Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 8, 2004
Let religion promote harmony
By DOUGLAS ROCHE
Special to the WCR
The following is an excerpt from a talk by Senator Douglas Roche to the Canadian Egyptian Society of Edmonton and the Canadian Arab Professional and Business Club on Feb. 7
My message to you tonight is that all of us - Muslim, Christian, Jew and beyond - must reach out in dialogue and reconciliation in these new and dangerous times. That is the only way to lasting peace.
A few days after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, I was invited to a Muslim prayer service in the El Rashid Mosque in Edmonton. I joined a number of Christians and Jews to pray for peace alongside our Muslim neighbours. I was greatly moved by the occasion.
The Muslim assembly felt a backlash against them because the suicide terrorists were young Muslim men. It was evident that the assembly was struggling with finding ways to show our whole community that those present were good citizens who abhor violence of any kind.
Muslims are truly chagrined that Osama bin Laden, widely assumed to be the force behind the hijackings in the U.S., had cited the Koran, Islam's holiest book, as the inspiration for the terrorist attacks. The more bin Laden revealed himself in subsequent months, the more it became clear that his motivation was not the Koran but his hatred of the secularism of the United States, which he held responsible for what he saw as the increasing decadence in Muslim countries.
Nonetheless, selective quotations from the Koran were used by some in the West to endorse the view that Islam is a fanatical and violent faith. In the months following the terrorist attacks, the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes increased.
Hate crimes are on the rise in many urban areas, and I am sad to say that this includes our own country. We are witnessing physical assaults, demeaning remarks, banning of religious dress, government invasion of privacy, rising intolerance against immigrants - all of which have caused the Canadian Islamic Congress to advise Muslims in Canada to take extraordinary safety precautions, such as memorizing their lawyers' phone numbers and avoid travel to the United States. These are indeed dangerous times.
We must resist the unjust persecution of Muslim people whether done through social slights or jailings. Policies such as racial profiling do not bring security, but instead harass the innocent and increase ethnic tensions wherever they are used. I call on the Government of Canada and the Government of Alberta and the Edmonton city administration to do much more to stop all hate crimes and protect the civil right of Muslims in our community.
Muslim scholars around the world, appalled by the terrorist actions, have tried to explain that Islam is a peaceful, progressive, inherently forgiving and compassionate religion. But Islam, no less than Christianity or Judaism, is subject to extremist elements which claim that their "war" against oppression is just. Christians have killed in the name of God, as have Hindus, Buddhists, Jews and others.
I have come to learn that the term jihad, so often misunderstood in the West, means "exertion on the path toward God." It is a struggle with one's base instincts: sin, oppression, greed, exploitation. In its deepest sense, it is an inner personal exertion, not a holy war, although it can also become an outer defensive action to protect one's community.
The Muslim faith does not countenance a jihad against the West - far from it. Muslim communities around the world were horrified that their faith was so abused and made an instrument of evil by terrorist sects. Their martyrdom was not holy, but a wicked perversion. Islam does not teach Muslims to kill innocent people in the name of a political agenda. We must do more to promote this true teaching. Indeed, classic Islamic civilization is a true bridge between West and East and this bridge must now be restored.
I come before you as a Roman Catholic, conscious of the teaching of my own Church, contained in the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). In one of the Council documents, Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to non-Christian Religions, we read:
"Upon the Muslims . . . the Church looks with esteem. They adore one God, living and enduring, merciful and all-powerful, Maker of heaven and earth and Speaker to men. They strive to submit wholeheartedly even to his inscrutable decrees, just as did Abraham, with whom the Islamic faith is pleased to associate itself. . . . They prize the moral life, and give worship to God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.
"Although in the course of the centuries many quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Muslims, this most sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to strive sincerely for mutual understanding. On behalf of all mankind, let them make common cause of safeguarding and fostering social justice, moral values, peace and freedom."
All religious communities bear a great responsibility today to demonstrate that their values, standards, and attitudes can ameliorate conflict and create the conditions for peace. Religions need to answer the charge that they are the root cause of the hatred and fanaticism that motivated the terrorist attacks.
It is not just Islam and Judaism that need to respond. The killings inflicted by Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland are a sad example of internecine strife within Christianity. Ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia showed how Christianity can be twisted into contributing to xenophobic nationalism, and the tragic outcomes that can result from this. The religious voice, while not silent, is muted or blurred, constrained by fundamentalist elements which prevent it from speaking with one voice to the wounds of conflict.
Religions should not lose confidence that they can help to resolve conflict. Faith communities help to shape societies and cultures through the core values they proclaim. Interfaith cooperation can make shared values more evident. Religious leaders can contribute to conciliation and mediation efforts: think of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Faith communities can also give voice to the marginalized and poor. While the roots of conflict are deep and tangled, many of them are embedded in the soil of poverty, ignorance and underdevelopment. Pope John Paul emphasized this very point in his 2004 World Day of Peace Message when he said that the fight against terrorism must eliminate the underlying causes of injustice, and also educate people to respect human life in every situation. The pope added: "The unity of the human race is a more powerful reality than any contingent divisions separating individuals and people."
I do not mean to suggest that there are not important differences between religions. There are. We live in a world of differences. But differences must not be allowed to obscure our commonalities. These commonalities centre on the oneness of the human family. We all need fresh air, food, water, shelter and the opportunity to develop ourselves. These human rights are inherent in our human nature.
Religion ought to help us to affirm these commonalities in an equitable and just manner. Religion must find a way, through its spiritual traditions, to enable cooperation between diverse communities, working in harmony for the common good.
The first step in playing this role is for religions to come together, not to submerge their identities, but to affirm the meaning of life at a time when humanity has acquired the power of total extinction. This role must go beyond mere admonitions of tolerance. The goal must be much more than overcoming religious prejudice. The crisis of our time requires religions to speak to the consciences of humanity with a message of unity, or risk the violence that comes with discord. We have one destiny. We live or die together in the struggle for peace.
Although I have a home in my own church, I feel responsible towards all churches and religions to foster the unity of the churches and peace among all religions. The credibility of religion depends on putting more stress on what unites followers and less on what divides them. Dialogue - genuine, respectful conversations motivated by a common desire to serve humanity - is now critical.
This was the finding of a remarkable book, Crossing the Divide, published recently as a contribution to the UN's Dialogue Among Civilizations. The book makes the point that reconciliation is the highest form of dialogue.
Reconciliation is a colossal undertaking, but in its absence, we may be confronted by lingering hatred, if not a perpetual state of war. Reconciliation is also dangerous; charismatic leaders have been assassinated because they tried to cross the divide. Nonetheless, reconciliation, and the refusal to believe that vengeance is justice, may well be the cutting edge of a social ethic yet to come.
The Dialogue among Civilizations sends a signal that diversity is not a threat: it is a wealth the world society has yet to fully discover. The terrorists, the irresponsible politicians, the bigots may well be active and vociferous, but they are a minority.
They must not be allowed to derail the culture of peace. They are prominent because their strong suit is to destroy, which takes little time and marginal courage. To build a culture of peace and tolerance takes more courage and more time. In this time of terrible anxiety, let us reach out to one another with new understanding, for truly we need one another to find peace in the world.