By Saadia Faruqi
Source: Houston Chronicle Spirited Chat
When our founding fathers, driven by religious persecution to a new continent, drafted the constitution, it was obvious they had in mind the religious and civil freedoms of every generation that lived after them. And for a while, as long as the country was unified in religious practice, tolerance was not that difficult to achieve. But with every new wave of immigrants entering the United States, the variety of religious thought and tradition has expanded.
Today, Americans seem to fear and reject everyone who acts, looks or dresses differently. From politicians screaming about Shariah to Hindu temples being attacked with Molotov cocktail, and every action in between, the question has now become: can religious tolerance and freedom ever be attained?
In my home town of Houston, at least, many seem hopeful that it can. Last Saturday the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community hosted an interfaith symposium which challenged leaders of all major religions to answer a simple question: how can the followers of different religions co-exist in harmony? In front of a standing-room only crowd in the largest mosque in Texas, panelists from the Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Jain faiths grappled with this serious question from their religious perspectives. Despite the gravity of the challenge, however, the solutions offered by the panelists were simple.
Gurmit Singh Bhatia of the Sikh Center Houston wisely proposed, “Whenever injustices happen, stand up for them.” Interesting… how many of us actually stand up for the religious freedom of others? When Prophet Muhammad was being caricaturized by European cartoonists, for example, few Christians stood up and protested. When Christians were being kidnapped and killed in the Middle East, no mainstream Muslim bothered to express his or her outrage. On the other hand when Terry Jones threatened to burn the Quran, the Christian body that stood up to him made him back down, thus proving that the power does belong to the people.
Other panelists had equally simple but powerful suggestions. Rabbi Jonathan Siger of Jewish Community North talked about the problems of intra-faith intolerance, a point that resounded with many in the audience. Reverend Butch Green of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship stressed the importance of being good listeners. “We should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,” he said. “If all else fails, agree to disagree.” How many of us really listen to the views of others? As a purdah-observing woman working in a professional field that shouldn’t be affected by how I dress, I find that I can’t do anything to convince others that covering up was my choice.
One may wonder why the symposium focused on religion when the entire “axis of evil” of intolerance has been sowed by extremism and fanatics in the name of religion itself. Perhaps because the root cause of a problem sometimes offers a solution as well. Imam Naseem Mahdi, keynote speaker of the symposium and national vice president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA, reminded his fellow Muslims that Islam’s original jihad was solely for the protection of “cloisters, churches and mosques”. In fact, all panelists focused on how their respective scriptures and teachings promoted religious freedom, in the hope that their own followers at least would understand and implement those teachings, instead of blindly following what they heard on television and radio. If that strategy were to work, then perhaps some day religious freedom could actually be a reality.
Saadia Faruqi is the interfaith liaison for the women's group of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and editor of Interfaith Houston. The views expressed in this post are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ahmadiyya Community or Interfaith Houston.