Reader’s Essay | On Intercultural Dialogue

By Kosmos Reader, Monica Islam

“Is our college becoming anti-Islam?” asked a classmate with regards to an exhibition on the Holocaust organized by a youth club in the college. Being a Muslim in Muslim-majority Bangladesh with minimal exposure to Israel and anything even minutely Jewish, I found the exhibition refreshing. I was educated about a dark chapter in history; one that related tales of religious persecution. One photo depicted an old man, humiliated as Nazi soldiers shaved off his beard, a symbol of Jewish faith for that man.

Baba Haxhi Dede Reshatbardhi, an Albanian Muslim who helped save Jews during the Holocaust, was photographed by Norman H. Gershman for the exhibition “Besa: A Code of Honor.” (Courtesy of El Paso Holocaust Museum and Study Center)

The next image portrayed the poorly-ventilated, dimly-lit, narrow Nazi concentration camps. However, there was one photo which restored my faith in humanity. It was of an old Albanian Sufi scholar who saved numerous Jews.

The exhibition was successful in inculcating empathy for war-torn souls. I also felt the Holocaust bore resemblances with Islamophobia and other forms of xenophobia. It made me wonder as to why anyone would label such an exhibition – aimed at fostering peace, social cohesion, and cultural diversity – as anti-Islam. I refused to let the purpose of this exhibition to be lost amidst undue fear of the unknown, of the “others.” “While we expect people of other faiths to allow Muslim art, poetry, music, literature, and culture to flourish in Muslim-minority lands, we are squeamish at the thought of embracing people of other faiths and their cultural events in Muslim-majority lands. This is certainly not religious tolerance,” I replied. Later, to further sow the seed of compassion, I shared – on Facebook – the story of the Muslim scholar who is, according to me, the epitome of peace.

In another instance, a classmate who claims to be Muslim shared a photo on Facebook that honoured Hitler and allegedly quoted him as saying, “I would have killed all the Jews of the world, but I kept some to show the world why I killed them.” I felt this person did not receive inclusive knowledge because ironically Jews have been mentioned as “People of the Book” (brothers due to shared values in Abrahamic faith) in the Holy Scripture of Muslims. After I provided him with this information, he reflected on the matter and eventually removed the photo.

The primary lesson I draw from these experiences is that one does not need massive fame or wealth to be a beacon of peace. Each one of us can and must engage in intercultural dialogue in regular circumstances to create religious harmony. The increasing use of social media has made this peace-building process easier and yet, challenging. While initiatives promoting humanism and pluralism such as Charter of Compassion can easily thrive on social media, many recent events of religious bigotry, such as the 2012 Ramu violence, too have had social media as the common denominator.

At an age when information (or misinformation) spreads like wild fire, inclusive religious education becomes a necessity to overcome xenophobia and fanaticism. Inclusive religious education encompasses structured study of all Scriptures and philosophies, facilitation of intercultural events, and interaction between practitioners of various faiths.