Building Interfaith Bridges in France
What are your current studies or work?
I work for a company that produces a raw material which we sell in various industries worldwide. I am in charge of a large geographical area that goes from North Africa up to South East Asia. This position has given me the ability to interact with so many different cultures and religions. It has opened my eyes and mind on the diversity of a rich area. My interfaith dialogue background has been so beneficial on running my daily business: such as managing multicultural sales team, negotiating contracts, etc.
How do you define your faith background?
I come from a religious family. My both parents are very practicing Muslims and we grew up in a religious environment. Being both religious and educated, my parents were extremely open-minded. They encouraged us to have non-Muslim friends and have never been suspicious on our social life. We were free to define ourselves and free to choose our practices. It really was a “teach by example” way of raising us. Most of my schools friends were non-Muslims and I have learned a lot from them, their faiths or their doubts about religion. I grew up always questioning my certitudes and was tolerant towards other’s opinions. I started practicing at a young age with ups and down. I went through different understandings of Islam. Some were more rigorous, but ultimately with the “wisdom” age brings along, I put more spirituality on my daily practices and I found today a better balance and more serenity in my life.
What critical issues are you currently working on?
There is 2 levels of work I think are critical right now. The first level is within our religious community. Because of the situation in France, most Muslims spend their time and work on fighting islamophobia, building a safe space where next generations will be able to practice their religion freely [mosques, Islamic schools…] These causes are highly important but I feel we are missing the most critical. We might one day earn these rights, and build a safe environment for our community but did we teach our kids to be useful to this society, to be an added value to our nation, to fight for the causes that concern all of us and not just Muslims. You cannot raise your kids to be good Muslims (whatever freedom you’ve gained for them) if you do not raise them to be good Humans in the first place. So I want Muslims to realize that they are humans before being Muslims and that some challenges we all face as humanity are worth to fight for. Human right abuses, violent capitalism, environmental catastrophes must be tackled with a collective response, not by staying within our religious community trying to build the most futuristic mosque.
So we must get out and builds some bridges to reach out to the rest of our civil society. The best thing to do that is to focus on what we have in common: our Humanity. Once we are ready to understand that whatever our differences, we are human in the first place, only then we will be able to work on a collective response that puts our humanity first.
This brings me to the second level which lies within our civil community. We, as a nation, have the obligation to bring a local and a global solution to the destruction of our modern civilization. Global poverty, continuous wars and human rights abuses, democratic systems that are not the voices of the citizens any more but of the most powerful, economic models that make rich richer and poor poorer, usage of our natural resources that is leading our environment to a global breakdown… We must think of a new model, build a new civilization that will not set geographical barriers but will be open to all based on a shared vision and common values. I believe on the power of local initiatives that could bring global alternatives. This drives me right now. Unfortunately I am not doing my share as I wish, but the more I grow up the more I feel and believe that a more radical change is needed within my own life. I do not despair that one day I will help create a local initiative that could influence others and that all together we could initiate a global change. Insha’Allah.
How does your faith influence the community work that you do?
I will use 3 saying to define how my faith influences my community work:
The first one is a saying of the prophet (pbuh): “None of you has faith until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself”. The brotherhood stated here is not limited to the faith community but to the all humanity as explained by many scholars. I think this form of empathy and love is critical. This mindset has to drive all my actions.
The second one is a verse of the Quran. “Whoever does an atom's weight of good will see it, and whoever does an atom's weight of evil will see it” (99.7/8.) This always reminds that there is no small good deeds, so there is no excuse to not do something and it also remind that me whatever wrong I could do even a small thing I will have to be held accountable for.
The third one is a philosophy to “think positive and positive things will happen”. This is such an important mindset to have. I try to focus on the positive of every situation so that I do not let the negative control me or control my thoughts.
These are the 3 drivers of my works every day. Alhamdulillah, so far it has been a beautiful journey and hope it will continue to be.
Will you be able to participate in any Ramadan activities in your community? If so, what? How do you see the values of service and community building in your own work and your faith community?
I belong to an organization called “French Muslim Student” [ETUDIANTS MUSULMANS DE FRANCE]. We organize iftars for the students once a week. This iftars are open to all faiths and we really encourage our non-Muslims brothers and sisters to join us during these evenings. We are very close to our counterpart catholic organization called SSVP. We jointly organize an iftar with Christians and Muslims. Everyone brings something and we share the food together.
We also organize along with SSVP a “soup run” every Wednesday. A group of Christian and Muslim student prepares some food that will be offered to the homeless of Toulouse. We also offer hygienic bags where you can find the essentials (toothbrush, shampoo, cream, etc). This “material support” helps create a bond with the people we reach out to and we create true friendship. I hope one day this interfaith work will help us create a better community for this people to find their place in.
Thanks to God the value of service and community building really resonates in our new generation. As millennials we grow up all together, we created true friendship beyond our faith community and we have more and more initiatives coming out of the ground which gather multifaith groups together. I hope one day this initiatives will be political and economic as this are the best tool (unfortunately) of our modern world to bring a real change. The potential is amazing and I have a huge trust on this generation. I just hope adults will not have destroyed our chances by then. We are the change we want to see in this world and it’s time we take our role seriously.
Youssef Ben's reflection comes to the Parliament of the World's Religions as part of the 2017 Interfaith Ramadan series, empowering interfaith allies, Muslim and those of other spiritual and religious backgrounds from around the world, to share their stories of service, community and gratitude during the month of Ramadan. Please contact the Parliament at info@ParliamentOfReligions.org, or tag us at #RamadanPoWR to share your own story.