Saffet Catovic, Revives ISNA’s Washington DC Interfaith Program
Last October, ISNA appointed Imam Saffet Abid Catovic to head its Washington, D.C. Office for Interfaith, Community Alliances and Government Relations.
In 1992, Catovic was working for a major New Yorkbased corporation. When war broke out in Bosnia, his ancestral homeland, he left his job and helped found the Bosnia Task ForceUSA, an alliance of ten Muslim American organizations that worked to stop the genocide. During it and the immediate postwar Dayton Agreement period, he served in several senior Bosnian government positions, among them minister counselor at the UN Bosnian Mission until 2001, and then as director for an international humanitarian organization.
While operating his own management consultancy for the next 20 years, he continued quest for knowledge and broadening his understanding led him to earn a Master’s in religion and the environment (Drew University ‘18). Now pursuing his Doctor of Ministry at Drew, he also works as an imam, chaplain and MSA advisor, sits on the Drew Religious Life Council and is its religious advisor on Islam and Muslims. In addition, he is one of the GreenFaith fellowship program’s first two Muslim graduates. He serves this premier interfaith coalition for religiousenvironmental leadership as its senior Muslim advisor on Islam, Muslims and the environment.
A popular speaker, he relates Islam’s teachings on the environment. But he does more than just talk. For example, he applied his GreenFaith training to launch Green Muslims of New Jersey, of which he is chair and cofounder. This organization went on to become the basis for ISNA America Green Initiatives (formerly Green Mosque Task Force).
Among his other accomplishments are being inducted into the Parliament of the World’s Religions’ Climate Action Task Force (2017), serving as a member of its Religions Board of Trustees (2019), being named by ISPU–Muslims for American Progress an interfaith innovator for his work in the greater New York area on the environment and environmental justice issues (2018) and receiving the New Jersey State Governor’s Jefferson Award for commitment as a faith leader for administering Muslim Scouting programs and environmental issues advocacy (2019).
A prolific writer, he has presented many papers at different venues and online about Bosnian Muslims, Islam and the Environment, Islamic Scouting and the Boy Scouts of America and other topics. He is also a regular khateeb in the greater New YorkNew JerseyPennsylvania metropolitan area.
Currently, he is a member of the scholars’ drafting team of “AlMizan: Covenant for the Earth,” organized by the UN Environmental Program’s Faiths for Earth and the Islamic World Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. He has also been appointed to the Muslim Alliance in North America’s executive board.
Islamic Horizons talked to him about his background, why he joined ISNA and what he hopes to accomplish in his new role.
IH: What is your past involvement with ISNA?
SAC: My parents were actively involved with ISNA ever since its inception as MSA. In fact, Dr. Syeed M. Syed (former president, ISNA) attributes much of ISNA’s founding leadership knowledge and benefits from the experiences of the Balkan Muslims to their many conversations and discussions with my father. I miss the early MSA days when our family slept in the university dorms. I was involved with MSA national throughout my college years.
During those years, my wife and I, along with other Muslim youth organizers from New Jersey, connected with others from Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. We worked with Dawud Zwink (former vice president, ISNA) and established MYNA. My later work with ISNA’s Green Mosque Task Force team enabled me to help draft ISNA’s fossilfuel divestment policy and represent it at COP22 during November 2016. There, I announced ISNA’s commitment to divest from fossil fuels, making it the world’s first national Muslim organization to join the global divest/reinvest campaign.
I also represented ISNA at the COP23 as a member of a highlevel interfaith delegation that presented a multifaith statement on sustainable living: “Walk on Earth Gently,” which I also helped draft.
I was a codrafter, along with Jamal Badawi and Zwink, and driver of a fatwa on Fossil Fuel Divestment, which was adopted and put forth by the Fiqh Council of North America. The joint North American/UK delegation released this firstofitskind ruling, along with a similar statement by British Muslims, at Cape Town’s Financing the Future Summit (2019).
Among my other writings are “Indeed the World is Green and Sweet, “Walk Softly on Earth,” “Towards an Islamic Energy Ethic and Praxis” and “Islam, Nature and Geoengineering.” I coauthored the webbased Muslim Green Worship Resources and have authored and edited other scholarly works on Islamic ecology and Islam’s teachings on the environment.
And finally, I was a consultant to the Drafting Committee of the International Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change’s “Istanbul Declaration” (2015) and a founding board member of the Global Muslim Climate Network, which was officially launched at the UN on Earth Day 2016.
IH: What motivated you to take on this new leadership role?
SAC: Initially, Basharat Saleem (executive director, ISNA) asked me to join ISNA and head up this office. My meetings with him and members of the ISNA Executive enabled me to see that I could make a difference. My experience and background, as well as my current involvement in intrafaith and interfaith work and passion for justice
and environmental issues, were also relevant. So, after supplicating to God and consulting my family, I accepted the position.
IH: What do you hope to accomplish in your new position?
SAC: This huge responsibility intersects with many sectors and oftentimes competing interests, constituencies and groups. Realizing that I can only do so much on my own, I plan to follow the Beatles’ advice and “get by with a little help from my friends.” By working closely with our DMVarea Muslim community members, national D.C.based Muslim organizations, our interfaith partners and the Headquarters’ team support, I hope to continue the proud legacy of ISNA’s pioneers.
I hope to realize ISNA’s vision and mission here by expanding and deepening its engagement with the Muslim communities and cooperation with the DMV metropolitan area’s national Muslim organizations to develop a more unified, robust and inclusive civic engagement. I plan to strengthen our existing interfaith alliances and programs and to include many others as we work for racial, economic, sociopolitical and environmental justice, as well as immigrant and human rights. I truly believe in the words of Zain Bhikha’s song, “I am a Muslim and God I praise …,” which my late father taught me and my siblings to sing at mawlids and on other occasions. After all, according to him, “Working together makes our hopes increase to live in a world full of love and peace.”
IH: What are some of the joys and challenges of interfaith work and coalition building?
SAC: The joys include learning about, understanding and appreciating how people’s experience of God guides their way of being in the world. I firmly believe that only dialogue and working together on issues of justice and mutual concern will enable us to overcome the great challenges facing us; better understand our own faith, practice and way of being in the world; and become better sisters and brothers to one another as members of the human family.
The challenges are to actualize and manifest the golden rule, which our Prophet (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) says is to “love for your brother/sister (in faith and in humanity) what you love for yourself.” Through this process, we hopefully will come to realize that the other, the stranger, is our neighbor, with all their beautiful imperfections (not unlike my own), whom I should love and work to fulfill their rights and our duties toward them.
IH: From where do you draw inspiration? What individuals or books have influenced your worldview and public activism?
SAC: In the first sense, from Islam’s teachings as found in the Quran and Sunna. Specific books outside of these primary source texts include Shaykh Muhammad Manzoor Nomani’s “Maariful Hadith” and Sheikh Muhammed Ghazali’s “Fiqh us Seerah.” Of course there are many others as well.
IH: What advice would you give to others aspiring to get into your line of work?
SAC: Simply do, for as God states: “Say (unto them): Act! God will behold your actions, and (so will) His messenger and the believers. You will be brought back to the Knower of the Invisible and the Visible, and He will tell you what you used to do” (9:105).
And, follow the example of the best of examples by emulating the beautiful life example of the Prophet, who served God through loving service to others. Be a servantleader, for our tarbiyya (training) is by doing and by doing consistently that which is routine and mundane as well as great and lauded. Do them with a cheerful disposition and never forget, as my late father said and as the Prophet taught, “The best of you are those who are of the most benefit and uplift others.”
Photo credit: parliamentofreligions.org