Tahmina Rehman is used to thinking in terms of basic comforts. Food. Friendship.
Such age-old comforts can bring people together in the worst of times, she believes. And four years ago, she saw conversation as a way to ease the tensions that came from a shocking tragedy.
In 2009, 37-year-old Aasiya Hassan of Orchard Park was stabbed and decapitated by her husband, Muzzammil Hassan. Rehman was not only outraged but concerned that people would associate the crime and its brutal method with her religion, Islam. She wondered what she could do to help people learn the difference between religious influences and cultural influences. She also hoped to counter a growing antipathy toward faith in general, based on the misconception that religion promotes violence.
The result was an interfaith seminar, "The Culture of Religion," that has become an annual event.
Sponsored by the Women's Auxiliary of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Buffalo, this year's seminar takes place Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Millennium Hotel in Cheektowaga (near Walden Galleria). It is free and open to all. There will be refreshments. And the seminar is also serving something else people are hungry for - understanding.
Rehman, whose family owns the restaurant Kabab and Curry in Amherst, created the event with Shazan Tejani-Butt, a neuroscience researcher who is associate dean in the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.
"Tahmina came to me and said, 'I don't like the way people are referring to Islam.' At the time, there was also this book, 'The Jewel of Medina,' by Sherry Jones. It speaks very poorly of the Prophet [Mohammed] and his wife," says Tejani-Butt, a soft-spoken mother of two and, recently, a grandmother. "Tahmina said, 'Can we do something?' Because it was such a contentious topic, such a difficult topic."
The first seminar was for women only, and drew more than 100 people. Rehman and Tejani-Butt kept things simple, with talks followed by question-and-answer sessions.
"Logically, the first one was to remove misconceptions about the Prophet. The second talk was about how women of different faiths walk together to promote global harmony," Tejani-Butt says.
This year's seminar, as in the past, embraces a variety of faiths. Jean Campbell, who teaches religion at Mount Mercy Academy, will be bringing the Catholic perspective to Sunday's event. Enid Bloch, a photographer who works occasionally with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, is leading a discussion called "Concept of God," and is Jewish.
Now in its fourth year, the gathering is growing, bit by bit. Last year's event drew 146 people.
"The last one was on 9/11," Rehman says. "There were some elements who said, 'Don't do it on 9/11.' But I made the decision because it was bringing people together."
'We feel fortunate'
Amy Fleischauer, director of victim services at Buffalo's International Institute, says that it is common for the perpetrators of violence to justify their atrocities and quest for power by citing religion. Just as the Taliban and al-Qaida cloak themselves in Islam, the Ku Klux Klan made false claims of Christian values.
"Our study of any kind of domestic violence is that it is really present in any culture," Fleischauer says. "There is really no data that show that any cultures or religions are more violent than others. The statistics we've seen show that the only thing that makes one more vulnerable to domestic violence is being female.
"That doesn't mean that culture doesn't affect violence," she adds. "Every perpetrator manipulates whatever culture or faith he and his victim are a part of in order to exert power and control."
Fleischauer is happy for Rehman and Tejani-Butt's grassroots move to promote understanding.
"The only growing population in Buffalo is the immigrant population," she says. "It's important that our city of good neighbors learns more about them, not only the different faiths. It's really exciting! These are the owners of our new businesses. On Hertel Avenue, Grant Street, half these businesses are immigrant owned."
The Muslim organizers of Sunday's seminar are outspoken in their gratitude to be here.
"We feel fortunate, we feel part of society," Rehman says. "I want people to know that."
Coming from Pakistan, Rehman openly condemns the actions of the Taliban. Recently, she was disgusted to hear a report on NPR from her native land that told how the Taliban killed people who were holding a party with music and dancing.
"What the Taliban did, beheading people who are enjoying life, what they did is not Islam," she says. "People think what the Taliban is practicing is Islam. It's not. You look at the Taliban, you look at Afghanistan. No wonder people are saying, 'What kind of a religion is this?' "
Bloch shares Rehman's concerns. She writes an online magazine devoted to building bridges between Muslims and Jews, which led to her participation in the seminar.
"I was surprised when Tahmina called me," Bloch says. "She said she had read some of the things I've written and was impressed. I wasn't sure what she was referring to. My guess would be, it was some of the things where I was defending Muslims against Islamophobic fears."
That is something Bloch is passionate about.
"People need to know that these are wonderful Americans, in the best tradition of America," she says. "And they have learned so much about American freedoms, which is the reason they're here in the first place. They really mean it. They're warm and welcoming."
Rehman and Tejani-Butt place an emphasis on charity work. Both are active in soup kitchens. They have a particular concern about wasted food, a concern understandable in immigrants from the Third World.
"America has always opened its doors to anybody who wishes to come and make a life here," says Tejani-Butt. "As different groups are coming to this country, it is creating greater cultural transformation. This multicultural issue can be good or bad. In many cases it creates tension. We need to educate people as to how we can respect people and cohabit peacefully."
She hopes the conversation will help bring people together, face to face.
"If we can find a way to answer these questions, we can learn to live together peacefully. We can learn from each other."