Religious differences are generally acknowledged to be a major cause of social conflict in many societies and a serious contemporary issue plaguing relations among nations.
The concepts of religious toleration and liberty, despite being much talked about entities, are also found sadly lacking when many proponents of freedom and equality are invited to walk the talk. Yet, every now and then one is rendered pleasantly surprised.
A diverse mix of faiths resides in the small picturesque town of Sharon. One evening, while taking a stroll down the street, I passed by a synagogue. A banner displayed outside announced the celebration of 70 years since its founding. There was light music coming from inside, pleasant and non-intrusive, while a large number of cars parked outside bore witness to plentiful attendance. Having recently moved to the country, I began to wonder about the religious freedom extended to other faiths represented there. In a land criticized for persecution of its Muslim inhabitants since Sept. 11, the thought seemed to provoke a skeptical response.
However, a week later while attending a social gathering just a mile away, I stood corrected on more scores than one. A large number of Muslims, mostly of Pakistani origin, had gathered for a celebration. It was a pleasant affair. Men sat comfortably on one side, engrossed in discussions about gas prices and aspirations of their newly graduated offspring, while women and young girls dressed in bright traditional wear sat in the main hall around tables, chatting away or fretting over the rows of food which, as I was to appreciate later, had been cooked by the host and his friends – a huge step away from their traditional role! – in the kitchen next to the main hall. The hall overlooked a swimming pool, a basket ball court, and a school. I was also informed that a private organization called Interfaith Action Inc. coordinates with Muslims and peoples of other faiths in town to facilitate better understanding.
As I watched the scene of perfect social harmony, I became aware of a glaring inconsistency – the presence of non-Muslims. Inside the mosque. That’s right. The venue for the interfaith gathering was the central place of prayer for the followers of the Islamic faith, in the heart of the town. It was a place of not just religious assembly, but of social gathering for the whole family too – something entirely unheard-of back home. As I stood there marveling at the scene before me, the muezzin announced the call for prayer. Men and women formed neat rows to bow before their God while non-Muslim guests looked on curiously, sharing a quiet moment.
A quick flash of memory; another time, another place. Inside the Islamic Republic. A mosque – a place where the entry of a non-Muslim could invite serious consequences in some parts of the country; a place where a regular mosque-goer, for his dedication to his faith, might end up a statistic on the floor of a mosque in yet another suicide attack by a fellow Muslim. Perplexing thoughts. Why are non-Muslims discouraged from interacting with Muslims when blessings of interfaith harmony need to be propagated to improve the delicate global balance? Why is so much blood spilled in the name of a God believed to be ‘the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful’?
It is perhaps only reasonable to conclude that religious differences do not necessarily form the basis for social conflict. It is the culture of intolerance and injustice that breeds hatred and violence. In societies that uphold social justice and religious freedom as a basic human right, religious differences can actually become a source of stability and provide successful multicultural and multi-religious social models for others to follow.
For many, it is clearly time for some serious introspection – but this small town certainly seems to have its priorities in order.
Published Sept 30, 2009 in The Patriot Ledger