Tuesday, 30 June 2015

“She’s Just Using You!”: Interfaith Anecdotes - Betsy Markman

I speak with anecdotes. I write with anecdotes. I think with anecdotes. I’m Jewish and have identified as everything from secular to reform to conservative to orthodox at some point in my life, and finally decided to forego labels and just call myself Jewish. I live in a Christian-dominant country and have dozens of friends, even best friends, of other religions. So without further ado, here is a pair of interfaith anecdotes. - Betsy Markman

Credit: www.leoraw.com

“She’s Just Using You!”

I’ve always been more curious than prejudiced, interested in learning about other languages, cultures and religions. I am a bilingual and ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher by trade and a maker of friends by personality. Several years ago I was sitting on a chaise lounge at my apartment pool, my wheelchair nearby, a month before the life-changing surgery that had forced me to leave a teaching job with only 8 weeks left in the school year. A young man, clearly an English Language Learner, sat nearby working through an ESL workbook and offered to help when my water bottle fell under the chair between us. I commented on the book, asked him where he was from, and told him I was an ESL teacher. He left for a moment and came back with his wife, a woman wearing a hijab. They were both on a 3-5 year educational program from Saudi Arabia that began with a year of intensive English.

Farah and I quickly became friends, much to the shock of our respective friends and families. “A Saudi woman? Are you crazy?” my friends said. “Her husband is probably a terrorist. She is probably a terrorist!” Her friends were convinced that I was a Zionist devil who would steal all her money. (She had very little money. I had very little money. It’s not that kind of apartment complex.) Everyone was certain that we were using each other, and, in a way, we were. I was using her to learn about a new culture and country. And friendship. She was using me for English practice and eventually driving lessons. And friendship. I was Farah’s first Jewish or American friend and she was my second friend who was a practicing Muslim (the first was a colleague). We talked about religion, the role of women, languages, language learning, family, how to override the air conditioner when it turned itself off, the differences between kosher food and halal food, parenting, the men in my life, arranged marriage, whether her husband would seek a second wife when they returned to Saudi Arabia, and a million other things. We became close friends very quickly.

Our families became friendly, though not friends. She gave permission and encouragement for her husband to walk me home from her house or from the bus stop since no one except me thought I was safe to take the bus in the wheelchair and get myself up the big hill from the bus stop to the apartment. Her husband gave permission for my 16-year-old son to walk her home from my apartment to hers after dark.

Then came the surgery. Farah and her husband were both involved with the preparation, and both came to the hospital as soon as their classes finished. Her concern for me was the topic of her oral presentation in class that day while I was under the knife for five hours.

The surgery was much more involved than the doctor had anticipated, and the recovery plan was extended from 6 weeks to 6 months before I even left the hospital. My insurance didn’t cover home health care or extended recovery at the hospital or a nursing home, so I had to scramble. Bandages had to be changed, and I was living with a 16 year old boy, so the first plan was for me to move in with friends and my son to stay at his dad’s house. That lasted for about 4 days, but then it was time to go home. Did I mention that Farah had midwife training in Saudi Arabia? She offered to come by after school every day and cook for me, then come back in the evening to help me shower, change bandages, and fluff-up the pillows. I had to explain to her that the synagogue 6th and 7th grade families were providing meals, and my son now had his driver’s license, but that I would definitely welcome her help at night. (She never did understand why I couldn’t eat the meat from her kitchen, even if she skipped the shrimp.) Once again, my friends (who were not lining up to change bandages or clip toenails) were convinced that she was robbing me while I showered, and hers were convinced that I was using her when I could clearly afford to pay for a nurse. (I couldn’t even afford to be off work and found out in the middle of all this that the district declined to renew my contract.)

And eventually our friends met. A girls’ night party at her house. A crafting night at a restaurant with my friends. (“Really? You say NIT? No K? Why the K? What color is this? Tell? No, Chartoose not a real word. You are making a joke.”) Me teaching her and two of her friends to drive in the same parking lot where I taught my son. Her bringing her newly-arrived children to play at the park with same-age children of one of my other friends.

Farah cheered me on as I learned to walk again after a dozen years and wanted to know what the doctor and physical therapist were saying. I helped her arrange for childcare and learn to buckle in a car seat when she found out her children would be able to join her. She told me more about the school where she studied and helped me get a very part-time job teaching English to adults for the year that I was recovering from surgery. She told her friends what a good tutor I was and I ended up with private tutoring work in our neighborhood. She helped a new mother friend of mine whose baby stopped nursing when she was a week old.

She moved to a different Texas city to start college about a year after we met, and my son started college there the following semester. When he forgot to bring a pillow to summer orientation, she sent her husband to his dorm with three pillows since she had seen my bed post-op and assumed all Americans slept with many pillows. I stayed at her house when I visited him, and her children called me Aunt. However, as is often the case when friends move, start new jobs, and add responsibilities, we became less close on a daily basis, and kept in touch only through Skype and occasional visits. She is now back in Saudi Arabia and we haven’t spoken in a long time.

So, how is this an interfaith story? Or an anecdote for that matter? The point is that learning respectfully about another religion is a way of enhancing our own, and that friendship is of value regardless of those differences.

Credit: Betsy Markman

"The Time We Had Mormons Over For Shabbat Dinner”

As I mentioned above, I am in the habit of befriending neighbors. Right now there’s a little girl in the apartment upstairs whose entire knowledge of English consists of nursery rhymes and songs she learned on youtube. We serenade each other almost daily with “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” and “Twinkle, Twinkle.” That and the words “Hi!” and “Bye!” are our only communication.

Many years ago, in the first year of my divorce, my son and I lived next door to Mormon newlyweds named Heidi and Todd. We learned a lot about their religion, and they learned about ours. Neither family had ever met anyone of the other religion, and once we got past their desire to convert us, all went well. They even introduced us to their friends on condition that the friends not proselytize.

One day, they came to me with an interesting dilemma. They were scheduled to host missionaries for dinner that Friday and had only just discovered that one of the women was vegetarian. My friend had no idea how to cook a vegetarian dinner. We have a kosher home, and were already starting to cook fewer and fewer meat meals, and so I did what came absolutely naturally to me. I invited them all for a vegetarian Shabbat dinner! We set up some ground rules, mostly about proselytizing.  We put the extra leaf in our table, asked Todd to put on a kipa, and began with the Hebrew blessings, plus English translations.  When we finished, my neighbor offered his own beautiful blessing that I would gladly have replied “Amen” too if he hadn’t ended it with “In Jesus’ name”.  My son looked at me to see how I would respond.  I thanked him greatly for his kind sentiment and then we ate and talked about travel, education, vegetarianism, and anything we possibly could that didn’t include much religion.

The evening definitely ranks up there as one of the most interesting Shabbat dinners I’ve ever hosted. It was the first time Todd was asked to wear a kipa and the first time motzi was followed by a blessing aloud “In Jesus’s name.”

Previous Post: Santa Made Me An Interfaith Activist - Bassel Riche

Santa Made Me An Interfaith Activist - Bassel Riche

It was a cold, snowy winter night on Christmas Eve. The lights outside the house were glowing with cheer and the tree inside was decorated with shiny ornaments. The small space underneath the tree was left intentionally empty, Santa needed room to put our presents you see. Anticipating his arrival, I took the liberty to leave a small plate of milk and cookies on the table by the tree. It was the least I could do, after all this man had presents.

The build up to Christmas had been as magical as ever, there was truly something special about this time of year. Everyone was a bit more cheerful, the decorative lights on each house brought the entire neighborhood alive.

I'm sure it was a typical child's thrill for the season shared around the world at this time of year. A couple of tiny issues though, the cold, snowy winter night was in fact only a cold night by Texas standards, a frigid 60 degrees. The only snow to be seen was in the movie Home Alone that was playing on TV. Minor details....Oh, and the typical child was Muslim, not Christian...

My brothers and I woke up Christmas morning with all the excitement in the world. Jumping out of bed, I ran to the living room and saw the presents marked "from Santa" nestled comfortably under the tree. I glanced over to see the remaining crumbs Santa left in the cookie plate and the empty glass of milk and smiled at the success of our "business transaction". It was a pleasure doing business with you Mr. Claus, I thought to myself.

More recently I asked my parents why they humored us those few years of Christmas celebrations and their response was simply, "We didn't want you to feel left out." Looking back, I don't remember the gifts as much as I remember our family coming together to enjoy a beautiful time of the year. I remember the celebration of Christmas paving the way for our parents to teach us about Islam and Ramadan.

I believe that this parental upbringing is what made me the man I am today. I grew up learning to love and respect different faiths and their traditions without compromising my own. I learned that celebrating with someone else during their holy time doesn't diminish your faith, it strengthens it. It adds to the belief that there is something greater than all of us and regardless of religion, we are all in this together. To paraphrase from the Quran, if God desired us to be one people of one faith, we would be. Our differences are a test. Would we choose to celebrate our similarities and respect our differences, or would we force our way of life on one another and live in turmoil? I hope all communities of faith rise to this challenge and year by year, holiday by holiday we can learn more about one another and break down the invisible barriers that divide us.

This Ramadan, I invite everyone from all faiths to reach out to us with any questions they may have about Islam or about our holy month.

Happy Ramadan to all!

Peace & Salaam

Bassel Riche is a American entrepreneur living in Houston, Texas. He is the co-founder of EidPrayLove, an organization aiming to share the peaceful teachings of Islam through active social and interfaith initiatives . Their first global campaign was #Muslims4Lent, a solidarity campaign that encouraged Muslims to make a sacrifice to show support for the Christian community during the 40 days of Lent. He is also the founder and managing partner of Yoursolemates.com, specializing in portable accessories. Check out EidPrayLove.com and follow @EidPrayLove to learn more!

Previous: Ignoring Buddha and Yelling at God: Reflections on Interfaith Chaplaincy

Monday, 29 June 2015

Ignoring the Buddha and Yelling at God: Reflections on Interfaith Chaplaincy - David Christy

Credit: SidVicious

I was invited to participate in the Interfaith Ramadan blog series, in part, due to a comment I made during a twitter conversation about chaplaincy. What follows is a look at how chaplaincy and interfaith work have changed me, as well as my own take on how to engage this work. Chaplaincy is not about conversion, rather it is about deepening the faith of the patient, using their faith as a resource.

Chaplaincy is not about conversion, rather it is about deepening the faith of the patient, using their faith as a resource.

I first encountered this idea as a part of my chaplaincy training, then began to live it in a pluralistic context as a Buddhist ministering to folks who were predominantly Abrahamic in orientation. My subsequent interfaith experiences as chaplain, spiritual guide, and therapist have all approached spirituality not just as belief set, but as practices that become vehicles for wellbeing. 

This focus on praxis rather than belief is a direct result of my work as a chaplain. In divinity school, prior to working as a chaplain, I was drawn to the unfathomable aspects of Buddhism. I loved the twists and turns of madhyamakan logic and kōan practice, I strove to understand śūnyatā (emptiness), and loved debates about whether or not tathāgatagarbha (Buddha-nature) is empty of self or possessing of self. 

Chaplaincy changed all of that. It opened up my spirituality and simplified my theological interests. During my first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), I talked with people as they faced cancer, confronted the loss of memory and self to dementia, and sat with others as they or their loved ones died. A big part of my job was helping these people wrestle with the emotions that accompany all of these things. 

These encounters changed what mattered to me theologically. Understanding Buddha-nature would be nice, but –for me– those mysteries began to pale in comparison to teachings about the first noble truth (suffering, old age, sickness, and death) and the three marks of existence (impermanence, suffering, and non-self). Even this language is too dressed up. 

It doesn’t matter how the Buddha suffered, or what he had to say about it 2500 years ago. What matters to me is how you are suffering. Will you tell me about it? I’m curious, how do you cope? Simple questions like these, and the discussions they unlocked, have taught me as much or more about suffering, love, hope, and real wisdom, as any of the books I read in grad school. 

The majority of the folks I’ve worked with have been Christian, and most thought I was a Christian minister from a denomination a step or two away from their own. Most people are looking for meaning. How could God let this happen? How can I even begin to pray when my life, my body, is falling to pieces? 

I don’t know. I don’t know your life better than you do, and I cannot begin to imagine God’s will in this situation. 

Not knowing is important. It is honest. Honest truths, expressed simply, have a way of inviting people to drop into themselves, to unclench around the pain and uncertainty they are experiencing. Conversely, I have found that easy answers and reassurances about God’s plan and mysterious ways seldom bring comfort. 

Comfort is important, but how it is arrived at matters even more.

Some people can’t be angry with God. They feel they have to be happy and cheerful when praying. Some folks think it is sacrilegious, or feel like it’s not their place to question God. But, for people who are open to it, the practice can release a lot of pent up energy. I tend to sidle up to the idea of arguing with God: It sounds like you’re really angry with God. Did you know there is a whole section of the Bible, Lamentations, devoted to yelling at Him? God can take your anger; God is big enough to hold it. Would you like me to yell at God with you? Would you like me to ask Him why this is happening or to ask for His support? 

Credit: cupegraf.com

Whenever possible, I try to listen for the kernels of truth that can be hidden within what people say and pray for: grief, desire for reconciliation, fear of death. I try to comment on these things and to see if there is a need for deeper listening, or a desire for some kind of resolution. Sometimes resolution is coaching folks through the process of reaching out to estranged loved ones. Sometimes it is helping to plan a funeral or construct a grief ritual. While the details often vary, the process fairly consistently involves helping people take up the language, tools, and symbols of their faith to create meaningful spiritual experiences for themselves. 

Many of the people I’ve worked with don’t fit into traditional religious categories. When someone tells me they identify as both Buddhist and Christian, I don’t ask them to choose between paths, or automatically assume they are cherry picking from each tradition in a form of spiritual materialism. Instead I inquire and listen. What are the driving issues of your life right now? What are the challenges? How do you listen for the Holy? What is coming up in your sitting practice? Are there Bible verses that are particularly relevant to you recently? 

I have prayed to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Moses; I have prayed in Jesus’ name. I have read psalms and sung hymns. I have done these things, and felt no hypocrisy, shame, or inauthenticity, despite the fact that I do not worship the Abrahamic God. Each of these actions makes sense from the participatory and pluralistic paradigms I work in. 

Pluralism is a response to religious and spiritual diversity. Pluralism views each tradition equally, not because they all say the same thing or lead to the same afterlife. Instead pluralism celebrates difference, acknowledging that all religions study the human experience and relationship to the sacred. This approach recognizes that seeking understanding across difference adds more to the sum of human knowledge and wisdom than fighting over claims on absolute truth.

Participatory spirituality builds on a pluralistic framework by embracing many modes of religious engagement. Traditional approaches to religion focus on the interactions between language and belief; participatory spirituality includes non-verbal modes of practice as well (e.g., somatic, contemplative, and creative). In this model it makes sense to explore how our bodies pray, how the Goddess reveals Herself through art, how dance contributes to the wholeness of God, or how stillness and silence enhance wisdom.

The participatory model fits within the pluralistic framework in that it asserts that no single pregiven ultimate reality exists. Instead, it proposes that religious activity cocreates and enacts the various ultimates described by the world’s wisdom traditions. In this way certain elements of process theology can also be seen within the paradigm.

This model of interfaith work inverts the “one mountain, many paths” religious analogy, and instead looks at religious activity as an ocean with many shores. The ultimate realities described by the various religions are shores arrived at through the combined efforts of the individual practitioner and the efforts of their community of faith. These ultimates are expanded as those traditions evolve in relation to themselves, their adherents, and the increasingly diverse religious landscape.

Why do these paradigms matter? These models bridge the gap between the academic study of religion and the lived experience of spirituality. They describe the ways we resacrilize our complex postmodern world, by including community, the body, and devotional (rather than analytic) approaches to faith without abandoning the insights gained from deconstruction, critical theory, feminist theory, and so on. They help us move beyond territorial disputes about ultimate truth without disparaging the traditions or practitioners that seek those truths. 

This flexibility makes them well suited for interfaith work, as well as for work with people whose spiritualities don’t fit into traditional religious categories. On a practical level, these models help me bracket my own spiritual background and allow me to enthusiastically join with the people I’m working with to create experiences that will nourish their spirits. 

[Note: For those interested in reading more about the interfaith paradigms I described, please see Diana Eck’s work on pluralism and Jorge Ferrer’s writing on participatory spirituality.]

David Christy, M.Div. is an interfaith chaplain, spiritual guide, and meditation instructor. He has been a Zen practitioner for 15 years, and studied earth-based spiritualities for over a decade. His specialties include mindfulness, group process, ritual facilitation, and dream work. David is currently pursuing a doctorate in pastoral counseling at Loyola University. His blog posts, though few and far between, can be found at https://dmchristy.wordpress.com

Sunday, 28 June 2015

When Interfaith Ramadan Goes Meta - A Christian Reader's Response

We've reached the stage in the proceedings where the Interfaith Ramadan series starts to get a bit 'meta'. This means we not only look outward onto the broader issues of interfaith, but also begin to look inward, examining the responses and effects of the Interfaith Ramadan series itself, sharing comments and reflections written by readers for the benefit of other readers and writers alike. This is one such post. The following blog was posted without fanfare and it was only by chance that I stumbled across these reflections by one of my own distant family members, inevitably attracted as I was by the title 'interfaith journeys'. Growing closer to extended family has been just one of the many unexpected and wonderful outcomes of my interfaith work. I am very grateful to Mavis for allowing me to share her post in full. Here, Mavis reflects on the Bible as a model for interfaith living, the challenging words of Josh Heath, a Heathen who wrote for the series last week, and the absolute necessity of interfaith co-operation in the world today.  - Sarah Ager

Interfaith Journeys

The family were all looking forward to the wedding. Family members on both sides travelled from various places to be there.  We all know of course that there are different ways of getting from point A to point B.  People have different preferences of routes, some preferring the motorways while others opting for the less busy roads, even if it takes a little longer. The groom's mother and brother travelled up from the south by coach while his aunt and cousin travelled from the same place but by car.  Others travelled by various means from equally various places.  It didn't matter how they travelled or which route they took.  The important thing was to get there and enjoy the festivities of the wedding.

In case any reader is unaware, this is the time of year that Muslims fast for Ramadan.  A few months ago there was a movement during the Christian time of Lent when a number of Muslims joined Christians in fasting for Lent.  The group called themselves Muslims4Lent (See: Muslims4Lent Reflections) and now in mutual solidarity there is a group called Christians4Ramadan.  I have been following a blog hosted by a distant relative who converted to Islam a few years ago.  Having come from a Christian background, she has a passion for Interfaith dialogue, not just between Christian and Muslim but also among those of other faiths and none. During Ramadan, she asks guests to post something of their experiences on her blog every day. So far we have had articles written by a Christian vicar married to a Hindu, a Christian married to a Muslim, a Sikh woman, a Buddhist experience in Myanmar (Burma), a Wiccan, a Humanist, and a Heathen.

I have found all of the articles very interesting and eye-opening. I can almost see many Christian hands going up in horror at the thought. Surely I've now clearly lost the plot altogether! Actually reading some of these blog posts has made me realise that the many different faiths are each trying to live good lives, aware of the deep spiritual dimension within themselves. Each one is obviously influenced by their culture and life experiences. But I have been aware that we are all on a similar journey to the same end goal except that we are travelling from different starting points and going different routes and preferring different methods of getting there.

Jesus showed his love for all with interactions with the Phoenician woman (the immigrant), the Samaritan woman at the well (the one who left the true Jewish religion), the centurion whose servant was ill (the enemy, invader, part of an occupying army) and so on.  He didn't tell them to leave their way of life but still had time for them, showing compassion and helping them. The Old Testament also has examples of interfaith living.  We are familiar with the story of Naaman the leper, an important official in the country where the Israelites were taken captive. Moses' father-in-law Jethro was not Hebrew and Abraham acknowledged Melchizedek as a holy man.  Contrary to what many Christians think, God doesn't actually belong to us or our religion. It's the other way around. We as his creation belong to Him - and that includes all of humanity.

What has challenged me this week has been words of the Heathen on the above mentioned blog: A Heathen's Suggestions for Helping Others Explore Faith.  He helps friends find their own faith even if they disagree with him and end up believing something completely different. Would I do that?  So often we make friends with someone of a different faith really in order to convert them to ours, if we're truly honest. We think we are right and we have the only true way and we remain friends only as long as there seems to be some glimmer of hope that they will convert to our way of thinking and come to our place of worship. That's the main problem in the world, that there is upheaval and wars between those of different faiths, fighting it out as if that would prove who is right.

It's not about watering-down our own faith but it is about really accepting that maybe there is more than one way; that we all belong to God; that we are all on our own different journey of faith; that God loves us all. Acceptance, not just tolerance. Very difficult at times but much better than killing each other to try to prove a theological argument. As Richard Rohr says in one of his meditations this week;

'If you really believe in the values you say you believe in, then put them into practice. 
Don't waste any time trying to prove someone else is wrong or evil.  Just live what you believe.'  

Amen! We are all on our own faith path of discovery and I am sure that as God guides and directs me, so he is more than capable of doing the same in the lives of others, whatever faith they seek to follow.

Having listened to the horrors on the news yesterday [Friday 26th June], I am even more certain that interfaith dialogue is a need for our time so that we can have discernment and know the difference between those who truly seek to live out their faith, cultivate that spiritual inner being and seek to help others, and not confuse them with those who twist and misuse the name of a religion and words of Sacred writings in order to inflict terror, killing any who don't see things the way they do.  Such people are not true to the religion they profess. Tit-for-tat killing gets us nowhere except deeper into the horrors of war. So, those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus, maybe it's time to put into practice the way he showed us, really follow him in actions as well as words and have a little more interfaith dialogue and understanding.  Love not hate.

You can follow Mavis blog here: Mavis's Musings

Previous post: Sharing Perspectives: Muslims and Christians in the Holy Land - John Woodhouse

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Sharing Perspectives: Muslims and Christians in the Holy Land - John Woodhouse

Reflections on the second “Sharing Perspectives: Muslims and Christians in the Holy Land” course at St George’s College, Jerusalem led by the Rt Revd Richard Cheetham, Bishop of Kingston and Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra on 18-27 March 2015.

The course was supported by the Christian Muslim Forum and was attended by 10 Christians  and 8 Muslims from the U.K. and one from the U.S.with the aim of gaining a deeper understanding of one another’s theology and perspectives. 

Bishop Richard began by setting the course within a global context and stressing that the way we live together is vital. By the end of the 10 days we had certainly done that and gained a new group of friends! We met with Palestinians and Israelis notably Rabbi David Rosen.This was a special opportunity to ask the right questions and begin to see the Holy Land through each other’s eyes. This article will put forward some themes from a wealth of shared experience.

Shohel Ahmed from East London writes: “For me one theme which stood out was Hospitality. Beginning with the college itself, and the staff at the college, we were greeted with large smiles, firm handshakes and good food. Walking around the markets, it was usually a ‘welcome’ and offering of tea in most stalls and shops. In the mosques it was ‘salamwalaikum’, and a sense of serenity which comes from familiarity. In Dr Mustafa’s house, and in parallel most houses, it was ‘Ahlan wa sahlan’ with excellent food, company and hospitality from young and old alike. Wherever we went, I felt that the Palestinians were most happy to have us and host us, and share their wonderful country with us. For me that was striking and apparent from the outset.”

David Kesterton from Luton on his first visit to the Holy Land focused on Place.”What does it mean to share holy spaces? We saw a number of strained and forced efforts. Perhaps we need a version of the Pact of Umar for the 21st century?

Christian devotion earths the ministry of Jesus, his birth, ministry, passion, death and resurrection, ascension. The specificity of this “earthing” has resulted in places of pilgrimage and intense devotion. This course has helped me to recognise this fact. Whether these sacred spots on the earth have a genuine claim to be "the place” or are merely in the right general area doesn’t matter and the ultimate point is that it happened somewhere rather than nowhere.

Long before the days of Mission Action Planning in the Church of England, when I was a team vicar in the 1990’s– we thought about strategy and one of the five foci was “Place”. What was the distinctive sense of place about each of the areas in our team ministry? What were the stories that made them unique? It was never possible or desirable to adopt a one size fits all approach to mission. Somehow visiting the holy places on the course reminded me again of the importance of place in the context of parish life.

One of the areas the course did not find time to address in a structured way – was how we deal with the theological differences at the heart of the two faiths. The contrasting approaches to prayer and the nature of the obligations which are inherent in the faiths brings the same question to the surface –“What does it mean to talk about Freedom in Christ and how do we share this central theme of our faith with our Muslim neighbours?”.

Overall it was a great privilege to attend this course and it has deepened my understanding of Islam and my awareness of the historical roots of the ministry of Jesus.” David  commented “I found myself walking down the Mt of Olives with a Muslim colleague asking me about the Christian the understanding of salvation. Is everyone going to heaven? I began explaining the theories of atonement and found myself saying “There are a variety of views”.  I think this is a phrase that will come more than once and I wondered if this sounded “too woolly” for my Muslim friend.”

Another theme which was always present was Prayer.

It was valuable to visit the mosques as well as the churches. Throughout the time together we were very conscious of our Muslim friends going very early in the morning and at every opportunity to the Al Aqsa mosque to pray. This is the third most important site for them and prayers there are multiplied 10,000 times. It was an enormous privilege to go into the Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock together. They are both astonishing building of great beauty and steeped in devotion.

For the Christians the liturgies in St George’s cathedral and the college helped to bond us together and there was a memorable Eucharist by the sea outside the Church of the Beatitudes attended by the whole group. Going early on Sunday morning to the Holy Sepulchre we were able to experience Coptic, Armenian and Ethiopian Orthodox liturgies. At the final station on the Via Dolorosa just outside the Holy Sepulchre outside the Coptic Orthodox church there are large banners showing the martyrdom of 21 Copts in Libya – a chilling reminder of the on-going persecution of Christians.

David Kesterton commented “Our group attended the Sunday Eucharist at St Georges Cathedral – with the sermon delivered in Arabic and English. The only word in the Arabic sermon I recognised was “Facebook”! It was odd that the Muslim sitting next to me followed more of the sermon than I did. “

Visiting Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum  and the Sea of Galilee put things into a different context. At Nazareth we heard passages from the Quran about Mary. At the sea itself our Muslim friends washed and prayed at the sea shore while others paddled or spent time in contemplation. For all of us this was a very special place.

Finally a theme which shone through was Hope. There was a message of hope in our encounters with Archbishop Suheil Dawani, the Anglican Archbishop of Jerusalem and his wife. We heard of the work of hospitals and clinics and of local interfaith work where Christians have a vital role. Religion can be part of the solution not the problem. The visit of Pope Francis had sent a powerful message of peace. The Archbishop stressed the importance of embracing the Middle East. The West must not neglect the Christian presence in the Holy Land who are living stones and many are suffering poverty because there are no jobs. And yet the 15-year-old Muslim and Christian students expressed solidarity. Being Muslim or Christian did not matter. They had great hope for the future and wanted to make Palestine the best country in the world!

We learnt a lot and we grappled with difficult and sensitive issues. The message of this time together is that we can share so much and live well together. We need to build on what is already in existence and promote more local joint projects. The Palestine/Israel issue needs to sensitively addressed in our interfaith forums. It has tended to be overshadowed by IS but until this is issue is resolved there cannot be peace in the region.

The course will be repeated 10-17 March 2016 at the college which is an excellent place to stay. 

John Woodhouse
Westminster Cathedral Interfaith Group

Friday, 26 June 2015

Crumbs on the Floor - Revd Bonnie Evans-Hills

As we sat on the floor chatting, she was picking crumbs off her carpet and, out of habit, sticking them in her mouth and consuming them. It was Ramadan and I was living in a Muslim country, fasting with everyone else. I asked her whether she was fasting that day –women do not fast when they are menstruating, and in fact are discouraged from it to the extent their fast is not accepted. The reasoning is understood as being in order to protect health. But she replied that she was indeed fasting. I refrained from pointing out to her she had just eaten crumbs. She would have been horrified and considered her fast to have been broken. If she had broken it without realising, it was still valid – and I was not going to be the cause of embarrassment or dismay on her part.

Unconsciously I learned an important lesson about fasting and compassion. Fasting is a part of most religious traditions, involving various forms of abstaining from not only food and drink, but also from bad action – even negative thought. Compassion is valued above all else.

The Bible tells us that when we are fasting we are to wash our face, and walk with good cheer. We are not to make a show of fasting, or indeed of any good works. One hand is not to know what the other is doing when it comes to acts of charity – they are to be done as if it were an ordinary, every-day occurrence. But that does not mean there is no thought behind it, no intentionality.

There is an intentionality in overlooking the crumbs idly eaten by another. In the early days of  an immature religious zeal, it is all too easy to point out to an overworked housewife struggling to make ends meet in the middle of the month of fasting (and feasting – yes there is a pressure to prepare wonderful feasts at the end of each day’s fast!) – all too easy to point out the mistakes of others. Perhaps the more meaningful fast is to refrain from pointing out the faults of others, even noticing the idle mistake – and have compassion.

There is an intentional choice each of us can make towards compassion, to the extent it becomes an every-day habit. The crumbs eaten off the floor were at some point in her life an intentional choice to see no morsel of food go wasted, a virtue our wasteful society could learn much from. A compassionate God sees the goodness that was chosen, goodness that became habit. And when we make a point of choosing compassion, make it part of our daily life, lived each moment – God grants us the idle moments of compassion freely given, one hand not knowing what the other is doing – becoming part of our very DNA. But it is first of all a choice we have to make.

Thirty years later – I am still learning from this woman’s lesson on fasting. Let no morsel of food go to waste in an increasingly hungry and thirsty world. Waste no opportunity to acknowledge the goodness of others, and to overlook what we might at first think to be a mistake but in the end teaches wisdom.

Bonnie Evans-Hills received her MA in Pastoral Theology from Heythrop College, University of London and has considerable experience in Muslim-Christian dialogue, focusing in particular on dialogue with Shi’a Islam following a period of three years study in Qum, Iran. She also took part in a theological exchange at al-Azhar University in Cairo for the Anglican Communion’s al-Azhar Dialogue. 

Bonnie is Inter Faith Adviser in the Diocese of St Albans, parish priest, and serves on the national Presence & Engagement task group mandated by General Synod to resource multi-faith parishes. Alongside her friend & colleague, Michael Rusk, Bonnie has written the book ‘Engaging Islam: a Christian perspective’ for Peter Lang Publishing.

Previous: A Universal Reading of Fasting and Ramadhan - Farouk A. Peru

A Universal Reading of Fasting and Ramadhan - Farouk A. Peru

The Quran is, as Muslims believe, a revelation from Allah sent down as guidance for humankind irrespective of space and time. Ironically however, it does not suggest any set of religious authorities to mitigate the understanding of this revelation. Rather, in hundreds of verses, it speaks to the individual Reader who appears in the text as the singular, second person ‘you’ (‘ka’ in Arabic). It is traditionally assumed this Reader is Prophet Muhammad himself although there is nothing in the text to suggest it. When the Quran wishes to talk about Muhammad specifically, it uses the very word ‘Muhammad’!

Bearing this universal readership in mind, we can therefore assume that the Author of the Quran expects readers of a variety of cultures and traditions to read and interpret it. It should then come as no surprise when alternative readings emerge.

For me personally, the Quran must be interpreted in the most universally applicable way possible. This is because of my understanding Chapter 17 Verse 9 which tells me that the Quran guides to that which is most established. Hence the more applicable it is to me, the more correct the understanding.

Although I am culturally attached to the Traditional understanding of fasting and Ramadhan - I fast alongside Traditional Muslims -  I do not believe that theirs is the most effective understanding. The most effective understanding is that which is universally applicable and aids us in our human evolution.

The information in the Quran related to fasting and Ramadhan is in five verses, 2/183-187, in a particular passage, 2/183-207. In this passage, practical steps are provided in order to make society peaceful yet robust. This feeds into the overall theme of Chapter 2 itself which is the journey towards our earthly utopia. Fasting, discipline and restraint are part of this journey.

In order to arrive at this universal understanding, we do not require any kind of logical gymnastics whatsoever. Rather, all we have to do is look at the meanings of the words from ancient sources of the Arabic language and compare these meanings to the very same words in other Quranic verses. This cross referencing is predicated upon the assumption that the Quran is wholly consistent in its use of language. The part of the process which people may find controversial is the rejection of traditional meanings of words. Take for example the word ‘ramadhan’. In conventional Arabic language, saying ‘ramadhan’ would be enough to convey the meaning ‘the month of fasting in the Islamic lunar calendar’. This meaning is so universally recognized that to suggest anything else would seem unacceptable. However, the Quran itself does not suggest any lunar calendar and the meaning of ramadhan itself (which is 'extreme heat') does not seem to be taken into account since the lunar calendar does not coincide with the natural seasons, unlike the solar calendar.

Another aspect of re-reading for a universal application is to take the position that the Quran is aiming for a greater metaphorical depth than what was clearly literal before. Traditional readers would naturally be suspicious of such a manoeuvre but it would not be the first time the Quran uses metaphorical language. A good example of this would be the phrase ‘nights of the fast’. The word 'night' is where there is absence of light (Chapter 36 Verse 37) and light is used metaphorically. Both Allah and the Quran itself are described as 'light' (24/35 and 5/15 respectively). It would therefore not be a stretch of the imagination to have the term 'night' used metaphorically as well.

Here is my understanding of the passage in question. This passage begins with Chapter 2 Verse 183:

O you who have believed! Fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may preserve yourselves.

As we can see, in the beginning of the passage, the command to fast is a general one. It is to follow the course of those before the audience. It tells us that the act of fasting is one which is natural and universal to humankind. No time limit or even what to fast from is mentioned. Next, 2/184:

Periods of preparation; but whoever among you is sick or on a journey, then other periods of preparation; and those who are able to do so a redemption by feeding a person in a state of stagnation; so whoever does good willingly it is better for him; and that you fast is better for you if you know.

The acts of fasting mentioned in 2/183 are meant to be periods of preparation for the preservation of self and society. While fasting, one should also aim to feed and nourish people who are unable to grow, that is, in a state of stagnation. This brings about a state of good (the word ‘khayr’ is actually related to ‘takhayyar’ which is choice, hence ‘good’ here means to have plenty of choices). So this act of fasting gives one more choices either because we don't consume as much or through metaphysical providence. Where does this state of fasting take us? Here, we move on to 2/185.

An obvious state of intense heat is the state in which the reading descended, a guidance for the people, clarification of that guidance, and the criteria. So for those who have witnessed this state of intensity in their fast, it means that they are truly fasting. Those who are ill or travelling, other periods of preparation should fast in other periods. Allah wishes for you convenience, not hardship, that you complete the preparations, and to magnify Allah for guiding you that you may be grateful. 

It would naturally come as a surprise to Traditional readers that I translated ‘shahru ramadhan’ as an obvious state of intense heat. I have decided to use the more literal meanings of the phrase because the traditional meaning was used due to the prevailing practices of the time (to fast in a certain month).  This pre-Islamic practise is actually confirmed by hadith (alleged sayings of Prophet Muhammad).

My understanding of 2/185 is, when you fast as a period of preparation (2/183-184), you will push yourself to experiencing stress (metaphorically expressed as intense heat) which will reach a point of being obvious and overwhelming. When this happens, you will experience a reading which is a divine declaration. This declaration will be guidance (in the form of advancement) for the people, a clarification of that guidance and a criteria which separates right from wrong. This entire process of fasting to this intense period is to magnify Allah in one’s life that we may be grateful to him. This closeness with Allah is enshrined in the next verse, 2/186:

And when My servants ask you concerning Me, then surely I am very near; I answer the prayer of the suppliant when he calls on Me, so they should answer My call and believe in Me that they guided in the form of maturity.

The fact that the word  ‘and’ (‘wa’ in the text) is the first word of this verse shows us that this is direct connection of the process of 2/183-185 above. In this verse, Allah’s closeness is explicated and His readiness to answer our call. The word ‘maturity’ (‘rushdan’ in the original) here is also associated with the Quranic personality whom musa follows (18/66) and was taught from the presence of Allah. After reaching this state, we are told that we have earned a period of rest in the next verse, 2/187:

Made available you in the rest period of the fast is to interact with those who were not part of the process; they are an apparel for you and you are an apparel for them; Allah knew that you betrayed your souls (by doing so earlier) so He has turned to you and removed from you (this burden); so now be in contact with them and seek what Allah has ordained for you, and indulge your souls until the whiteness of the fasting lifestyle becomes distinct from the blackness of the restive one, then complete the fast till this rest again, and have not contact with them while you are those who cling to the states of submission; these are the limits of Allah, so do not go near them. Thus does Allah make clear His signs for men that they may preserve yourselves. 

I have interpreted the ‘night of the fast’ (laylah as-siyaam) as the rest period we earn after we have performed fasting satisfactorily, going for a metaphorical understanding. This is the period where we may interact in various ways with those who are not engaging in this way (our nisaa which means people who come later). This is something we need and although we may think we can keep up a fasting/restraining/austere lifestyle forever, we cannot and eventually betray ourselves. However, Allah in knowing this, has given us the permission to indulge ourselves during these rest periods and has written this for us. The word for ‘indulge’ (bashir) comes from the same root as ‘bashar’ or to be human and shows a state of human relief from stress. We are allowed to indulge ourselves until the states of fasting and indulgence becomes clear to us (as two separate threads or ways of life). This beginning the dawn of a new fast. We are then to fast towards a point where we earn this rest period again. We are not to indulge ourselves while we are devoting ourselves to states of submission, in other words, we are to focus on the creation of the social entity which enshrines the values of peace and justice. This then completes the fasting life cycle from 2/183 to 2/187.

So in summary, fasting and restraint should be our way of life. It is a state of preparation and should be gradually increased in terms of intensity until we reach an obviously intense period. When that happens, we will thereby attain a measure of revelation and progress in our lives and simultaneously be closer to Allah. At that point, we have earned a period of indulgence which is meant to rejuvenate us. Notice that the verses after this point (2/188-207) deals with nation building and this project requires the physical robustness and mental fortitude which fasting can bestow. Fasting is therefore a key part in the Quranic path of development.

Farouk A. Peru is a human being in the world. This is where his discourse begins and ends. He engages with his human condition by studying Quran which he considers to be Allah’s descriptions and prescriptions for human being. Farouk is also a novice academic whose interests include the study of Quran according to its author. He is an Islamicist who focuses on Islam as a world study, Islamofascism and Quranist Islam. He is also interested in Philosophy where he hopes to build on Heidegger’s philosophy of being.

Previous piece for Interfaith Ramadan 2014: Other Faiths or Other Paths?

Thursday, 25 June 2015

A Love Letter To Muslims This Ramadan - Trisha Mokosh

          This is my fourth Ramadan, Alhamdulilah.  I’ve been part of the 1.5 (-ish) billion Muslims around the world for four years now.  I’m American and white and I grew up as a Catholic.  I have a big laugh, lots of drive, and often, a strong opinion.  I loved God before I became Muslim, and I love Him now.  My lifestyle hasn’t changed much since my conversion.  Family means the world to me, even if most of mine is distant now.  But I’ve learned a ton about humans since I became a Muslim.  It has opened my mind and my heart in ways I had never anticipated.

         I am writing you this letter to tell you how much I love you.  I often disagree with you.  I often lament the cultural issues that bleed into the religious.  I often wish life were easier, that we all got along, that we were willing to see the ways our community needs to be better, more transparent, inclusive.  I am regularly part of conversations about how converts are seen as spectacles, to be lauded at the reciting of the shahadah, and then largely forgotten.  Most of us don’t look like the rest of you and cannot claim any familial relations to yours.  But let me tell you something really important:  You aren’t so different from all the people I know on the other side.  You know, the non-Muslim side.  Most people are just trying to figure it out and do their best.

        I love you because you have the courage to be proudly Muslim when the world tells you that means something that has been maligned.  I love you because you’ve taught me to keep opening my heart even further, to push the boundaries I had, to see goodness even in hardship, to be grateful for the mercies that always come.  I love you because you have allowed me to ask the stupid questions, the ones I needed to ask so that I understood you better.  I know you have your issues.  I have some too.  But I love you anyway.

        I’ve done a lot of thinking lately, and I’ve come to the conclusion that you don’t owe me anything.  It isn’t my place to ask you to open your homes or your arms to welcome me.  I became Muslim because I read the Quran and I studied the beliefs and they felt like home.  There wasn’t any other reason.  And all of you have your own stuff going on.  I get it.  And from now on, I’m just another Muslim, not a convert.  Rather run-of-the-mill really.  Just call me Muslim.

       But I have a big favor to ask too.  Open your hearts and minds this Ramadan.  See the world as a giant place that needs you to bring your best self to it, because it needs you badly.  That may mean that you strike up conversations with people not like you.  People need to hear your stories.  They need to know that you have dreams and hopes and kids you love.  Talk to them.  We are not “other.”  We are so much the same.

       Thank you so much for all that you have taught me.  May we find greater connection to God this Ramadan, and may we grow spiritually.  May we open our hearts bigger.  Ameen.

                                               All my love,


Trisha Mokosh runs her own leadership development company, loves to travel, and finds people utterly fascinating.

Previous Post: If young people are the future, who’s leading the interfaith movement? - Charlotte Dando

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Panel: What Can I Do If I'm Not Fasting?

This post provides different perspectives on the challenges of not fasting during Ramadan. 
The contributors share their personal experiences, give advice, and offer alternatives 
to fasting to help others get the most out of the Islamic holy month.


I have been unable to fast Ramadan due to several medical issues including diabetes, Autonomic Neuropathy, and severe migraines. However, I have found a way to give back in lieu of fasting. For the past four years I have bought animals through Heifer International. These animals go to women in depressed villages to provide eggs, milk, fertilizer for gardens, and so much more. When it came down to choosing something to do to help the less fortunate and fulfill my fasting obligation, I remembered the old parable, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime!" My choices may not be conventional, but I believe it satisfies the longing in my heart.

Photo Credit: www.heifer.org/

Kristina ElSayed

In 1998, I married a Muslim man. That December I tried to fast Ramadan. I wanted to do that solidarity thing that married people do. I wanted to show Khaled that I was his family.

I don’t remember what was happening that day other than it was a Sunday. We might have worked, for some reason we hadn’t spent the majority of the day together. I remember Khaled coming into the apartment tired, but happy to see me. The first thing he said was that I needed to eat something.

I argued. I was fine; I wanted to be supportive, I explained. He looked at me very carefully and told me that the best way I could support him was to take care of myself. If I didn’t take care of myself, I wouldn’t be able to help him.

That was the first of many times over the last 17 years I’ve tried to fast. I don’t understand how I cannot fast. In college I used to work two jobs and go to school while surviving on diet cokes and water for 12 hours at a time! Some years, I would try to give up caffeine. Other years I would try to only drink and not eat any solid food. I usually would last until 1:00 and then I would start to get sick. Every year Khaled tells me the same thing. “It doesn’t make sense for you to fast Ramadan. It makes you sick, and you are not required to fast. Take care of yourself so you can take care of us.”

So, that’s what I do now. I am the support staff, the keeper of schedules and maker of meals.

I eat when my family is sleeping or in anther room. I keep a cup of tea on the counter to take sips from. I don’t want to make their fasting any more difficult so I don’t eat anything that smells, or that I have to cook. I have a yogurt, or maybe almond butter and fruit, leftovers from suhoor, nuts and seeds, hardboiled eggs and many cups of tea.

I am asked about my faith more often during Ramadan than any other time of the year. Muslims stop me at the grocery store, the library and the mosque and question me if I’ve converted and why I haven’t. They ask me if I fast with my children.

I used to over explain. Responding with my story and then having them respond that I’m just not trying hard enough. Several years ago I stopped answering their questions. When they ask if I’m fasting, I respond, “I’m doing the best I can,” and I leave it at that. Most often, that is enough.

Kristina ElSayed is a mother of three, a wife, a jeweler and a writer.  She creates empowerment jewelry for people of all faiths and spiritual paths at VianneFere and writes about raising Muslim children as a non-Muslim parent.  You can read more at My Islamic Life and AltMuslimah. Kristina can be reached through her website or on twitter @myislamiclife.

Photo Credit: A Minor Memoir

Jillian Pikora

I am blessed to fast this year. I really understand this now, that being able to fast during the holy month of Ramadan truly is a blessing. In 2012, one year after converting to Islam, I received approval from my insurance company for much needed jaw surgery. I had been waiting for this since I was 16 and I was now 3 days shy of 23.

It was a disaster. My palette collapsed and the surgeons moved my jaw to the right more instead of to the left. I had to have a second surgery. I was stuck on soft baby food for nearly a year. I lost 80 lbs. Then I was told I could diet or fast or change my eating habits in anyway, or they would hospitalize me.

I was heart broken. I had fasted for the first year, but not fasting during my second and third Ramadan, as the only Muslim in my home, actually felt more isolating... like I wasn't really Muslim.

I decided to fight this by creating a portable Islamic studies bag. I took a bible case and filled it with a translation of the Qur'an; a bible highlighter pencil, pen, and ruler (specifically made for the thin pages); sticky notes; a note book; a pen and pencil; a copy of Fortress of a Muslim; a biography of Muhammad PBUH; a Sufi supplication booklet; a Ramadan prayer booklet, a miniature Ramadan planner, prayer beads, a compass, and a travel prayer mat. I had everything to study with me whenever I wanted. Even on days (and months) I was too weak to give salat [the five daily prayers] I could read or make dua'as [prayers of supplication].

I still use the bible case in this way, but now I use it year round adding and removing things as I study and grow in my faith. When I cannot fast for illness or menses etc. I think about how blessed I am to fast at all, and remember those two years when fasting and prayer were impossible.

Jillian Pikora is a graduate of North Carolina State University, where she studied the Middle East, Global Perspectives, and Political Science. After working on several political campaigns, extensively with the Girl Scouts, she became a writer & journalist. She has contributed to the New York Times, Huffington Post, The Atlantic, and The Guardian, and appeared on Al Jazeera, CNN, FOX, and CSPAN. She has written blog posts for the UN as a former UNA-USA Blogger Fellow at the UN Foundation. She currently lives in Egypt where she contributes to numerous lifestyle magazines and websites. In her spare time she studies Islam at Al Azhar. Jillian is blogger and YouTuber, follow her site for updates: jillianpikora.com

Related: Letting Go and Letting God: Supporting Loved Ones With Eating Disorders in Ramadan

Understanding Buddhist-Muslim Relations in Myanmar - Justin Whitaker

This post is part of the Interfaith Ramadan: Shared Vision of Inclusion & Co-Existence series, cross-posted at Patheos: American Buddhist Perspectives. As our series host Sarah Ager writes:

Ramadan is a time when Muslim communities traditionally come together – to fast, to pray, to reflect, and to encourage one another. In that spirit, the Interfaith Ramadan blog series aims to extend that sense of community to people of all faiths and none. The series provides an inclusive platform where people from around the world share their experiences and offer their perspectives on interfaith issues… 

Is Myanmar approaching genocide?

This was the question, and in fact the headline haunting my google news feed for much of the month of May. Today the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar (or Burma as many still call it)* is far from certain, and the history which has brought us here is even more clouded. Over 60 years of military rule, numerous ethnic civil wars, fear and distrust of foreigners, and extraordinary poverty have all led to country today which would be in many ways socially unrecognizable to those who had visited in the 1940s or early 50s. As the long-time Myanmar expert David Steinberg has written:

Studying Burma/Myanmar is often neither science nor social science, but more akin to art, where truth is in the eye of the beholder. Consequently, different interpretations abound. – Steinberg Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know (2009), p.10

As such, I offer this interpretation as an academic student of Buddhism for 15 years, writing here and elsewhere about Burma for a little over 10 years, and as a global citizen struck by wonderful and ongoing friendships with Muslims for going on 8 years. So, taken in turn, I’ll try to briefly describe the Buddhism of Burma, the country as I know it today, and some of the roots of the violence toward Muslims there.

Burmese Buddhism

When and how Buddhism arrived in Burma is disputed. Epigraphic and archaeological evidence points to the 4th century C.E., while later chronicles claim that it arrived with Ashokan missionaries in the 3rd century B.C.E, and yet further claims suggest that a disciple of the historical Buddha brought the teachings to the area (Strong, Buddhisms: An Introduction, p.17).

From there various forms of Buddhism ebbed and flowed, before Theravada was “decisively established following the conversion of King Anawrahtā” (1040-1077)” (Powers, A Concise Encyclopedia of Buddhism, p.48). And it is Theravadin Buddhism that dominates the country today, accounting for around 80-90% of the nation’s population with nearly 60,000 monasteries in the country filled with nearly 500,000 monks and nuns, based on a 2008 estimate by Steinberg.

A central tenant of Theravadin Buddhism – for both monastics and the laity - is the Five Precepts, abstaining from: harming living beings, taking the not-given, engaging in sensual/sexual misconduct, false or malicious speech, and intoxication. The first of these obviously comes to mind when we think of the harm done to Muslims in the country in recent years.

pagan burma
Pagan, an ancient capital once sacked by Mongol invaders, now a graveyard 
of sorts of pagodas and temples - January 2011 (photo by author)

Burma the Country

It’s with a heavy sigh that I think of Burma as a nation today. When I visited in 2011 there were some signs of hope for the country and I witnessed much of what makes people project romantic notions of an exotic, peaceful kingdom lost in time as some tourists did recently and Rudyard Kipling did years ago.

To be there is to be transported into the past in countless ways, from the ox-carts to poor infrastructure and subsistence farming, much of Burma has remained static for decades, if not longer. However, it is true also that nowhere in the country has time literally stood still. Lives have come and gone, attempts to bring change arose and fell, and while some sought the slow-steady “Burmese Way” of social and economic progress, others have openly rebelled against the government. This has the turned country that could have been the great economic and social success of the nation into one of the poorest and socially isolated in the world (Seekins, Historical Dictionary of Burma (Myanmar)).

Modern Burma, like so many post-colonial states, is a result of a foreign power -the British- asserting unity over often fractious and internally independent peoples. They, however, simply conquered other conquerers and there is no idyllic peaceful or static past to point to. To look at a map of the country today, the bulky center can be seen as a horse-shoe of Bamar, or ethnic Burmese, in the middle low-lands coming down to the fanning Irrawaddy delta and surrounded on three sides and down the narrow southern coastal strip by smaller ethnic groups. To maintain power, put simply but explained in more detail elsewhere, the central Bamar majority has used military rule to force unity on the country. The burgeoning democracy there is fragile and may fail as it has before.

Buddhist Violence against Muslims

This brings us to yet another incredibly complex and sad topic: the recent outbursts of violence against Muslims in Burma. These have been predominantly in the western Rakhine state bordering Bangladesh, but have not been limited to that area. There, the Muslims mostly identify as Rohingyas, “a group that originated in part of Bengal, now called Bangladesh” (BBC). This is where things get dicey, as despite the presence of Rohingya in Burma for decades and even centuries, Burmese nationalists or ethnocentrists accuse the Rohingya of being foreigners with no right to exist in the country. They accuse other Muslims of seeking to displace Buddhism through higher birth rates and stories of forced conversions to Islam.

However, what I hope to make clear is that this isn’t a simple case of “Buddhist” aggression toward Islam. As the recent East-West Center report Contesting Buddhist Narratives: Democratization, Nationalism, and Communal Violence in Myanmar (.pdf) states:

Although nationalist movements such as 969 and MaBaTha express themselves in religious terms, they are not seeking to defend a doctrinal stance as such. Instead, they refer more to notions of Burmese national identity and traditional ideas about the fragility of Buddhism and its teachings that have circulated within Theravada Buddhist societies for centuries. (p.x; with thanks to Dr. Paul Fuller, whose blog pointed me to this and numerous other great resources and discussions of Buddhism in general and contemporary Burmese issues in particular).

The report also speaks of this as a “reflexive defense against what is perceived by some to be the threat of a globally spreading Islam…” (ibid).  However, just as anti-Muslim bigoted Christians in Western nations do not speak for Christianity, these groups -who represent a minority even in Burma- do not speak for Buddhism or Buddhists in general. In fact:

Within the vast Theravada Buddhist corpus and Myanmar Buddhists’ particular understandings of these teachings, there are numerous values and historical examples that can promote religious pluralism, discourage hate speech, and encourage a more critical approach to rumors and misinformation. Indeed, some of these Buddhist counterarguments are already being advanced on the ground in Myanmar… (East-West, p.xi)

Bhikkhu Subhuti welcomes the local Imam, Myanmar.

One example in action can be found in the Western monk living in Burma, Bhikkhu Subhuti, who has actively reached out to the local Muslim community, bringing them into the Buddhist monastery and fostering greater understanding in his monastic brothers and lay supporters. Another is Sitagu Sayadaw, who recently at a conference in Tehran unconditionally condemned violence against Muslims in Myanmar:

And going back to 2013, in the midst of attacks by Buddhists on Muslims around the country, in the town of Lashio Buddhist monks quickly sheltered and fed Muslims until violence subsided:

Other monks who sheltered Muslims in Burma during attacks were recently recognized by the Parliament of the World’s Religions with World Harmony Awards. In reflecting on his actions, one monk, Rev. Seindita, is quoted saying, “they will have to kill me first,” before allowing aggressors to harm the Rohingya masses.

From outside the country Buddhist leaders have likewise issued appeals, both to their own officials and to those inside Burma, to address the plight of the Rohingya. These include the recent joint letter signed by Jack Kornfield, Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, William Aiken, Tara Brach, Lama Surya Das, Alan Senauke, Taigen Dan Leighton, Larry Yang, Rev. angel Kyodo williams, and Rev. Dr. T. Kenjitsu Nakagaki; a statement by the Dalai Lama, and lastly, an Open Letter to Buddhists on Islamophobia by Joshua Eaton and Rev. Danny Fisher (and co-signed by nearly 300 others including myself), inspired by events in Burma in 2012 ahead of the holy month of Ramadan.

The existence of these positive, pluralist, and caring voices within the Burmese Buddhist community and beyond should eliminate any sense that Islamophobia is ubiquitous among Buddhists in Myanmar. Returning once more to the East-West Center’s report:

However, the construction of a Buddhist counterargument that appeals to Buddhist ethics is unlikely to bring an end to communal violence by itself. In order to advance sustainable peace and coexistence in the country, these Myanmar Buddhist arguments for religious pluralism must be complemented by a series of political, economic, and legal reforms to address underlying insecurities and long-standing inequalities between communities. (East-West, p.xi)

As a country that has been so isolated for over 60 years though, it is likely that there are great deficits in inter-ethnic and inter-religious understanding that need to be addressed alongside other problems. Just as the issue at hand is complex, its solution too will be a complex one. None of this, unfortunately, brings us closer to answering the question: Is Myanmar approaching genocide?

But it does, I hope, bring some needed clarity about Buddhism’s role there. It also should bring hope that through the better angels of our nature and the highest values of our religions, we can work together to begin addressing the very acute needs of the thousands of Rohingya living in terrible conditions in Burma as well as the more long-term reforms needed to establish a safe and stable society for all in the country and the region.  As Imam Malik Mujahid, Chair of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, said during the ceremony recognizing the three Burmese monks earlier this month:

The Buddha proclaimed that we must love and care for all creatures. The Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him, said that none of you are truly believers unless you wish for another what you wish for yourself. These teachings are at the heart of all our faiths, where the beauty of religion is rooted… While fear, anger and hate rises in America and communities around the world, people of compassion are rising to demonstrate neighborly loving relationships. We must become our brother’s keeper.”

* The name was changed by the current military dictatorship in 1989. To retain the previous name may be seen as throwing allegiance to a colonialist past, as Burma is the name for the nation first designated by the British who ruled over the country from 1824 to 1948. However, ‘Burma’ is also widely used by dissidents who do not recognize the legitimacy of the current regime and its choice to change the name.

Justin Whitaker is a doctoral candidate studying Buddhist ethics at the University of London currently living in Montana. He was raised Catholic, rebelled into atheism for a few years, and found a home of sorts in Buddhism. He writes on matters of philosophy, religion, ecology, politics, and more at American Buddhist Perspectives.

Related articles on interfaith by Justin Whitaker: 
Burma, Imperialism, and the Buddhist-Muslim violence
Exploring discomfort: My first day of fasting for Ramadan
Tiptoeing into Ramadan: a Buddhist’s experience of Islam’s holy month

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