I refused her), she asked to borrow money for a train ticket back to London.
But she repaid the train ticket immediately and the ticket I gave her didn't have my card details. She just didn't happen to have cash in her debit account, so she changed cash currency. And the depth and variety of our conversations, from 9pm to 1am London time, made me believe that she was who she said she was, a first class University of London and Said Business School (Oxford University) graduate who had interned with the UN in Geneva and worked with Merrill Lynch in London. She asked to borrow my book, The World is Flat, quotes of which I had cited to help her develop her CV. I should be off now for lunch with her on Bond Street. She's going to return my book.Learn more about Initiatives of Change and Caux at http://www.caux.ch/