In September, Dr. Huma Farid joined the Needham Interfaith Clergy Association, filling the nearly five-year gap in Muslim representation left by Dr. Abdul Cadar Asmal. Shortly after, the need for her voice became essential for the group that seeks collaboration and understanding across faith communities.
The Interfaith Clergy Association brings leaders representing diverse faith traditions in and around Needham together for mutual support and community engagement. For groups who do not have a house of worship or a clergy leader in town, lay people are invited to represent their faith community. After a long search, Farid, an OBGYN and Needham resident, stepped forward.
“It is important to have a Muslim representative right now as we wrestle with how to respond to the war in Gaza, especially for our Jewish and Muslim residents,” said the Rev. Catie Scudera, president of NICA and minister at the First Parish in Needham Unitarian Universalist. “As a clergy association, we would feel more unmoored if we didn’t have Huma’s voice in the mix.”
Scudera said NICA seeks to be a true representation of the religious diversity in Needham, which is why the group includes both clergy and lay members. “It’s a really tough time to be coming into an interfaith organization as a Muslim lay person,” she said. “She really jumped right in.”
Farid said that right now she has been called to be a voice for Muslim neighbors and speak with other faith leaders. “The [focus] has been on understanding how do we as people of faith respond to events that are polarizing. How do they work together to respond to current events.”
Farid has lived in Needham with her family for seven years, but grew up in New Jersey as a child of Pakistani immigrants. She was 17 during the aftermath of Sept. 11. At the time, she had to advocate for herself, but today she said she felt strongly that she needed to speak up for her community in a kind and compassionate way.
“I had to decide what to do now as somebody who is respected in my hospital, respected in my community,” she said. “I could leverage that to speak up and be an alternative voice in this narrative.”
One of the biggest sources of frustration, Farid said, has been conflating criticism of Israeli policy with antisemitism, which she says is an inaccurate comparison. “I protested Roe v. Wade as a physician, how it’s being constricted in this country, but I’m not anti-America.”
She also said she has been deeply concerned that the country has not been able to unify around the loss of life. “People remain entrenched in their belief systems because they’re grieving and can’t hear other perspectives. Instead of uniting us it’s created more separation.”
As a member of NICA, she has begun to engage in the difficult conversations with her colleagues and is optimistic about the opportunities for learning from one another. “We as a community have to engage and have these difficult conversations,” she said. “Change starts small, but there’s always a ripple effect that reaches other communities, and the state and the country.”
Farid said she’s been amazed by the support of the town and particularly the clergy. “Rabbi Jay Perlman and other rabbis who’ve reached out to me have been amazing and really welcoming. In a smaller town we have an opportunity to get to know each other in a way that other spread out towns can’t.”
Perlman, who has been a member of NICA for 21 years, said he is thrilled to be working with Farid. In November, Superintendent Dan Gutekanst spoke with the two faith leaders in his “10 Minutes With…” series.
“There is deep sadness, profound concern, a measure of fear and uncertainty most certainly mirrored in [the two communities],” said Perlman. “This crisis is about human beings, and all human beings having been created in the image of God are worthy of honor, safety, respect and peace.”
With that understanding, said Perlman, it is natural to reach out to anyone who is in need, whether part of their community or outside of it. “It might be surprising to find that people outside of our community circle — like the Muslim community — share our pain and our grief, and we want to be there as a shared place of strength.”
Cautiously speaking out
Farid represents a small subset of Needham residents who belong to the Muslim community. Since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas and the subsequent humanitarian crisis in Gaza, these families have experienced grief and fear. However, because of visible acts of retribution nationally in addition to their small numbers locally, many have not felt they could speak up in the same way their Jewish neighbors have.
Zeenat Rasheed, lead organizer for the Needham Muslim Neighbors group, said when she learned of the attacks she was filled with fear and dread of what would follow, remembering the Islamophobia in the wake of Sept. 11.
“Fear of violence, we live with that, and the Jewish community lives with that too,” said Rasheed. But she said many members of the Muslim community also fear negative social consequences for speaking up for Palestine and the more than 20,000 deaths on that side of the war.
“We are in a time of polarized mindsets, and there has been stifling of that debate,” said Rasheed. “We have to speak up for humanity, even if you don’t agree who’s the aggressor and who’s the victim. We can all agree that loss of life is not desirable — all humans should condemn violence. That’s a start.”
The Council on Islamic-American Relations in Washington, D.C. reported a 216% increase in reported acts of discrimination against Muslims in the four weeks following Oct. 7 compared to the previous year.
“We [Muslims] are very capable of holding two thoughts,” Rasheed said of respecting Judaism but being able to criticize the acts of the Israeli government. “[People are] being labeled antisemitic when they’re pro-human rights. You can wish peace to Israel and to Jews and want freedom and peace for the Palestinians. Criticism of government should not equate to antisemitism.”
Perlman agrees that viewing the situation as having to be either pro-Israel or pro-Palestine is “a mistaken frame.”
Rasheed said that is not an opinion many people in her community feel they can share openly, and they worry about their children being labeled for saying the “wrong” thing. The lack of outrage for the assaults, rescinding of job offers and doxing around the country of those who do speak up feels dehumanizing and sends the message that Muslim lives and perspectives don’t matter. Just yesterday in Newark, New Jersey, an Imam was shot and killed in front of his mosque.
“I feel compassion for anyone who feels a lack of psychological safety and physical safety,” said Rasheed. “But there is a megaphone when Jewish people feel that, but not Muslims.”
Needham resident Raneem Islam, who practices emergency medicine in Brockton, said she has felt the support of her neighbors, but the news causes a sense of unease and concern in the Muslim community, especially for their children.
“We want to make sure our voices and our children’s voices are heard and valued, and we want to make sure they are safe, secure and appreciated,” she said. “That’s what everyone wants for their kids.
Islam said their fears are not unfounded, as they see congressional representatives being censured for their opinions. “We do not have the ability to speak freely on this issue as other people may have.”
As a physician, Islam looks at the situation as a human rights catastrophe. “What Hamas did was abhorrent and not representative of our religion,” she said. “The scale of retribution is … I don’t know how you move forward from that. If you’ve never been to an area of conflict, you have no reference for that.”
Scudera said she can imagine the dissonance and emotional toll on Muslims to be asked constantly to denounce the attack by Hamas in the face of the more than 20,000 Palestinian deaths, with the toll climbing daily.
“As a person, I’m very distressed by the mounting death toll and the psychological impact this will have on folks, not only in Gaza and Israel, but also around the world,” she said. “I know that both the Muslim community and the Jewish community — based on reports from their clergy reps — they feel very much alone.”
Finding interfaith support
Over the past several weeks following the attacks, members of NICA have met to sit with each other and find ways to talk about what is happening globally and how to best lead their faith communities.
“There are so many more than two sides to this issue and so much entangling history,” said the Rev. John Gage, senior minister at the Congregational Church of Needham – United Church of Christ. “It’s unbelievably challenging to even talk about partly because of how the conflict gets framed — a conflict that doesn’t go back just to Oct. 7 or the last 75 to 100 years. Unfortunately it gets couched in even older conflicted religious language.”
Gage said Farid joining the association was absolutely critical. “She was so incredibly gracious coming into the organization and offering not just her opinions but her very obvious care for all of us and the communities represented. I can only imagine how challenging it was being the only Muslim person in the room with many Christian and Jewish congregations.”
Month after month, NICA meets to build relationships among the diverse faith communities in Needham so that when something of the magnitude of the terrorist attack and escalating violence in Gaza occurs the foundation is there, said Gage.
Turning to the group Essential Partners, an organization that helps people have difficult conversations within their communities and build relationships across differences in order to address challenging situations, the Rev. Scudera helped lead dialogue about the conflict and enabled NICA to put together a virtual interfaith vigil. The team worked together using a consensus model to select readings, scriptures and comforting language. “If we didn’t have Muslim representation, it’s likely we would have missed something that would not have been comforting or sensitive to the Muslim community.”
“Folks feel so powerless in this moment,” said Gage. “Our hope is that sharing the video of this vigil with our own folks in our own congregations will allay those fears and possibly encourage some more positive action.” He said he has noticed an absence from self-identified Muslim voices or voices speaking up in support of the Muslim community.
Rabbi Perlman said he is hopeful and has a tremendous faith in the community, but there is a lot of work yet to be done. “The reality is that most people want for all people to live in safety and in peace, to be able to raise their children and grandchildren in a way that is peaceful and secure. And while there is a lot of work to do, I see that as an opportunity and not an obstacle.”
Farid agrees. “I would love for people whether atheist or Jewish or Hindu or whatever to come together and engage in difficult conversations in a way that’s respectful and makes them feel heard.”
Scudera said NICA will continue to monitor the situation in the Middle East and work together to support each other and the residents of Needham.