Fifteen young American religious scholars and 14 teaching assistants from Al Azhar University – one of the oldest and most influential Islamic institutions in the world – spent two weeks together this month at Georgetown University in an attempt to bridge the divide between the Muslim world and the United States.
They studied the foundations of American democracy and religious diversity in the U.S. and met with political figures, including Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim American elected to Congress.
“I met people that I love, and I consider them as my brother, my sister, my mother,” said Ibrahim Elbaz, 30, from Mansoura, Egypt.
Students spent eight hours in class each day and lived in dorms.
The Americans included Christians, Jews and Buddhists. At the end of the first week, they joined the Egyptians in prayer.
“After that I felt like so much had been lifted, it helped us not be afraid,” said Waltrina Middleton, 30, a recent graduate of Chicago Theological Seminary, her eyes brimming with tears.
“The imam opened the prayer in Arabic, but it didn’t matter. They say ‘Allah,’ I say ‘God’ – you know when a prayer is being lifted up.”
Margaret Cone, a Washington lawyer, conceived the World Leadership Program in 2004, hoping to combat the perception among the world’s Muslims that Christianity dictates American foreign policy.
She was unable to get funding in the Muslim world until President Barack Obama delivered a speech titled “A New Beginning” in June 2009 in Cairo.
Two weeks later, Cone landed a meeting with the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohamed bin Zayed al Nahyan, who gave her $2 million to stage conferences this year and next.
Gihan Ibrahim Shaaban, an Al Azhar professor of linguistics, said the university wanted to counter perceptions that Islam calls for terrorism.
“We have to show the real Islam,” she said.
Elhosseini Elew, a 26-year-old from Al Azhar, said he was apprehensive before the trip.
“I asked myself, ‘Are they ready for me as a Muslim? Is it normal?’ ” he said. “When I came, I was surprised.”
Haitham Abdelrehim, 24, said that although many Americans do not understand Islam, they display its tenets in their actions.
“We were amazed at this opening and understanding and acceptance of everyone because that is what Islam preaches.”