Abeer Javaid Advocate
We claim to live in a world that is becoming increasingly civilized and well-informed. While we sometimes attribute this change to the phenomenon of globalization, we often also point to the widespread use of the internet. Although the advancement in communication technology has certainly benefited human lives, one can argue that it is also being extensively exploited nowadays. The reality is that while technology can provide us with ‘factual’ information, it does not always specify the intentions behind this information. We, the consumers of such information, tend to rely on what we are told by a sensationalist media or by our governments, who usually have their own ulterior motives.
Humans have always been afraid of what they do not understand and this lack of understanding, coupled with a lack of communication, has been exploited time and again to pit nations against each other. What our generation lacks is face-to-face encounters and honest communication in an open and unbiased setting. Of course, this is not an easy task, as centuries of mistrust and bigotry have widened the communication gap between us and those we consider the “other”. The reality is that open-ended dialogue would be the best way to tackle our differences in a peaceful manner. Sadly, we are usually influenced, even in dialogue, by the doubt and suspicion that accompany our historical and emotional baggage.
Thus, when I won a month-long scholarship to the Vienna International Christian-Islamic Summer University, I was not sure of what to expect. I had never traveled halfway around the world on my own and the travel was exhausting. Clichés aside, the Summer University was a revelation to me. For starters, I had never even seen the inside of a monastery, not to mention living and working in one. The Stift Altenburg, where the summer program was hosted, was beautiful and I discovered a new and enchanting part of it on a daily basis. As a house of worship and study, it was also a suitable location for inter-faith dialogue.
I was even more impressed when I met my forty fellow students, who had travelled there from seventeen different countries. Each had a distinctive persona, accent, and culture. Countries that had only been names to me now had faces. Initially, I was a little overwhelmed by the sheer diversity of all the participants. I wondered how I would manage to get to know all of them properly in just three weeks. However my apprehension faded on the second day, by which time I could recall most of their names without surreptitiously having to look at their nametags and they seemed to remember mine as well. This effort on the part of the students to know their peers was touching and it set the tone for the following weeks.
Coming from a country where religion plays a prominent role in the common citizen’s life, I was quite conscious of the religious radicalism that has come to be associated with Pakistan. In 1947, we gained our independence from Britain after a struggle that has been primarily defined in terms of religion. In the decades since, our country has been in the international limelight for all the wrong reasons, the most recent being our link with terrorism. For me, this program was a unique opportunity to explain to my peers that a misguided view of Islam on the part of some should not incriminate all the followers of a religion, or indeed the religion itself. I was surprised to find that the Christian students were not only very receptive of my views but some had more knowledge of Islam than I had of Christianity. It was heart-warming to see that almost all Christian students signed up for the Islam tutorial. The need to understand each other, to speak, and to listen became paramount. Our discussions would often run into the early hours of the morning!
During our passionate debates, I realized that I should not target people for holding certain views about my way of life when I was doing the very same thing concerning their ways of life. I learnt that stereotyping goes both ways. The need of the hour was tolerance and understanding. Being open-minded does not necessarily have to imply an endorsement of another person’s belief, life choices or ideas. Rather, the things that are most worthwhile to know and learn are the ones that challenge one’s convictions. These were all important lessons for me but perhaps the most important discovery was that bigotry murders religion.
This direct interaction – made possible not by modern technology but through an old-fashioned human encounter – was the very essence of this Summer University. For three magical weeks, I experienced seventeen different cultural backgrounds. Looking back, I feel like I have taken a mini-trip around the world or, as my friend Marsha from Philadelphia put it, lived a mini-life away from our normal life. Together, we laughed, danced, ate, lived, shared, sang, and even argued sometimes – though a walk in the evening would sort everything out. I became friends with people so unlike me, and yet at the same time we connected on so many levels. We discovered that our ways of life may be different but the root of our religions is the same, and the message of both our religions is very clear: peace and justice for humanity.
Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H) and Jesus Christ (SAW) came when social injustice had crossed all boundaries and the values of humanity were being trampled. Both brought a message of justice, peace, and compassion. We need to look into ourselves and to find the humanity that exists within us. But first and foremost, we need to see each other as human beings and not only as Muslim or Christian, Asian or African. “Why bother?” is no longer an option. This experience taught me that, despite all our differences, disputes, and specific histories, we can – if we honestly try – co-exist peacefully. It’s time we stop playing the victim or silent bystander to the hate brewing around us.
All the bonds I formed at this program left an indelible print on me. In learning the thoughts and ideas of others, I also discovered a lot about myself. Sadly, my return was dampened by suicide attacks on mosques, shrines and the worship places of Ahmedis. I couldn’t help but think that people from different countries, backgrounds, religions, ways of life and even languages, can make an effort to co-exist but Muslims living in the same country and even speaking the same language are finding it hard to tolerate fellow Muslims and people of other religions that live in their midst. In our blind quest to be ‘right’ we have lost sight of the real message of Islam, which is one of enduring peace.