Last Friday, UTM MSA ended Islam Awareness Week with their second annual “Muslim Talks” event. Inspired by the concept of TED Talks, Muslim Talks focuses on providing a space for influential and impactful Muslim individuals to come and share their experiences with the general UTM student body.

The lineup consisted of six inspirational speakers who talked about this year’s IAW theme of building bridges between Muslims and the rest of Canadian society. Speakers included Farheen Kahn (the only woman wearing a hijab to run in the 2015 federal election as an MP candidate) and AbuHafsah AbdulMalik Clare (a motivational speaker).

The Medium rounded up the highlights of the event.

Mohammad Fakih

President of Paramount Finefoods

Mohammad Fakih’s tale began with finding a modest restaurant behind a police station in an industrial location, which today has changed to something so paramount that it is currently open in 30 locations around the world. By this December, it will be competing worldwide as the biggest franchise that provides halal Middle Eastern cuisine.

Fakih emphasized how far one could go if their commitment to an idea was strong enough. Using his entrepreneurship skills, Fakih said that he saw investing in this restaurant as an opportunity to alter the way the West looked at Muslims “by presenting our culture and halal food in an accessible manner to others and our future children”.

When asked about how to stay honest and true to one’s original vision even after achieving so much success, Fakih said to “never allow your ego to stand between you and your success—stay humble and tell others in your team [to do] the same”.

Fakih’s vision for Paramount is to “offer and feed everyone’s children what I would like to feed mine” and to normalize unique Islamic cultural arrangements in the Western world that have not been done before. Examples of these are creating reliable outlets for halal food, offering a range of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine, and providing prayer spaces in its restaurants.=

Dr. Hamid Slimi

Founder of Sayeda Khadija Centre

Having both traditional and academic education from Morocco, the US, and the UK, Dr. Hamid Slimi’s talk was perhaps the most bridge-building talk of the night. With his extensive expertise in interfaith dialogue and knowledge in Islamic studies and law, he claimed that “communities where interfaith is active are healthy”.

By pinpointing the several problems that have caused Islam to have bad PR today, Slimi advocated the plurality of Islam and its openness to other faiths and people. He stated that when certain media moguls choose not to portray the real Islam in the news for fear of it being too boring to sell, they instead opt for the extremist, war-mongering image that can incite fears in others.

But aside from that problem, Muslims amongst themselves also have to deal with their own baggage: cultural barriers that wrongfully take precedence over religious teachings, misinterpretations of texts due to translations that are not contextualized, and failure to integrate the revelation of the religion with the reality of modern day. Slimi said that Islam as a religion itself does not have problems; it is the Muslims who need to rethink and reform their approach to Islam, taking into account how much justice they are truly giving to the religion itself when they say they are following it. It seems that things are not so simple and there is a lot of work that needs to be done from both inside and out.

Slimi constantly repeated, “You cannot be a good Muslim until you become a good human being, and you cannot become a good human being until you understand what humanity is all about.” He urged everyone to build bridges by showing respect and concern for others regardless of their various backgrounds and become “someone who is seen by every human as a good person”.

Naeema Farooqi

Professor of communication and PR at Humber College Toronto’s School of Media and Information Technology

As founder and  editor-in-chief of The Link Canada Magazine, Professor Naeema Farooqi talked about the unfortunate reality of the portrayal of Muslims in the media and how one could navigate this problem.

She said that human beings function by giving priority to themselves in forming bubbles for themselves—that “it is all about me being comfortable in my social sphere”. But because Muslims are currently only news-generators (instead of news-makers) who have no control over their own portrayal, Farooqi proposed that Muslims first and foremost need to excel in their own sphere and “then venture out of their bubbles to meet other bubbles”. That is where bridge-building can begin.

Farooqi shared her experience of being a professor in a hijab and how being out of her bubble made her anxious at times, but also excited because she got to meet so many curious and interested students who wanted to know more about her bubble, allowing her the chance to build bridges every day in her classes.

Mohamed Zeyara

Humanitarian activist and filmmaker

Mohamed Zeyara was the youngest speaker of the night. Born in Canada, the 22-year-old is an activist by day and a medical student by night. He is best known for his Inspiration series (currently airing its second season), which has over 300,000 views on YouTube, and his recent documentary, Al-Najwa Villages In Mali, where he and his team carried out a range of charity projects such as building wells, medical facilities, mosques, and spaces for classrooms.

Zeyara’s talk focused on how to reach one’s goals and what he considers success, saying, “As long as there is progress [in your life towards the goal], that within itself is success.”

He also gave tips towards changing one’s habits to reach those goals, saying that the most important takeaway he wanted from his talk was “to have faith in God; that God will help you”, and most of all to “have faith in yourself [and] be persistent enough to reach that goal”.