This Beautiful Conversation Between Dr. Najeeba Syeed and Dr. Simran Jeet Singh Gives Us Hope For The Future Of Religious Scholarship
Auburn is honored to present to Dr. Najeeba Syeed the 2017 Walter Wink Scholar Activist Award. Dr. Syeed is associate professor of interreligious education at Claremont School of Theology and director of the Center for Global Peacebuilding.
In celebration of this year’s award, Auburn invited Dr. Simran Jeet Singh, the 2016 Scholar-Activist Award recipient to have a conversation with Dr. Syeed to explore the life experiences, ideas and principles that guide her academic work. The transcript below reveals the depth of commitment to a just world that both of these fine scholars have, the beauty that is the hallmark of their scholarship, as well as the powerful spiritual lens they both bring to their lives.
Simran: The centerpiece of this conversation is your work and how you do it and why you do it. So, I’ll just sort of ask you questions informally to help just sort of guide the conversations, but, please feel free to talk about anything that seems interesting to you.
Najeeba: And I’m allowed to ask you questions, too, right?
Simran: [Laughter] Feel free but, yes, expect me to deflect anything that comes my way right back at you. Start out by telling me about yourself, who you are, and how you define who you are as a person.
Najeeba: I was born in Kashmir and I migrated to the U.S. with my family when I was three years old. So, for me, the experience of being an immigrant is something inextricably linked, not just to my identity, but (also) to my notion of both always feeling kind of a connection to multiple cultures, multiple languages, heritages. And what’s interesting for me is the way it was framed by family and the way that I approached that part of my identity was always from a place of strength and sort of this sense that it gave me the capacity. It didn’t limit me from understanding others — it opened up doors to be able to hear others and their stories, and enrich the work that I ended up doing the last 20 years around peacemaking.
So that journey across the globe means that, whenever I think about an issue, whenever I am asked to engage in live conflicts where violence is happening at the moment, I have the sense that what I’m doing is connected to a global effort to look and establish structures of peace. I think that that’s sort of inherent in how I do my work. In many ways, I define myself as a South Asian Muslim American who has a deep affinity and connection to global struggles around preventing violence and establishing justice in a way that has healing as its ultimate goal.
Simran: That’s fascinating. Just knowing you, that makes perfect sense. I would love to know more about the formation of your activism. Can you tell us about a formative moment or two when you were younger that pushed you onto this path?
Najeeba: I think one of the formative aspects of my own life story, a point that I often think about when my faith became sort of emblazoned on my soul as the source for peacemaking, was when I traveled to Kashmir; I was born in Srinagar and I wasn’t able to really go back for many years. It was not a part of the world that was safe or easy to travel back and forth from, particularly when I was growing up in the ‘90s.
So, I didn’t go back until I became a U.S. citizen and at that point, I was, I think, 14 or 15, and the incredible sort of militarization that was present in the city that I grew up in. Seeing the presence of military and the reality of how people were functioning and living, at that point, I really was committed to this idea that there has to be an alternative way to deal with issues of conflict.
And it also gave me a sense of peacemaking as not just a personal endeavor. I think there’s this myth of the way to resolve conflict, or the way to deal with peace, or to establish peace as just “people getting along.” It gave me a sense of “Wow, there are structural forces at play here that (make) violence the most funded option.” Violence is the least creative option and when we began to mix and instrumentalize religion for violence, the natural, organic relationships between communities get eroded and we begin to develop identities in some of the work that we do. We call it “oppositional identities,” where you become a person or an individual who defines oneself as not the other person that you’re in opposition with.
It allowed me to see that the combination of religion and violence isn’t just a personal choice. Behind it is this commodification of hate, whether it’s an economy that is built on hating a community, or scapegoating a community, or whether it’s the whole society in which violence is valued, but also perpetuated by inequality.
From a very early stage in my life as a Muslim, I saw peacemaking as a part of my tradition and I saw myself as a peacemaker because I’m Muslim and that analysis of justice in our tradition — whether it was the prophetic tradition of Prophet Muhammad who said the most important jihad or exertion is to speak a word of truth in front of an oppressor — or traditions that talked about justice not just for Muslims, but for all communities.
I began to see peacemaking as inherently tied to thinking of ways that inequity created competition between communities. I would say that that was a big part of my journey, just the visualization of that and then connecting it, when I came back to the U.S., with mass incarceration and gun violence, and understanding that I wanted to animate my peacemaking work with justice as its core.
Part of the beauty of Islam is this idea of rahmah – the word rahmah which is often translated into mercy, but it comes from the word “womb” and it’s the same in Hebrew, actually the same sound, rahmah. And I really spent a lot of time in my own work thinking through how to operationalize mercy and how it’s tied to justice – and within my tradition, they’re inextricably linked. The balance of how justice is established is through mercy, and the way that mercy is manifested is by treating everyone justly.
Simran: Yes, that’s fascinating. It sounds like this would be a good segue into just hearing you talk about the work that you do in trying to balance this sort of scholarly intellectual work with the activism or the advocacy or the justice work that you do?
Najeeba: I’m a peacemaker but not an abstract peacemaker. I’m someone who is called into places like Guam, when there have been stabbings between different communities; someone who does work on-the-ground in schools in Los Angeles, when there were interracial gang conflicts. So, I’m a hands-on peacemaker and I continue to do that work.
So, for me, one of the reasons scholarship is important is that the person that most informed my work when I had started college. I went to a Quaker college. I chose a Quaker institution because Quakers have been very clear about violence – they sort of abhor it, theologically, and in their practice and have chosen peace since the establishment of their community.
I lecture a lot in my community and work within the Muslim community on peacemaking. I teach the “10 conflict resolution skills of Prophet Muhammad,” in addition to the very kind of cerebral analysis of religion and politics that I often do in my scholarship. I also bring it more deeply to the level of being able to engage with community.
I think that often this notion of justice that does not have a healing component to it and doesn’t have a vision of a larger-scale structure that allows for an option instead of retribution, is how justice becomes very transactional. So, my scholarship is connected to the actualizing of rahmah (or “mercy) very directly because when I am out in the street as an activist, the actions I can take would be very self-serving, if it wasn’t for my sort of ethics of activism.
And my ethics and code of activism are really intertwined with this notion that my vision for the world is not really driven by my ego. Which is also a very Muslim-based perspective: that really our goal is to extinguish our individual egos. That’s the jihad and that’s the internal struggle of the self is to not establish “Najeeba’s vision of the world.”
I think that’s been an interesting way to do this work as a scholar and an activist because very often, justice is so transactionally-defined. Not only is it retributive but it’s also “what do I get out of it?” “What does my community get out of it?” “What do I do when I was hurt?” “How do I define the correct intervention?”
And when I engaged the religious tradition of Islam, it sort of transformed the way that I even think about justice and it transformed the way that I do research. When I’m doing peace studies or looking at religion and politics, I’ll often go and engage those in the community that have credibility, but they may not have a leadership position. They may not be formal leaders, they may not be the ones that are at the head of the community. Part of my ethic is to think about what a healing community looks like; what a community looks like that engages those at the margin. Not because it’s out of pity or lack of recognition, but actually to say that’s where the most holy and the most powerful work is being done. Those that are opposed carry a knowledge of transformation of a system that’s hurting people in a way that we have to sit and learn from them.
And also just think through with others about collective solutions. That means not just shared leadership, but it also redefines the whole way leadership is functional in the work that I do. I make a concerted effort to have a community of accountability and to say, “Look, am I being accountable here to the community that I’m working with?” “Instead of working for them, am I working with them?”
Simran: So, tell me who would you consider your heroes, who do you admire as someone who is a scholar activist?
Najeeba: Coming from South Asia, I think it was important for me to have examples like Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who led in the early years a movement for independence by activating thousands of his community in nonviolent protest against British occupation.
He wasn’t necessarily a scholar but I think his capacity to be able to do direct action work at a very large-scale level – and he’s often obscured. [Laughter] His story is now being told more because I think a lot of the ways that South Asian peacemaking has been representative is often in one figure, in the figure of Gandhi who is very important in my own constellation of activism. I think it’s important to retell stories, so I don’t really do hero worship of individuals. I really look at how whole communities and groups function in collective.
I would say people like Ella Baker, who really thought through the ethics of leadership and moved us away from that single savior coming in, often historically, a male leader. So, I think that’s where my gender also influences my work. I’ve written and talked a lot about women as peacemakers and activists, and again my ethics really reflect this notion of a collective vision and collective execution of principles and ideas towards a just end.
The qualities that I admire in a scholar activist are those that don’t sacrifice their scholarship. By that, I mean that their scholarship can be held up against other colleagues in their field.
Also, what is really for me very important and something I have to be really careful about, is this idea of just because I’m doing virtuous work, interreligious engagement, that I am not self-critical. I worry about that, probably more than a lot other people do. But I’m very self-critical or self-reflective and really think through how are other disciplines inform the work that I’m doing both as a scholar and an activist.
So, if someone has a better idea of how to get something done, I have to be especially careful because the work that I do both as a scholar and as an activist, is often towards normative end of common good or looking at how peace can be established. I can easily get caught up in that and be insular or develop a sense of inertia by saying, “Look, what I’m doing is great. The work that I’m doing is good and so, therefore, I don’t need to question my ethics. I don’t need to be challenged. I don’t need to be critical.”
And what I’ve developed as a mantra with my students, who I’ve trained as both activist and scholars, is to say “what you love most be most critical of.” Be self-critical. Don’t be afraid to question your principles. Don’t be afraid to interrogate your method. It makes you a more creative activist, as well, once we do the same thing year after year without questioning why we’re doing it or we create an authoritarian persona as an activist. Then essentially, you’re in a space of toxic leadership when everyone agrees with you, who [laughter] don’t want you.
So, those are some of the ways that I think about scholarship and activism intertwining, and that’s why I really appreciate those that are deep thinkers in addition to being activists, that they are passionate. I’m definitely someone who believes in affective change but I’m also very interested in ideas and genealogies of ideas.
Simran: Let me ask you one more question. So, tell me what are – I don’t know if it’s accomplishments or influences, or whatever; however you want to describe it — what are you most proud of?
Najeeba: I’m most proud of the aesthetics that I bring to the work that I do – and I don’t mean the visual aesthetic, but the optics of movements. But this idea, one of the things, you ask me who I admire, I also admire Prophet Muhammad in his work. One of the things that always struck me was if there’s this beautiful hadith, or a saying, of the prophet: “God is beautiful and loves beauty.”
So, when I’m engaging in the work that I do, I always think through how is this making the world more beautiful. And how, as an activist and as a leader, am I helping to promote a vision of healing and establishing beauty in this world? It seems abstract, [Laughter] but to me, it’s come to me and I have a personal understanding of what beauty is in the world.
So, in my own work, I think a lot about how are systems just but also how are they contributing to bringing out the best of humanity? There’s another concept and it’s called ihsan or excellence – and it’s not just excellence of character. In the Quran, one of the ways that humankind are described is “the most excellent of creation,” like our form is beautiful, the form that we come in. So, I open up a lot of my lectures with the chant saying, “I am sacred, you are sacred,” because the body that we bring into this world within the womb of the mother at a few months, the ruach or the spirit is breathed into the body, so the human body is a profoundly beautiful creation.
The nonviolence work that I do, the injustice that I think about, that dehumanizing of the human body — is, in some ways, a sin unto itself; the harming of the human body. So, when I hear and read about the theological studies that talk about the empathy gap in the United States, where there is this phenomenon of individuals who when they see a Black body experiencing pain, they assume that it doesn’t experience pain as other humans do. There is this idea of dehumanizing an object, but also the person who’s doing the dehumanizing becomes ugly themselves.
So, it’s fascinating to me because I think, a lot of times, the deficit language is used on the objects of dehumanizing. As a Muslim, I’m seen in a certain way. I actually more and more think about the beauty that communities that have resilience have; those that have survived so much. I think about the ugliness that needs to be addressed and the pathology and the large cultural socialization processes that take individuals to the point where they essentially believe a mythology of racism for example.
To me, fundamentally, racism is also about beauty. It’s about this idea that I have a structure of how I view those that are human and those that I don’t have in that category. So, more and more, I think about this sacred aspect of human life, but also the sacred aspect of honoring human life and the capacity to universalize it as the actualization of God’s beauty on Earth.
Simran: Yes. Super poetic. I could listen to you talk about this all day. It’s amazing. So, thank you for that. It’s entirely consistent with what I’ve seen of your work, and not just what you do, but how you do it. And even what you’re saying before about the whole approach being egoless. I admire that. And that’s the way that I like to think about real justice work, too.
Najeeba: So, while we’re talking about egoless change or the center of change being collective instead of individual or individuated, and non-transactional and transformational, I do think that there is a need to celebrate and a need to have joy instilled in our work – and that brings me back to that notion of beauty.
I think sometimes there is a shortcut to building social justice systems or academic structures that actually re-calibrate and abuse themselves, right? So, I think about so many people that I work with who are working for justice and then the process of getting to justice takes a horrible toll on their body, or this idea that we can’t achieve social change without virtuous and righteous anger are absolutely key. I also think joy and happiness and flourishing should not elude us.
In my own work, I think more and more about the politics of survival and this idea that I don’t want to just survive. That’s not enough for me. That’s not enough for my vision of healing justice for a community. That’s not enough. And I don’t even want to just participate or have equality, I’m looking to flourish. I’m looking to be able to be a producer of beauty, of knowledge, of lineages that feed the next generation. So, I think about ancestral knowledge and I think about what is the world that I’m building generations out and I think that’s something that a lot of feminist scholars have brought to, whether it’s theology or thinking through not just the structure but – Elise Boulding, who’s a Quaker scholar. She was one of the thinkers that influences my work. She talked about cultures of peace.
That’s key to me in why spiritualizing struggle has been so important for the communities that I have the pleasure of being a partner with in my work. Just thinking through and saying, “You know what? We have the right to flourish and that means we have the right to have a robust division that has an alternative, irrational process of hope attached to it. What is in front of me is defined by certain structures, but what if I began to think or interrogate the structures?”
And the beauty of spirituality when it combined with both scholarship and struggle is that the end product is fluid. It’s an endless process of thinking through and going back to one’s scholarship, going back to one’s activism, and asking those questions and it becomes an exercise in saying, “I don’t have to be stagnant, I don’t have to be happy with just one small win, but I want to have a flourishing community and that’s a right that we all have.” So, it’s about thinking big but it’s also about thinking deep and it’s about thinking long over generations to come.
I’m hopeful that in my own activism, that’s something – whether it’s in Los Angeles standing with the undocumented family members we have here, or Black Lives Matter locally, or working as an academic to advance research on peace and violence – it’s unattaching myself but also unattaching unlimited vision so that the wins that we consider are often so defined by present reality. I would love to see us begin to think of alternate realities that could be far beyond what we would even imagine because we haven’t let our imagination be unleashed in that way.
To honor the legacy of Dr. Walter Wink, Auburn Seminary has established the Walter Wink Scholar-Activist Award to recognize courageous individuals who dedicate their lives to advocating for justice and peace in our world. Given annually at the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature Meetings, the largest gathering of religion scholars in the world, where Auburn hosts a reception as a dynamic gathering of like-minded, multifaith leaders igniting social change.
Dr. Walter Wink served on the faculty of Auburn Seminary for nearly 25 years as a beloved author, speaker and activist. Dr. Wink’s scholarship focused on Jesus and nonviolence, and on responding to a challenging world with love and compassion. His best-selling books include “The Powers That Be” (Doubleday 1999) and “Jesus and NonViolence” (Fortress 2003). With his partner, June Keener-Wink, Wink’s legacy includes workshops on leadership, activism and faith.