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Thoughts on Interfaith Harmony

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The question that has to be asked here is this: are people of religious faith prepared to regard those of a different faith with respect and dignity, and, yes, even love?

By Bazil Hulmani

ALL over the world there is a struggle taking place within and about religion. Sometimes it results merely in harsh or prejudicial words. But too often it erupts in violence and acts of shocking extremism. The question that has to be asked here is this: are people of religious faith prepared to regard those of a different faith with respect and dignity, and, yes, even love? Or do they rather regard them as enemies? Are they “open” to the other or “closed”? Do they want to live in harmony with those different from themselves?
In almost all of the main religions such a struggle is being witnessed everywhere. Because of the enormous importance of religion in the modern world, the outcome of such a struggle has immense implications for all of us””those from the major faiths and those of none.

Realm of Politics
Some people naturally want to say that the answer to this lies in the realm of politics; and of course politics has a crucial role to play here. But it is clear that since the dimensions of this struggle are inevitably affected by religion itself, people of faith have to step forward and take responsibility. What is more, because those who are passionate about their faith do not want to act in contradiction to it, the argument in favour of the open approach has to go wider and deeper than simply asking people to behave nicely to and with one another. It has to address, full-on, the spiritual, theological and scriptural bases for mutual respect towards those who follow a different religious or spiritual path.
On 20 October 2010, largely unnoticed by the world, the UN general assembly unanimously passed a resolution declaring the first full week of each February as the “World Interfaith Harmony Week”. The resolution, first proposed by King Abdullah II of Jordan, is unique in the annals of the UN because of its explicit mention of God (albeit in a way that does not exclude those who don’t ascribe to a religion) and because it promotes harmonious interfaith relations in a way that specifically draws attention to the scriptural and theological bases for such relations.

Discord and Division
Obviously resolutions, no matter how well-meaning, do not by themselves alter the world; but this resolution does encourage people who believe in inter-religious harmony and mutual acceptance to challenge those whose narrow and often ignorant view of other religions leads to discord and division. It acknowledges that religious discourse on social behaviour is central to the way the 21st century develops.
The mention of “love of God and love of one’s neighbour” is also important because without it, devout Christians, Muslims and Jews are not likely to sincerely get behind the resolution, since “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God” (Luke 4:4 and Matthew 4:4;) and “Verily the remembrance of God is of all things the greatest” (Qur’an, 29:45). Equally, the mention of “love of the good and love of one’s neighbour” is important because, while the good is God for believers, love of the good and the neighbour is the very essence of goodwill for all people.
The World Interfaith Harmony Week thus has an unprecedented potential to globally turn the tide against religious tensions by: uniting the efforts of various interfaith groups doing positive work within one focused theme, thereby increasing their collective momentum; harnessing the collective might of the world’s second-largest infrastructure (that of places of worship) specifically for peace and harmony; and permanently and regularly encouraging the silent majority of preachers to publicly declare themselves for peace and harmony and providing a ready-made vehicle for them to do so.
Ripple Effect of Goodness
You don’t have to be a religious ‘expert’ to do your bit to help promote good relations between people of different faith backgrounds. If you are a “layperson” of goodwill there are many things you can do to promote interfaith harmony. These may include inviting neighbours of various faiths for a cup of tea or coffee or a chat; watching an edifying movie with neighbours from other faith background; organising a multicultural bazaar; doing joint community work; feeding the hungry and homeless; planting a community garden; painting an interfaith mural; reading together; praying together; talking to your own families about the need for tolerance and harmony; or just going out of your way to greet someone of a different faith.
The real work of love of neighbour starts with the neighbour precisely and, therefore, in local communities. A good deed for interfaith harmony, even if the world moves in the opposite direction, is not like a vote for a candidate who loses: it still counts. It counts first for the soul that did it, and is that much the better for it. And it counts by creating a ripple effect of goodness that has unforeseen positive consequences in the future in an ever-widening circle of goodness. So, in the first week of February each year, remember God and the neighbour, or the good and the neighbour.
(The writer can be reached at [email protected])