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A Conversation with Malak Fakhoury, Communications Committee Member, Interfaith Peace Builders, Washington, D.C.

With: Malak Fakhoury Berkley Center Profile

April 1, 2018

Background: In April 2018, undergraduate student Olivia Vita interviewed Malak Fakhoury as part of the Doyle Undergraduate Fellows Program. Fakhoury is a member of the communications committee of Eyewitness Palestine (formerly Interfaith Peace Builders, IFPB). In this interview, Fakhoury discusses pro-Palestine faith-based social justice work and interreligious dialogue.

Please describe your current involvement with Interfaith Peace Builders?

I’m part of the communications committee.

Could you describe more what this section of Interfaith Peace Builders does?

This section of the organization is responsible for handling the rebranding of Interfaith Peace Builders as they switch from one name to another and begin to use a new logo. So, we spread word about IFPB and help get the new name out there.

What motivated you to get involved in this work? How has your focus shifted over the years, if at all?

I became involved in IFPB first through a trip with my mom and sister. After the trip, my mom became involved and joined the board. Seeing her involvement in the organization as well as the message and work of IFPB attracted me.

What is unique about IFPB’s approach to social justice work in Palestine?

I would have to say that besides the education that the organization is committed to doing, the human experience is definitely what makes IFPB unique. The information conveyed is witnessed firsthand, which makes for a much deeper experience because it becomes real and sensitizes the witness to what is happening. One thing that I think of is an older Jewish woman on our trip. She broke down crying every single day and would say how she couldn’t believe that she had been lied to her entire life. Ultimately, she ended up leaving early not out of resistance to the program but because of the intensity of the experience for her.

Where does your sense of moral and social responsibility come from? Has your religious or spiritual upbringing shaped or influenced this in any way?

My morals definitely come from my religion, from Islam. Part of this is acknowledging that all Abrahamic religions come from one source. So, in this way I was raised to not think in exclusive terms, so Palestine was never an us versus them conflict to me, not a Muslims versus Jews conflict. I don’t see what is happening in Palestine as a whole as religious but inherently political as Zionism was a political movement, and nothing in the Bible gives the orders to do what is being done. While my family is Palestinian and thus I’m connected to Palestine through my background, I’m also connected through my religion because empathy and interconnectedness are at the center of Islam. Thus, I am called by my religion to be involved in social justice, to not only pray but to be intentionally involved in every aspect of life.

What challenges have you experienced in your work with IFPB? In interfaith and/or social justice spaces as a whole?

So, I have a history of activism from college. I was heavily involved in Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) as well as Muslim Students Association (MSA). During my time there I wanted to reach out to Hillel and see if a connection could be forged. Our SJP didn’t want to because they thought it would be normalizing, but MSA was open to the idea. So, I planned interfaith dinners and held events between Hillel and MSA. The rabbi would come and was very nice. But it was frustrating because everything would be going fine and then something would happen in Gaza, and the rabbi and students would start defending Israel and get very emotional. It was like there was a misconnection between politics and religion, as if this is what God would want to be happening. So that was one challenge. It was disheartening to be rejected after hosting so many dinners, not to brag, but to be the only ally they had only to be let down in the end. Another challenge was being blacklisted on Canary Mission.

Interfaith work has been critiqued often. Can you tell me a story that illustrates its challenges and potential?

The trouble with interfaith is that it can sometimes be seen and treated as a pacifier. Some say it “feeds the stomach, not the soul.” I think the issue is that it is done on an elementary level where nothing really can get done. The goal is tolerance rather than the work. People are also not willing to be marginalized, to sacrifice their social status when supporting unpopular causes. Back during one of the invasions of Gaza, celebrities like Selena Gomez began Tweeting about it and her manager and others reprimanded them saying that it wasn’t in their contracts to make political statements. It was not in their contract to be human.

More and more people are beginning to highlight black-Palestinian solidarity and even Native American-Palestinian solidarity. Can you tell me a story that illustrates any parallels you have witnessed between Palestine and the United States?

The most similar parallel would have to be that of Native Americans and Palestinians under the experience of ethnic cleansing. I teach religious classes to 8- to 13-year-olds, and over Thanksgiving I was talking to them about being mindful of the history of the holiday. Just until very recently, a few years ago I believe, we were celebrating Columbus Day as a country; Columbus [is] an ethnic cleansing colonizer. And then as for the African-American experience, I would say the most similarity is in civil liberties being taken away and having disproportionate power exercised over them for no reason. The police brutality, of course, and the injustice in the courts are continued forms of slavery and are similar occurrences in Palestine. One thing I think of in particular is prison and recidivism. Both in the United States and in Palestine, it is extremely difficult to reintegrate into society as certain liberties are stripped like voting, it is hard to get a job, and so on.

I went to college in Florida. Our SJP actually became known for 10,000 signatures in favor of divestment, the highest number of signatures recorded nationally. Through this we made conscious efforts to connect with student organizations around campus, sitting down with the Hispanic Student Alliance and figuring out which causes overlapped with their community, sitting down with our Black Student Alliance and doing the same. For example, D4S is used both in the state’s surveillance of the black community in the United States and of the Palestinian community in Palestine. We also had meaningful discussion over the difficulty members of our community struggle with in terms of the prison system; being easily targeted and criminalized, and then the difficulty of reintegration into society post-imprisonment.

What expectations did you have when you entered justice work? How have you adjusted your expectations in justice work during your career?

One thing I learned through activism is that burn-out is real. It’s easy for us to be far from a cause and to lose hope as soon as something doesn’t work. I remember my grandmother, God bless her—she passed away—she would be crying and hugging the television as she watched the news reports on Palestine, and I saw how this motivated my mother to be involved in her community work. One way my strength is renewed is through prayer, and another is through visiting Palestine and remembering people’s stories. An ugly quote that also motivates me, “The old will die and the young will forget.” This was in reference to the Nakba and made by David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister. It reminds me to stay connected no matter what to community and to history, to prove him wrong by remembering the truth.

What is the role of interfaith work in your organization? To what extent is this a useful conversation/engagement in your work?

It’s central. The whole idea of IFPB is to bring people from different backgrounds to bear witness to a place in unity. To bring back what they saw with their own eyes. Each of our identities lends itself to sharing what’s going on in Palestine in a different way, and some carry more weight than others. A white Jewish person’s word, for example, would go further in America.

How essential is interreligious dialogue in IFPB? Can you give me some examples of good dialogue and bad dialogue?

In IFPB, we meet after every day to process together what we saw by sharing our experiences and feelings and encounters. In this way, we are digesting a concrete reality with a goal—it is experiential. But when you get into philosophizing about a distant reality, it becomes not useful, to say the least.

Could you share some of the things that you think young people should learn about religion and its effects on society?

Religion is unwanted societally. I don’t mean that it is secular so much as religion is simply unwanted. Most in the United States and West view it as somewhat antiquated or irrelevant for the “modern world.” Religion is not for isolated worship but is how you live your life. Religion to me is acknowledging intelligent design of the world and universe through studying science. It shows us the layered organization of nature and the patterns that exists. These are both signs of the creator. You can explain a phenomenon and know how it works technically, but the mystery still remains as to its origin. It reminds me of the verse that says everything submits to the will of God whether it wants to or not, i.e. the mind rests, the body sleeps.

To anyone who has been in love, you know that you can’t see a paper bag floating through the air without thinking of the person you love. For someone who knows God, that is what walking through the world is like. If there was anything I would want young people to know it’s that your life has a purpose, and that the world was created for a reason.

When most people think of religion in Palestine they think of Muslims, Jews, and Christians. However, there are significant minority populations. What role do religious minorities play in your work?

I think in every religion besides Satanism there is the impulse for goodness. Again, a key part of the program is intentionally bringing together a diverse group of people.

How are trip participants supported once they return?

IFPB delegations are more of a mission than a vacation. There’s a specific branch of the organization that keeps in touch with delegates, checking up on them, and showing them ways to be engaged with local government and community service programs in their hometown, and how to share their experiences in Palestine via news outlets.