Proud Muslim, Scientist, Interfaith Leader

Javaria Haseeb is a Senior Associate Scientist at Pfizer and will be featured at the closing plenary of this year's Interfaith Leadership Institute, titled: "Meeting the Moment: Interfaith Leadership in Vaccine Distribution."  We encourage you to sign up for the ILI and join other leaders from around the country who are seeking to make interfaith cooperation the norm.  Click here for more information.

Ms. Haseeb spoke with IFYC’s Paul Raushenbush about her interfaith journey.       

Paul Raushenbush: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me.  Can you tell me when you first heard about interfaith? 

Javaria Haseeb: When I was in high school, my sister was a student at Merrimack College and she was minoring in Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations.  When I enrolled in Merrimack, I was naturally pulled into the interfaith group and started attending meetings.  At the time, I didn’t’ have a good picture of what interfaith meant – it seemed to me that I had to accept everything that was different from my beliefs, and I felt like I was feeling forced to accept things I didn’t want to. 

But then I went to my first ILI in 2014 and Eboo [Eboo Patel, IFYC Founder and President] gave a remarkable speech and told a story about his Jewish friend and a conversation they had during dinner when his friend said something with which Eboo did not agree. During that moment, Eboo told his friend he respects his belief, but it does not align with his (Eboo’s) beliefs, and they still ended up having a good conversation. That is when I truly realized what interfaith means.  It’s not about accepting other’s beliefs and pushing your own away - it is about being respectful, while still having the freedom to express your beliefs. 

I spoke to Eboo after his talk, I don’t know if he remembers, but it was a very emotional moment for me.  

PR: Once you understood what interfaith work was about, how did you decide to become a leader? 

JH: At that time, there were so many things going on within the Muslim community – there was the shooting in North Carolina, and I remember wondering how someone can shoot others for no reason, solely because of ideas constructed through the ignorance of the society that we live in. But it was not only happening to the Muslim community. Everywhere I looked, there were stories of people being discriminated against and becoming victims of violence because of their religious beliefs.  The life of the Prophet, peace and blessing be upon him, teaches us to look after everyone in the society, regardless of their ethnicity and religious beliefs. IFYC promotes building bridges in order to work together and live better lives as a society, and it felt really personal to me.  

As a student looking at my own society and where I can have the most impact, I felt the need to promote and become a part of this crucial work on my campus, Merrimack College, which is a Catholic school, and was not religiously diverse at the time. We needed an interfaith prayer room to send a message on our campus. When I joined the interfaith alliance group, they were in the midst of creating it and I jumped right into the initiative. I served as a member and then as a leader in the group with a mission to spread awareness on campus. We hosted several religious and cultural events which gave each member in our group an opportunity to freely express their beliefs with others on campus and have our college community listen. All this needed time, planning, organizing, and was fueled by a purpose which resulted in me naturally being pushed into a leadership role. 

PR: How did all of this interfaith work help you as a person and in your career? 

JH: I built my communication skills through interfaith – learning to have conversations about different religions and culture with people of different religions and culture.  My experience in interfaith helped me develop the ability to have difficult conversations. I learned how to have a mature conversation when there are conflicts, without them resulting in bitterness. and still be able to achieve the desired outcome. 

And that helped me in my career – even in the scientific arena. At the end of my first internship at Pfizer, I asked my supervisor what stood out in my resume/interview that he hired me over other candidates, and he said it was because of my interfaith experience. When he described the role to me during the interview, he compared it to working with a religious text with room for interpretation and resolving conflicts based on differences in interpretations. I found it funny but fascinating at the same time the way he made the comparison. Manufacturing medicine requires strict adherence to Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). We experienced some contaminations and we needed to take actions to make sure it didn’t happen again. My responsibility was to understand that SOP, enhance it, and make sure other operators were on the same page. There were parts in the SOP where the language had room for interpretation. Different operators were interpreting those areas of the SOP differently, so I had to go in have conversations with them individually and as a group, then come up with steps with further clarity which everyone agreed upon.   

As a religious person, as a Muslim, I am proud of being a scientist. When we fabricate medicine, we don’t think – this is for a Muslim, or an Arab, or for a Christian or for an African – we don’t discriminate based on religion or race. Disease does not discriminate and so we can’t. 

PR: If you could say one thing to someone just starting to learn about interfaith and who is thinking about signing up for the ILI, what would you say?  

JH: I would like to say that interfaith is about building bridges with respect. Having differences is alright, as long as we can put them aside and work towards the betterment of the society. The goal is to work together and live together with our differences – and it is doable. 

For someone thinking about signing up for the ILI to just learn about interfaith, I would say the best part is when we get to interact with the diverse group that is present from all backgrounds and religions. Hearing their stories, that will stick with you and will change you – it certainly changed me.   

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.