Interfaith division was evident to me from a relatively young age. I remember being around 17 years old at school and reading newspaper articles about Islamic extremism on the internet. Spread across these articles were those stereotypical pictures of the Islamic State (IS): bearded men wearing headscarves, carrying assault rifles and waving their black and white flag.
To some, these men embodied the religion of Islam. The flag contains the writing of the shahada which is not only the first pillar of Islam but it is the Islamic declaration of faith, which states: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His messenger.” The self-association of extremists, like IS, to Islam was considered evidence enough to non-Muslims that Islam was an inherently violent and backward religion.
Such views were perpetuated around school and these views were not isolated to the issue of extremism. One girl remarked to me her disgust towards Muslims as ‘dirty’ people. I was fortunate to be privately educated and yet Islamophobia was pervasive. Though hate crimes against Islam are statistically higher in the UK than those committed against other religions, there is a general air of distrust towards those that are different to ourselves.
I do not believe I was special for not sharing these views. We were children after all. But there was one major experience I had that many did not and that was dialogue. As an ‘army brat,’ I was brought up in diverse communities with my parents’ friends ranging from Spaniards to Sri Lankans. Nobody was treated any different because of their national, ethnic or religious backgrounds but rather celebrated for them.
This meant that I did not accept emotive headlines on face value or believe that those pictures of Islamic terrorists represented Muslims here in the UK. But if the general public has no Islamic connections, it is easier to accept the idea that all Muslims are terrorists. Indeed, the media had a reprehensible role to play in the rise of Islamophobia with headlines like that of The Sun (November 2016): “1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis.”
The problem that underlines all of this is the belief that an entire religion can be defined by an extremist or criminal minority. Muslims have long had to suffer the association with Islamic terrorists since 9/11 and have paid for it with their safety and lives. It also seems like every country will identify a scapegoat for all their failings and religious intolerance is the internalisation of that within the public’s mind.
This is where the importance of interfaith comes in. Dialogue between people of different backgrounds shows that there is more that unites us than divides us. That no entire religion can be boxed or defined by blanket characterisations. Rather, we can fight hatred and religious intolerance merely by talking and listening to those that are different.
We are at a pivotal stage; countries are being divided on racial and religious lines. But we can stop this by encouraging interfaith dialogue, thereby defeating both intolerance and terror.
They say everyone remembers where they were when 9/11 happened. I don’t. I was four. We had moved to the UK from Pakistan in early 2001. My mother recounts that she had brought me to McDonalds to lunch on my favourite fish fingers and French fries happy meal when she witnessed the horrific scenes unfold on a tiny early noughties’ television screen affixed to the wall.
Four years later, I found myself playing the “balancing game” on the slightly raised border separating the grass from the hard paving at school. It was the summer of 2005 and my best friend at the time saw a plane flying over. He made some exaggerated remark about jet fighters and war. I remember being intrigued, but clearly not enough to find out what he was talking about. London had been attacked that week.
2006: I go to a neighbour’s home and the television shows fighter jets bombing Lebanon. Who is it? Israel. That’s it. That’s all I know. Fast forward another two years to Winter 2008. I’m in high school now. In Lahore’s Allama Iqbal International airport, my family and I are waiting to board a flight back home after having spent the vacation visiting my cousins in Pakistan. I meet an old classmate from primary school. He tells me I should get Facebook– everyone has Facebook nowadays (even though we’re officially a couple years too young). It’s one of the first things I do when I get back home. I don’t remember how, I don’t remember from who, but one of the first things I learnt from Facebook was that there was a place somewhere called Gaza and it was being attacked. Operation Cast Lead. The first Gaza War. Now, with social media I am well and truly exposed to the reality of the world. There’s no more hiding, no more ignorant bliss.
Like many young Muslims horrified at the atrocities they witnessed on television and online, I bought into an anti-Israel narrative. And it was not a nuanced critique of the government’s actions, but a crude condemnation that conflated peoples, cultures, religions, politics, and tinged it all with bigotry, embellishing the ugliness with terms I had never heard before.
At this point in 2008, I don’t know anything about Israel, I didn’t know Gaza existed until 3 weeks ago, I am perhaps only vaguely aware of the Holocaust at this age, know next to nothing about 20th Century politics, what the word “Zionist” means, but I take to Facebook to voice my anger. Well. You can imagine how that went. Add into the mix a substantial number of Jewish kids at my new school who I eventually add on Facebook and it was a recipe for… well, initially, disaster, dissent, and disdain but eventually, after many a Facebook argument (for which I no longer possess any appetite), the development of a more informed understanding of the situation, and a generally more nuanced approach to dealing with debate and disagreement.
“All very interesting, sure, but what does this have to do with interfaith?” Fair question. Sure, the Israel-Palestine debate is arguably only tangentially related to religion, but the way it played out in my life instilled in me a more broadly applicable attitude to learning about alternative points of view. In fact, it gave me a great deal of appreciation for the sincerity of belief on each side and the reality of their fears, their hopes and their dreams which are all too often dismissed by the other. It taught me to see, and actively search for, the intrinsic humanity that is found in everyone’s limited knowledge, inescapably biased perceptions, and their unique but equally universal upbringings.
We all suffer, we all love, we all feel pain, we all worry, we all care. To deny these realities of another- no matter how vile an enemy he or she may be- is to deny their human nature. It is all too easy to dismiss our opponents as crazy, insane, evil, and inhuman: it distinguishes them from us and gives us comfort because we’re not like that. But the clinically insane are rare. And the truly evil? You possess the potential to be that as well, just as within you lies the potential to transcend it and achieve the clemency of a saintly soul. Most people are just like us. If you were born in their circumstances, and they in yours, it is not unlikely they would be making the same accusations against you.
The interfaith scene is something I accidentally got into because I was instinctively drawn to learning about my own religion and other traditions from a young age. I would trawl through Wikipedia page after Wikipedia page, going from link to link, from religious tradition to religious tradition and when I got to university I happened upon some fascinating books and scholars. But it was the foundation of Facebook feuds that, one decade later, have brought me to a point where I strive to develop genuine understanding of and between others through interfaith dialogue: superficial tolerance is not enough, we need communal dialogue, friendly coffee chats as well as deep intellectual discussions alongside critical reflection and self-critique if we, individually or collectively, are to progress in any direction.
For me, an interest in interfaith work is something that I think of as an inheritance from my father. My dad was born in Texas, but grew up in Hong Kong, the son of Methodist missionary social workers developing a social service centre in the neighbourhood of Kowloon. In that setting, I believe faith played an important role in daily life and seems to have fundamentally shaped the way he experienced the world. Despite that the nature of their work there was secular, it’s likely that my family’s particular brand of Texan Methodism nonetheless served as a backdrop from which they could conceptualise their own presence there: they were enacting their faith in daily life.
And yet, beyond the limited confines of their expat community, they were living in a world that didn’t share their faith. Effectively, they were living lives defined by Methodism, in a world wherein that tradition was something foreign, mysterious perhaps. My dad, I think, would have grown up with direct lived experience of the core of interfaith work: co-existing within diverse environments where others, unlike oneself, live side-by-side; forging connections between people who at first glance seem to have little in common; bridging the gaps between worlds.
It should have been no surprise then, that when I was in high school, my father would get involved starting an interfaith youth group. This group brought together teenagers from congregations around the county, predominantly of Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths. It was around this time that my dad went to attend a lecture given by Eboo Patel, an American Ismaili of Gujarati Indian heritage, who’d served in the Obama administration’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighbourhood Partnerships; Patel spearheaded a collegiate interfaith action initiative, inspired by his own experiences in university, wherein he noticed that discussions about multiculturalism and identity neglected religious backgrounds. Our group’s ethos was partially inspired by his writings.
I can remember clearly one of our first meetings, during which I visited a mosque for the first time. I grew up in an area in which Islamophobia had surged in the wake of 9/11, being a 45-minute drive from Manhattan, and I’d never conceptualised, in a basic sense, what it might mean to practice Islam, let alone talk to a Muslim about her faith. Yet there I was, side-by-side with teenagers, just like me, who I realised walked through the same streets as I did, attended the same schools as I did, breathed the same air as I did, yet from Day One had done so from the basis of a different faith tradition from mine. Faith, I realised in that moment, was, in my world, a taboo; and yet so much of life’s rich detail was hidden—needlessly—right there in plain sight. I had never felt comfortable asking my peers to discuss what they believed in. Interfaith work, for me, is a way of dismantling that taboo, and beginning to actively bridge the gaps separating neighbour from neighbour.