Muslim Group to Host Annual Peace Convention

by Lisa Fernandez, Mercury News

World peace isn’t something Samina Faheem Sundas takes lightly.

The founder of American Muslim Voice, a 3-year-old non-profit that champions diversity and human rights is so dedicated to the subject that on Sunday, she is hosting the third annual Peaceful Community Building Convention at a Newark banquet hall.

A long-lasting, true peace is needed now more than ever, the 51-year-old Palo Alto resident said, reflecting on many recent horrific world events: the war between Israel and Hezbollah, the upcoming anniversary of Sept. 11, last month’s railway bombings in Mumbai, India, and most recently, the foiled bomb plot by Islamic extremists in London.

“We really need to focus on the deep-rooted problems that we’re having,” said Sundas, who emigrated from Pakistan in 1979, and also runs a child care center in Palo Alto. “We have to open dialogue now more than ever, as brothers, sisters and cousins, friends and as human beings.”

People of various faiths and cultures are “walking on eggshells,” she said, because they don’t want to offend one another or get into fights. But, she urged, it’s imperative that different groups get together and talk — earnestly and with respect.

At least, that’s the point of Sunday’s peace-building convention. At least 200 guests have confirmed their attendance, and the hall can hold up to 350. Sundas said the $25 ticket sales will cover the cost of their lunch, as well as transportation and lodging for the speakers and advertising for the event. She hopes to break even by raising $9,000.

Erin Callahan, director of Amnesty International’s western U.S. division in San Francisco, said her organization attends many events, but the one Sundas throws is one of the most meaningful.

“American Muslim Voice brings together an inspiring, diverse and welcoming group of activists, religious leaders, families, teachers and kids,” she said. “She creates new alliances, and we meet people there that we had never worked with before.”

Callahan said she was impressed that after Sundas’ convention last year, various groups of interfaith teens started to meet regularly at the Peninsula Peace & Justice Center in Palo Alto and at various churches in San Jose to tackle the issues of racial profiling, erosion of civil liberties and immigrant rights.

The list of Sunday’s speakers is varied and includes John and Bev Titus of Michigan who will talk about their daughter, Alicia, a 28-year-old flight attendant who died on one of the hijacked flights on Sept. 11. The Tituses are members of the September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, whose members seek alternatives to war.

The other keynote address will be given by Azim Khamisa, 57, a San Diego investment banker. He will enlighten the crowd on what he’s done in the wake of the 1995 killing of his son, Tariq, 20. Khamisa reached out to Ples Felix, grandfather of the 14-year-old killer, Tony Hicks, and created a foundation dedicated to teaching about nonviolence in schools and transforming America’s gang culture. Felix is a board member of that foundation. And Khamisa regularly visits Hicks, now 25 and behind bars at Pelican Bay State prison. Khamisa wrote a letter to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, asking to commute Hicks’ sentence.

“It’s not the norm in our culture to forgive,” Khamisa said this week while visiting the Bay Area. “We are very much an eye for an eye. But that doesn’t work. Eventually we all go blind.”

Sundas met the Tituses and Khamisa last year at the Peace Alliance Conference in Washington, D.C., where they were lobbying Congress to establish a Department of Peace. There are now two bills before the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, urging lawmakers to create such a Cabinet-level department of the executive branch. Supporters hope the department would help reduce domestic and gang violence, and create international conflict-resolution policies and a U.S. Peace Academy to train peacekeepers.

Sundas said she was impressed that her colleagues were not filled with anger or a desire for revenge. She “fell in love” with them immediately, and they became fast friends. This convention, she said, is in their honor.

“If they can do peace-building,” she said. “All of us can do it.”

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