CPWR Representative Sara Rahim Delivers Keynote Address to United Nations for World Interfaith Harmony Week

CPWR Representative Sara Rahim at United Nations
Youth Representative of the Parliament to the United Nations DPI NGO Ms. Sara Rahim delivers the youth keynote speech on the occasion of World Interfaith Harmony Week at the special event of the President of the General Assembly on February 6, 2015. Fellow keynote speaker Under Secretary-General of Communications and Public Information Cristina Gallach looks on as Rahim addresses this year’s United Nations theme for World Interfaith Harmony Week, the role of Multi-religious Partnerships for Sustainable Development. (Photo by Transdiaspora Network)


Your excellencies,

UN Under-Secretary General,

President of the General Assembly,

Ladies and gentlemen,

And distinguished guests.

Bismillah Al-Rahman Al-Rahim.

Thank you very much. I am humbled and grateful for this opportunity to celebrate World Interfaith Harmony Week with you and thank the President of the General Assembly for bringing us all together. As a young person addressing this special event, I am obliged to pay tribute to all of the wisdom and experience that is present in the room today. We come from a variety of faith and philosophical backgrounds, and we are here together to support one common idea. That idea is that we can use interreligious cooperation and understanding as a vehicle to improve our communities working towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

As UN Youth Representative, I bring my greetings from the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Relgions.

The Parliament of the World’s Religions, which gave birth to the interfaith movement at its initial gathering in 1893, is holding our next Parliament in Salt Lake this October 2015. Ten thousand people from 10,000 networks, over 80 countries and 50 different religious and spiritual traditions will come together to share, learn, network and celebrate. This year’s Parliament theme “Reclaiming the Heart of Our Humanity: Working Together for a World of Compassion, Peace, Justice, and Sustainability” aligns with the heart of UN World Interfaith Harmony Week. It is a global call to action for our faith and non-faith networks.

Too often, religion is misused as an instrument for division and injustice, betraying the very ideals and teachings that lie at the heart of each of the world’s great traditions. However, at their best, religious and spiritual traditions shape the lives of billions of people in wise and wonderful ways. When our diverse communities work in harmony for the common good, there is hope that the world can be transformed.

2015 not only marks the first US Parliament in over 20 years, but also the transition from the Millennium Development Goals to Sustainable Development Goals. These 17 SDGS are set to help shape the Post-2015 Development Agenda in a more tangible, feasible way. The role of our faith and spiritual communities is crucial towards building sustainable partnerships that can help implement these goals into reality.

All of us in this room must invest to make that a reality.

How has faith personally been a part of my life?

I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, and grew up as a first generation Pakistani American Muslim. Like many other children of immigrants, I saw my parents work tirelessly to create a better life for their family. My faith and culture are an integral part of who I am – they have shaped my values and impacted the way I see the world and interact with others.

For the first 10 years of my life, I never found myself at odds with my Muslim identity. Going to the mosque was a normal part of my day, as routine as going to school or playing with my friends. However, the first time my reality was challenged was a day that will be etched in all our hearts and minds: September 11, 2001.

I remember waking up that morning and getting dressed for school. At the time, I was attending an Islamic school and was in 4th grade. As usual, I watched the TV playing in the background, and it was then that the first plane crashed into the tower. It seemed like nothing more than a tragic accident. I was unable to process what had occurred, and went to school as usual. Soon after, I knew that something was not right. A second plane had crashed into the building, and the group claiming responsibility was “Muslim”.

To grow up as a Muslim youth in a post 9/11 America has forced me to re-evaluate what my own faith means to me. In a way, my faith itself had been hijacked, and the Islamophobia that plagued our nation following the tragic events could not allow for my complacency. I realized that the only way to challenge those very stereotypes that breed at that level meant putting myself out of my comfort zone.

Upon graduating high school, I decided to experience life in the Arab Muslim world for the first time, and I received a merit-based scholarship from the U.S. Department of State to serve as an intercultural ambassador between the U.S. and Egypt in Cairo. During that summer, I witnessed interreligious cooperation on a global level for the first time. Coptic Christians and Muslims worshipped and lived peacefully, side-by-side, during a time of civil unrest.

Beginning College that fall, I sought a new way of looking at my faith identity. I became involved with the interfaith organization on my university’s campus, and met like-minded individuals who were inspired by their faith or their philosophical tradition in order to improve their communities.

My Muslim faith is my call-to-action and inspires me to serve my community, just as much as my friends’ beliefs inspire them to give back. This common thread of service is something I have come to realize as one of the most powerful tools to build those bridges. In parts of the world that suffer from religious or social conflict, there is the potential to invest in societies and use the existing diversity as a catalyst for change, rather than division. This comes through the process of voicing one’s values, engaging with others across traditions, and acting on those shared values to improve society.

As our communities move forward with implementing the SDG’s in 2015, I believe that multi-religious partnerships can create lasting outcomes that we have been unable to tangibly reach or measure before. The Executive Director of United Nations Population Fund once stated, “People are the center of Development.”

More often than not, we forget the inherent link between human rights and development.

Historically, faith groups have led the way towards building collective community action.

  • From Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement
  • to Mahatma Gandhi during Indian Independence
  • to Nelson Mandela during the fight against Apartheid
  • to the faith leaders that are currently mobilizing their communities in Ferguson, Missouri:

All of these interfaith leaders before us have shown the power of mobilizing on shared values and taking action. Interfaith groups can continue to pave the path towards community building in a way that ensures that all voices can be a part of the conversation.

Tapping into the potential of our youth and women is another crucial element of successful community development. It is imperative that we bring the voices of young people and women to the table, so that they can be a part of the solution.

Her Excellency Ambassador Samantha Power, Permanent Representative of United States to the United Nations, stated that encouraging civic society to work more closely with government would require an outcomes-driven process. The need for setting measurable, concrete goals for the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda is dependent on focusing on peace and global governance as a basis for development.

Passing just laws and creating credible institutions is one of the most sustainable ways to improving development. I envision this as a means of tapping into multi-religious partnerships and collaborating across multiple sectors. The issues that our countries are facing cannot be viewed through a single lens. Access to education impacts the health outcomes of women and youth, which can in turn affect the socioeconomic growth of our communities. The interrelatedness of these critical issues must challenge us to think of new partnerships in innovative ways.

Similarly, we cannot deny the role of young people towards creating action and wanting change. One of the biggest root issues that plague our global community is the lack of outlets that young people have to voice themselves and create those changes. We must help develop civic society so that young people have channels to properly voice their concerns and demand systematic reforms from their local institutions. Young people are interconnected, multilingual, and globalized. Our communities must ensure that we are investing in local, youth-driven initiatives for change. Young people have the answers, and they can be a part of the solution.

As someone who is passionate and deeply committed to building community impact through interfaith partnerships, I encourage all of us to tap into the youth in our networks.

The development community, particularly interfaith and faith-based organizations, must continue to think in innovative ways to collaborate across sectors and be inclusive of all minority voices.

During the 1999 Parliament in Cape Town, Nelson Mandela stated: “No government or social agency can on its own meet the enormous challenges of development of our age. Partnerships are required across the broad range of society. In drawing upon its spiritual and communal resources, religion can be a powerful partner in such causes as meeting the challenges of poverty, alienation, the abuse of women and children, and the destructive disregard for our natural environment. We read into your honoring our country with your presence an acknowledgement of the achievement of the nation and we trust in a small way that our struggle might have contributed to other people in the world. We commend the Parliament of the World’s Religions for its immense role in making different communities see that the common ground is greater and more enduring than the differences that divide. It is in that spirit that we can approach the dawn of the new century with some hope that it will be indeed a better one for all of the people of the world.”

I hope that World Interfaith Harmony Week will serve as a call to action for all the voices in our communities, including youth, women, and minorities, to work towards sustainable development. May all faith, non-faith, and spiritual traditions commit to seeing the best in each other and working collaboratively across all sectors as we move forward with our Post 2015 Development Agenda.

Thank you very much.

 Sara Rahim (left), UN Youth Representative of the Parliament of the World's Religions.

Sara Rahim, UN Youth Representative of the Parliament of the World’s Religions flanked by Cristina Gallach (left), Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information; and William F. Vendley, President of the Committee of Religious NGOs at the United Nations (RNGO). UN Photo/Evan Schneider