ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The United Arab Emirates hosted the start of a two-day forum on Tuesday for Islamic community leaders from countries around the world where Muslims are minorities.
Several hundred people attended the forum in the UAE's capital of Abu Dhabi to network and discuss challenges around issues of Islamophobia, integration and extremism.
Muslim community leaders attending the summit came from countries as far as Venezuela and Vietnam, where Muslims are minorities. The forum also hosted speakers from international organizations, like the United Nations, and members of other faiths, such as Buddhism and Christianity, to deepen discussions on pluralism and tolerance.
With more than half a billion Muslims living in countries where they are a minority, spokesperson for the International Muslim Communities Conference, Fawziya Al-Ajamawi, said it's important to combat misunderstandings and portray Islam "as a religion of forgiveness and love."
"The biggest issue we face in Europe is the growth of Islamophobia and the fear of Islam and Muslims because, daily, the news shows stories of bombings and terrorist activities," she said.
"We are trying to correct this picture that taints the image of Muslims," Al-Ajamawi added.
Canadian attendee, Muhammad Robert Heft, said the conference in Abu Dhabi was an opportunity to meet other Muslim community leaders from different backgrounds and walks of life to understand the issues they face.
"I think it's important to sort of get outside your bubble and box. I mean I'm in Toronto, Canada so when you come to a place like this, you get a lot more and a wider perspective about what's happening in life, especially outside of, you know, my circle," he said.
Heft said he converted to Islam 20 years ago at the age of 25. He is now founder and president of Paradise Forever, an organization that works with Muslim converts in Canada and is funded by UAE Vice President and Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. He's counseled Canadian converts to Islam who are at risk or have been radicalized.
He said one of the challenges Muslim minorities face when living abroad is integration without compromising one's religious principles.
"It's finding that balance," Heft said. "Let's try to find that common ground and live and let live."
Nurdine Aiuba Dauda came to the conference from Mozambique. He says he memorized the Quran by age 15 and studied Arabic and Islam in Sudan and Saudi Arabia. He now preaches in mosques and works with Muslim youth in his home country, where Christianity is also widely practiced.
He says the challenges facing Muslims in Mozambique include poverty, unemployment and access to education.
"There aren't enough universities and high schools. There are youth who study under trees," he said.
Al-Ajamawi, the conference spokesperson, says the inaugural forum is just the start of what could be an annual event to bring together leaders of Muslim minority communities.
Meanwhile, Turkey, which tolerates and even supports some Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood that the UAE has outlawed, hosted its own summit for Muslim minorities last month with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressing attendees and urging unity in the face of religious extremism and anti-Muslim hate crimes.