By Maria Saporta
After three years of working on the idea, Soumaya Khalifa launched the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta on Aug. 18, 2001.
Little did she know that 24 days later — on 9/11 — the Islamic Speakers Bureau would become more critical and relevant to healing the divisions and correcting the misconceptions that many Americans had toward Muslims.
Khalifa, who was born in Turkey and grew up on Texas, had been working at Georgia-Pacific when she launched the Islamic Speakers Bureau to help build better understanding between Americans and Muslims.
Then when 9/11 happened, Khalifa thought: “What do we do now?”
In the last 12 years, the Islamic Speakers Bureau has developed national prominence for its education programs, speakers and community engagement.
Just in the past year, Khalifa was named by the Huffington Post as one of five people across America “inspiring peace;” named as an “outstanding Georgia citizen;” and received the FBI-Atlanta “Director’s Award” for her community leadership and was honored during a national ceremony at the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C.
This past Saturday night, ISB held the 2013 Building Bridges Awards Dinner “in honor of our world community” at the Marriott at Perimeter Center.
A special prayer room had been set up for Muslims who wanted to pray before or during the dinner. And unlike most dinner events, no alcoholic beverages were served or available. Although more than half of the dinner guests were Muslim — dressed in traditional garb, the evening was extra special because of the camaraderie with Christian and Jewish guests who were in attendance.
Kenny Blank, executive director of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival and a trustee of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, was the honorary chair of the Building Bridges dinner.
Brenda Wood, WXIA’s anchor, was the evening’s emcee.
And the Gerald Durley, retired minister of Providence Missionary Baptist Church, was the first non-Muslim to receive the organization’s Lifetime Achievement award for the work he has done to build closer relations between different faiths.
Imam Plemon El Amin, who introduced Durley, said he has watched the creation and growth of Islamic Speakers Bureau.
“It’s an international organization that an international city like Atlanta really needs,” he said. “It has brought together many communities — building bridges. Interaction begets knowledge. Knowledge begets understanding. And understanding begets peace.”
Durley joined the civil rights movement more than 50 years ago, including being part of the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. He also joined the Peace Corps, shortly after it was launched, and went to Nigeria. In the last 13 years, he has led interfaith missions to the Middle East.
What Durley learned on those trips — in sharing rooms with people of multiple faiths — is that “we all snore alike.”
Durley said he’s concerned that we as a country have become “myopic in our vision and views” often resorting to stereotypes when talking about Muslims.
That’s why direct communications among people of different faiths and cultures is so important. “First, I must understand you,” Durley said. “Next, I must respect you. Third, for us to get a long, we must trust each other.”
The keynote speaker of the Building Bridges event was Dr. Jack Shaheen, an author and visiting scholar at New York University.
Shaheen had some advice for President Barack Obama, who does not have to worry about running for re-election.
Shaheen said Obama should be more direct with the American population by saying the following:
“Twenty-five percent of Americans think I’m a Muslim. I’m not. But what difference would it make if I were?”
Shaheen said that comment would open the door to a much more open conversation about different faiths, religions and cultures.
The Islamic Speakers Bureau also awarded the “Speaker of the Year” award to Noor Abbady for all the talks she’s made to groups about any and all topics related to Islam, women and the Muslim religion.
Khalifa said major plans are underway for the coming year. In addition to have the Islamic Speakers Bureau, there will be a multi-faith speakers bureau so that Jews, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and others will be available to compare and contrast while answering questions and stimulating conversation.
Also the bureau will be “rolling out” the 100 Georgia Most Influential Muslims, and it is looking for nominations.
As she was addressing the crowd of 300 people at the dinner, Khalifa said with a passionate smile: “Tonight is a magical night.”