So the story begins like this. Four students, an Ahmadi Muslim, a Protestant Christian, a Sikh and a Hindu are crammed into a tiny dorm room at Princeton University. Each comes out three days later, having discovered the solution for world peace. Yeah, seriously.
Last weekend, Princeton University hosted the 5th Annual Coming Together Interfaith Conference (CT5), a conference designed to counter a growing threat to our humanity: the gap in interfaith relations. While there were far too many inspirational attendees to mention, adherents from virtually every faith participated. There was Tom the Confuscist, who also happened to be a brilliant stand-up comedian. There was Cameron, the aspiring Christian Minister and Emily, an atheist with a zeal for humanity. There was Muhammad, a Muslim from Wake Forest with an incredible voice for Quranic recitation, and Irteza from Stanford, with a talent for Bengali music. Who can forget David, an Orthodox Jew who passionately sang G-d’s praises during Shabbat, and Connor, who sang about his love for the Pope. Silent but profound was Sunil the Buddhist-Hindu, and due credit to Rahul, a devout Hindu who coordinated an excellent presentation on spirituality in action.
But it’s the American spiritual inaction that defined the ultimate need of the CT5 event. As a nation we have become so accustomed to letting people tell us what to believe, that we all too rarely seek knowledge ourselves.
For example, at the CT5, I delivered a presentation on religious extremism that deliberately pushed people out of their comfort zones and forced them to think for themselves. The presentation asked non-Hindu’s to defend Hinduism in light of last years terrorist attacks perpetrated by “Hindus” on Christians. It asked Muslims to defend Judaism in light of devout “Jew” Baruch Goldstein’s 1994 massacre of 29 Muslims as they worshiped. Non-Christians were asked to defend Christianity in light of the Lord’s Resistance Army and their campaign to establish a “Christian” government in Uganda based on the Ten Commandments, through murder, rape and maiming. Non-Muslims were asked to defend Islam in light of the much reported terrorist activities of the “Muslim” Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
The result: while non-Christians defended Christianity quite well, for every other religion, there was an honest struggle. Lesson learned? Christianity was well defended because every single non-Christian in the room knew a Christian personally. Everyone had a Christian neighbor, co-worker, classmate, even family member. And this interaction was more powerful than the vitriol spewed from the likes of the KKK and WBC. Meanwhile, all too many had never met a Hindu on a personal level. Few had interacted with Jews, and even fewer had ever truly engaged a Muslim.
And on a national level, this precisely is where all too many individuals put up a guard and refuse to proceed. “It’s not my responsibility to reach out” is the most common objection. If [minority group here] is [positive attribute here] then they should come tell me at my [comfort zone here]. “Sure,” I reply, “But when was the last time you invited them in?” And if your reason for not inviting them in is the 30 second fear mongering clip you saw on [sole news channel here], then you’re not only part of the problem, but you’re a major reason why the problem persists.
One of the highlights of CT5 was an engaging lecture by Dr. Eboo Patel, a prolific writer and President of Interfaith Youth Core. Dr. Patel points out that in the late 19th Century, the Know Nothing Party, a political party that rose to power through fear and propagation of an imminent Catholic takeover, elected 75 members to Congress to proudly push their anti-Catholic agenda. In the mid-20th century, 47 percent of American college students surveyed proudly declared that they would never dare share a dorm room with a Jew. And now, in the early 21st century, we have the maniacal fear of Moozlums and their imminent shariah-enthralled domination of America. How else can you explain the 12 states (13 if you include Oklahoma) who have actually proposed anti-Shariah legislation? It took over half a century for Americans to break free of the shackles of religious bigotry and paranoia of Catholics and Jews, respectively. Do we really want to go another 50 years with Muslims?
Prophet Buddha taught that “The superior man acts before he speaks, and afterwards speaks according to his action.” St. Francis of Assisi wrote to “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary, use words.” Prophet Muhammad declared, “He who is not grateful to his fellow man, is not grateful to God.” Do we see a theme emerging? Until and unless we engage in actual interaction with our fellow man, and stop speaking when we have no actual personal experience, we resign ourselves to a fate of internal dissension and destruction.
If you are a Christian, call a mosque and attend their Jummah service. If you are a Jew, call a Gurdwara and learn from the wisdom of Guru Nanak. If you are Hindu, attend a Catholic Mass at your local church. If you are Muslim, attend a Shabbat service at your local synagogue. Whoever you are and whatever you do, don’t do nothing.
This interfaith action is what the attendees of the CT5 Conference did last weekend. And guess what? No one lost their faith, but everyone joined a powerful movement to fight back against the cancers of bigotry and extremism that are threatening our humanity. And in joining this movement, they just might achieve world peace. Yeah, seriously.
This Op Ed originally appeard in the Huffington Post on February 21, 2011.
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