Kourosh Ziabari  – Iran Review: I was privileged to be the Iranian delegate of the Senior Journalists Seminar 2015, a generous fellowship granted by the Hawaii-based East-West Center to a select number of American, Asian and Middle Eastern journalists since 2003 every year. The goal of the fellowship program is to bridge the gaps in the U.S. relations with the Muslim world.

This year, a group of 17 journalists from Iran, Afghanistan, China, Egypt, India, Iraq, Kuwait, Malaysia, Pakistan, Palestine, the Philippines and the United States were selected to take part in the 21-day professional dialogue, study and travel program. The program had an unimaginably intensive and tight schedule. We had six main destinations: the three U.S. cities of Washington D.C.; Nashville, Tennessee and Honolulu, Hawaii; Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and Lahore and Islamabad in Pakistan.

Throughout the 21-day program, we visited churches, mosques, Muslim communities, museums and art exhibitions and had several meetings with politicians, security experts, religious leaders, parliamentarians, government officials, university professors, media professionals and artists who shared with us their insight into different religious, political and cultural issues.

During our journey, I had the opportunity to do an interview with one of the most senior journalists traveling with us. Kim Lawton is an award-winning reporter, producer, writer and editor with the PBS public television. She is the managing editor and correspondent of the Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, and says that she has already missed the number of countries she has reported from, which she estimates now exceeds 40. Lawton covers culture, religion and ethics and is the recipient of Wilbur Awards in 2012 and 2010 and a 2011 Gracie Award. From 2006 to 2010, she won five consecutive Excellence in Media Angel Awards.

In our 35-minute interview, Kim Lawton patiently and elaborately responded to my different questions about the possible venues for encouraging inter-faith dialog, the living conditions of the Muslims in the United States, the perceived media campaign against the Muslims worldwide, the atrocities of the terrorist group ISIS, the 9/11 attacks and its impacts on the civil liberties of Muslims in the United States. The following are excerpts of our lengthy conversation.

Q: You have been working on religion for several years and covering religious affairs and ethics. From your standpoint, what are the most important common points between all of the divine religions?

A: I think all of the major religions are ways that people try to find meaning. They try to find something that’s deep inside of themselves and outside of themselves; you know, we live in such a material world where we worry so much about what we can see and touch. And I think for all religions, they take you to a place – they take the practitioners to a place that’s deeper and that transcends everyday life and gives them meaning and a deep way. And I think that’s one thing that they all share in common. The problem is they don’t know how to recognize that. They think their way is the only way to have that transcendence; then that can provoke problems, but as I talk to people from different religions for my stories, I’m always struck. It always makes me interested to see that people are ultimately, I think, searching for meaning and something that makes sense or helps them feel deep inside in their soul.

Q: So, if they’re just searching for the same virtues and trying to get to the higher truth, or as you said “transcendence”, then what are these conflicts and tensions for? Why are we witnessing so many disputes and tensions between the followers of divine religions whereas even if they differ in terms of religious practices and rituals, they are all trying to improve their lives spiritually and become more decent, righteous people?

A: That’s a good question. I mean, I think that’s been always the question of the ages: why do human beings always think to have to divide themselves?  Why do we always have to find lines and things that separate us? But we do! I think we as humans always want to think that our way is the best way and that’s a very human quality. And I think that mindset comes to religion as well; my religion is the best way, my religion is the only way, mine is the only path to God! I don’t know, is it? Maybe it is. I don’t know! I don’t presume to know what the one right way is honestly. I talk to a lot of people who think they know, but they all disagree with each other. So, if religion becomes another line just like ethnic issues or politics, religion becomes a line that people separate themselves with. And also religion can be exploited for power by people who want to use, rather than focusing on the spirituality – they want to use it for a power play and that I think also creates tension when religion becomes a means to power. I think that corrupts the religion, but I think it also creates divisions.

Q: Then, with all we know about the contemporary conflicts between the Muslims, Jews, and Christians and also the followers of other minor religions, is it really possible that we realize interfaith dialog?

A: It’s very difficult; interfaith dialog is very difficult! Many people have been trying to do it for a long time, and it’s hard work. I have seen, especially in the United States – I’ve covered as a reporter, I have covered many efforts for doing that. And I think there are instances where people are forming relationships with each other across religious lines. But you know, I think there are different levels of interfaith dialog and I feel the most important part of it is probably getting everybody in the same room together and that’s step one. But sometimes the hardest work comes after people have started to form relationships and then they’ve started to be honest with each other and that’s where things get really difficult. I think one of the big questions that I know many people in America – that I’ve covered – have about interfaith dialog is that, is it just to get to understand each other better or is the ultimate goal to convince somebody that, “oh, I’m really right! I’m the one who is right”? And that’s difficult, because I think that gets in the way people listen to each other. So the question is, what is the goal? Is the goal that everybody comes out believing the same thing? Then I don’t think it’s ever going to succeed. Is it the goal that people get beyond stereotypes and surface ideas and try to build a relationship with someone who believes something different? And if the goal is to try to listen and hear what they say even if you don’t end up agreeing with it, then I think it is possible and I think it is happening in many places around the world, not always well, not always easily, but I think it is happening.

Q: Great; let’s get to some contemporary issues that are affecting all of us. You, as an American journalist covering religion, have surely interviewed several Muslim community leaders, and you have been in close contact with them. How does the U.S. public view its relatively small Muslim minority? There have been many Muslims who have made contributions to industries, sciences, arts, literature and culture in the United States, but these contributions are mostly underestimated and ignored. Do you think that the U.S. public is aware of the fact that not all the Muslims want to explode themselves somewhere in the heart of Manhattan, or does the U.S. public blame the Muslim community or the Muslim world for all the evil that has emerged in the world, especially following the tragic 9/11 attacks?

A: You know, America is so big and so diverse; it’s hard to generalize and it’s hard to say the American public thinks this because the American public thinks many, many different things. And in the United States after 9/11, yes, there was such a belief, and I think people have measured and increased suspicion that was in the end against the Muslim community, broadly speaking. And I think that is the case. I think in many parts of America, some anti-Muslim feelings persist. I absolutely think that’s true; I’ve seen it, I’ve heard it. But I think sometimes what doesn’t get covered or what gets lost is the great efforts by many Americans to support Muslims in the face of that discrimination and bigotry. I was in Washington DC on 9/11. I live very close to the Pentagon, actually very close. I can walk to the Pentagon form my house. And that was a very, very tragic time for us and yes, there were people who blamed Muslims and still do. But in the face of that, there were also wonderful stories I covered as a journalist of Christians that were walking Muslim women to school or to work. They were walking with them so that no one would hurt them, that no one would attack them. There were press conferences where there were Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders standing; and there is a group in America that’s called “Shoulder to Shoulder” and they were at the U.S. capital literally standing shoulder to shoulder to say “we aren’t going to let the hatred divide us; we aren’t blaming one community for the actions of a small number of people”. That does exist in America and in local communities. I’ve covered in so many communities efforts of different groups to get together. One of the great ironies of 9/11, I think, as I observed in covering religion was encouraging people to come together! Yes, there were more divisions; yes, there was more rhetoric; there was the anti-Muslim sentiment, yes; there were more suspicions. But one of the great ironies of 9/11 is that it also generated so many projects of people coming together, so many efforts that wouldn’t have happened if 9/11 hadn’t happened. I think people may have just lived in their little bubbles, but it was 9/11 that forced people to say “Wow! What’s happening? We have people in our community that are different than us. What’s going on with that?” And so, that was one of the good things. You know, as horrible as 9/11 was – and it was horrible, something that happened that was unexpected is I have seen people come together. It was interesting. You weren’t with our group; I wrote about this when we were in Nashville. We met with members of the American Muslim community in Nashville which is the heart of America; very conservative, very Christian, very conservative Christian part of America! And some of the Muslim leaders we spoke with in our group talked about – and I’ve heard this myself interviewing people, they talked about concerns and there was fear among American Muslims and how the backlash is going to be, people going to come after us! And there were some incidents that happened; terrible, horrible things that happened, not a lot though. Honestly, not a lot when you consider how big America is. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have problems. But some of the Muslims told our group and this really hit me; they said, “We talked among ourselves. Where can we go? We should go; we should leave America. Where should we go? What Muslim country should we go to?” And they said – one moment hold on – she said, and we thought about it. Then, we said “I don’t know where we would go. We want to stay here” And, you know, for all the problems many American Muslims I talk to say, they feel very free to practice their religion in America.

Q: So, what happened after the 9/11 attacks was that, although everybody sympathized with the American people because of the tragic incident that happened, a new wave of anti-Islamic attacks also began to take place and these attacks continue to this day, at least in the media. Whenever there is some kind of terrorist operation somewhere in the world, whenever there is unrest or turmoil, everybody – especially in the mainstream media, spontaneously points the figure of accusation at the Muslims.

A: I think not just the American media but international media and maybe media from some predominately Muslim areas of the world play a role too, because I don’t think that the U.S. media vilifies Muslims. I really don’t. I think there are some voices that are given a platform on the media, but I don’t think you can say all media does that. And I do feel like some of the international coverage I’ve seen has been much more inflammatory and much more opinionated than [those of] American media. So, I would draw that distinction very, very fairly. I don’t see a campaign – I really don’t, to vilify Muslims on a systematic level. Are there individual Americans? Are there groups that are organized to do that? Are they very vocal? Yes. But as I said, there are also so many Muslim groups and so many interfaith groups that are out there countering that. They don’t get the same coverage perhaps in the U.S. media and certainly not in the international media. And so you come out from a perspective you hear in media from your part of the world and I hear media from my part of the world and it’s very different. I mean, I’m very sensitive to the negative things that are said about Muslims. And yes, when I write a story about Muslims, there are always comments at the end that make me cringe. Believe me. They absolutely are. But I don’t see a campaign to vilify Muslims in the U.S. media. I really don’t.

Q: Somewhere in our previous conversations, you talked about the rise of ISIS. This extremist group has been using Muslim ideology or a very rigid interpretation of Islam in order to justify and rationalize its atrocities. So, is this distinction being made in the media and public that ISIS does not really represent Islam and is just a perverse sect that the majority of Muslim world and so many Sunni and Shiite scholars have condemned?

A: Yeah, there is been some coverage of that but not enough. Yeah, it’s not enough. And I know, when I talk to American Muslims, they say like “Oh, we shouldn’t have to always say we don’t believe that! We shouldn’t have to always say that”. But I think they do. I think they need to be out there a lot and many groups are. They are saying that; they are trying to get that message out. The problem is that ISIS has a very sleek media campaign as we know, very sleek. And a lot of American Muslims don’t have the same resources to do that. I’ve certainly covered many U.S. Muslim leaders issuing fatwas saying “This does not represent us. This does not represent our religion”. Absolutely those voices are out there, but yes, they’re not getting the same amount of coverage; and part of that blame comes to the media not giving it enough coverage. Some of that goes to the American Muslim community, I’m sorry; they have to keep saying it. I know they’re tired; I understand they’re tired of having to keep saying it but they have to keep saying it. But I interviewed U.S. Muslims who tell me every time there is some big violent attack, they hold their breath and they hope it weren’t a Muslim. Sometimes it’s not a Muslim, sometimes it is; and that’s the hard part. Sometimes those acts are committed by people who are using religion and it’s their interpretation; I’m not saying it’s the absolute religion, but that’s what makes it hard. It’s a very complex situation and unfortunately in our world today the media, with all the online stuff and everything that’s out there – people don’t make the nuances they should; and that concerns me as a journalist, not just about Muslims but about a lot of things, a lot of coverage in our world. It seems like the thoughtful, nuanced coverage and intelligent coverage isn’t valued enough.

This interview is an abridged version of my interview with Ms. Kim Lawton. It was originally published on Iran Review.