Dreams of Kindness, Love and Grace: Religious Tolerance and a Dialogue of Peace by Carolyn Bolton
“Panel to speak on religious fanaticism” ran the headline. It caught my eye.
I was confused. I’d helped organize this ‘fanatic panel’—actually an event to honor Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday—working closely with the East Indian Fellowship. The panel was to discuss the topic of violence perpetrated in the name of religion. And the panelists? A tolerance trainer, a poet and peace worker, a Muslim Imam, and a practicing Hindu (these two chosen because a Hindu fanatic assassinated Gandhi in outrage at his solidarity with both Hindu and Muslim people in India and Pakistan). I, the final panelist, am a student of Gandhian philosophy.
Morning paper in hand, I struggled to reconcile our carefully designed community dialogue with this hot headline language.
My call to the editor revealed bleak reality. “Well,” his voice monotone and slow, “I don’t think you can actually say that the headline is UN-true.” A one-line correction was later printed.
The Imam, from Portland’s Islamic community, arrived in Salem on the night of the event with concern, glancing over his shoulder as he sat in a room full of strangers who had read a headline that felt very personal—and very dangerous—to him. The media may have succeeded in churning out language that that was ‘not UN-true’, but it certainly fueled fear and stereotypes rather than contributing to our collective understanding.
If we truly want a more peaceful world, we’re not well-served by the rhetoric of CNN, Gannett and other “news” sources. Greater understanding can undoubtedly eliminate fear and distrust of people different than us, but to get there we need a revolution of research, discovery and revelation in this “Information Age”.
Take Islam. Our Western world history filter informs us that Islam was spread by the sword and is synonymous with oppression, coercion and the denial of basic rights and freedoms; that Islam is a faith of intolerance and extremism. Let me push the pause button here: This is just as true as saying that the white American who parked a Ryder van rigged with a fertilizer bomb at the government building in Oklahoma City represents all Christianity. Every faith in the world has a fringe of fanatics. Even “ours.”
My experience on Gandhi’s 2002 birthday inspired me to learn more about Islam. I am in no way an expert—certainly not a convert—but here’s what I learned. The Muslim religion was founded around 600 A.D. Based on a religious text known as the Qur’an, it is a monotheistic faith that worships Allah—who is recognized by Muslims to be the God of Adam, Noah, Moses, Abraham and Jesus. There are several Muslim denominations, each with significant theological and legal differences: Shiite, Sunni, Sufi and Islam. Sunni Muslims constitute the majority of the world’s Muslim population; however, Islam is by far the greater focus of our Western press in recent times due to catastrophic events which have come to define us in new ways.
The “five pillars” of Islamic belief revolve around recitation of their creed, daily prayer, paying ritual alms, observing the fast of Ramadan and pilgrimage to Mecca. Jihad is considered by some to be the sixth pillar of Islam, although Jihad has been greatly misconstrued in the mainstream press. To the Muslim believer, Jihad is a personal inner struggle against wickedness, weakness and temptation. It is personal, unspoken, holy, and is waged every day—numerous times in numerous ways. Even when dealing with people hostile to them, Muslims are encouraged to take the path of good-ness, peace, and unity, responding with patience and kindness.
The “lesser jihad”, a focus of Islamic fanatics, is indeed the notion of “holy war.” This fringe element, through our media “education”, appears to represent the whole of Islam to the American mind. But think about it: this approach is fundamentally no different than holding up the terrorist actions of Timothy McVeigh as the core message of Christianity.
People of all faiths must wake up, open their eyes, and begin seeing one another through lenses that reveal our commonality, that incite our curiosity and our compassion, that grow our understanding.
Though not a Muslim, I greet you with the traditional Islamic greeting, “Assalamu Alaikum” (peace be upon you). This greeting represents the sincere desire of not only Muslim believers, but of the majority of world religions—to spread love and tolerance among all people, whatever their language, belief, or social system.
Carolyn Bolton’s vocational activities are centered around mediation, training, public policy and organizational development. An ordained nondenominational minister, she finds her bliss in the practices of writing, music and theater. You may write Carolyn at [email protected].