Muslim panel looks at respecting ‘the other’ among us

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, January 23, 2013

“Speak the truth in love.”
—the Bible

What’s shaping our attitudes toward people of other religions – and especially Muslims?

This was the theme at last Saturday evening’s dialogue, “Islam and the Rest,” held at St. Andrew’s United Church in Cochrane.

The event, organized by local Baha’is Michael and Judie Bopp, featured a panel of three Muslims (David Liepert, Adam Idris and Naveen Balkhi) and one responder each from Jewish (Elizabeth “Betsy” Jameson), humanist (Hugh Pepper) and Christian (myself) perspectives.

“To some North American extremists, Islam is ‘not a religion,’” Michael Bopp said in his introduction. “It’s a ‘dangerous ideology’ bent on destroying all that we in Canada hold dear and sacred. ‘Everyone knows’ about ‘their’ treatment of women, and orientation to senseless violence. ‘How can we ever be safe in our own communities with more and more of “them” in our midst?’ they ask.”

Michael was predicting we’d find such stereotypical thinking really offensive. He was right.

In challenging these stereotypes, David, a Calgary physician, adult convert to Islam, and author of Muslim, Christian and Jew, acknowledged that for some followers of all religions, including Islam, zeal for one’s religious beliefs does too often overshadow the loving relationships their religion calls them to.

“If God is what we think He is, then religion should be truly unifying,” binding people together in our response to God’s grace, he said. But there are those who willfully hijack Islam, as they do other religions, for their own divisive agendas.

Adam, a former director of the Muslim Council of Calgary and founder of its youth committee, agreed. “Our differences are too often promoted by those with conflict agendas.”

But there is a better way, he said. “In Islam the most fundamental act of charity is to smile at one another.” That can even apply to how misconceptions are handled. Misconceptions about each other’s beliefs can be viewed as a blessing – “an excuse to meet with each other.”

Misconceptions, a blessing? Yes, agreed Naveen, a Pakistani Canadian and corporate HR manager for the agricultural company, Agrium. Her desire is to spark curiosity among non-Muslims so that we will at least ask good questions instead of being manipulated by the purveyors of ignorance.

For instance, she said, take the matter of body-coverings and personal privacy.

She started covering her hair when she was 16 years old, she explained, not because her father back then or her husband later on demanded that of her, but because of her own choice. “I do it because one of the tenets of my faith is to be modestly covered and to please the One who created me.”

Her desire for us non-Muslims, if we are truly committed to positive change, is “to learn from real sources,” such as the Quran and those who are authentically part of the Muslim community, instead of judging all Muslims by what we get from the headline-hungry media or our own ill-informed assumptions.

Honest questions can enable “true understanding and positive change,” she said, acknowledging, however, that “it takes courage to ask questions” and “to see beyond the veil.”

Hugh, a local educator, politician and environmentalist, was the first responder.

If we are “to address the radical changes we face today,” he said, “we must draw on the religious values of all,” including Islam. Then looking at responders Betsy and me, he quoted from our shared Jewish-Christian teachings that we are to love our neighbour as ourselves – and that includes looking after our environment.

Betsy, a professor of history at the University of Calgary, agreed, and stressed that this loving attitude toward our neighbour must even include those of very differing religious beliefs. Such religious differences are part of our present human condition, she said, and a basic Jewish social teaching is “to act in the now and leave eternity to God.” That implies respecting our differences while claiming “our common humanity.”

My own response from a Christian perspective dovetailed quite nicely with the views of the other panelists, I believe.

I noted an interfaith conversation between Jesus, a Jew, and a woman who was a Samaritan, a sect at odds with Judaism (John 4). She tried cornering Jesus on whose worship space was the right one. Without playing down their religious differences, Jesus raised the conversation to a higher plane: Spirit and truth is the right space, He said.

And then there’s the New Testament teaching to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) – a good concluding reminder for all of us to stop being malicious messengers of misinformation about each other.


© 2013 Warren Harbeck

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