Building racial and religious peace begins at home

Building racial and religious peace begins at home

By Sarah Mushtaq

Sarah Mushtaq

(January 24, 2015) – The past year has been mentally exhausting if you identify as an ethnic minority. From the constant wars in the Middle East to Quebec and Ottawa to Charlie Hebdo in Paris, violence and negativity — in relation to, because of, and in response to Muslims — is seemingly relentless.

Commentaries on these events have become vicious and only seem to exacerbate an already complicated and misunderstood issue, especially with polarizing politicians using “us versus them” terminology; all too similar to what the alleged terrorists are preaching.

This assumption that all Muslims must apologize for every action of a deranged few is extremely flawed. Not to mention that being viewed as “less Canadian” because of one’s religion is extremely detrimental, contrary to our values as a nation, and only feeds into the narrative those groups use to alienate and recruit.

This is a time when we need to come together and work hand in hand to solve a societal ill, not react with violent racism, demand a person prove his or her nationality, and thereby give in to what those in terrorist groups claim. But that’s hard to do when it seems both Muslims and non-Muslims know very little about each other. A Pew Research poll found fewer than four out of 10 Americans knew a Muslim.

We don’t have a similar poll in Canada but I would guess that number drops over here, despite the fact we tout some of our major cities as being the most diverse in the world. Muslims may be all around us, but how many of us actually choose to interact with them?

Last summer, a group of my family and friends went to Lakeview Park Marina in Belle River for a picnic as a last hurrah to the season. Because the men were on cooking duty, they hadn’t been able to pray our afternoon prayer, so they got up to do so before we left. Six or seven men lined up to quietly pray off to the side. A lady who was running by stopped to watch what they were doing.

I went to speak to her, thinking she was either curious or offended. It was a little bit of both with a dose of paranoia. When all that you know about Islam comes from negative media coverage, seeing a group of Muslims pray — one of the most peaceful acts in any religion — can be frightening.

As we spoke, I was able to clarify so much for her: the basics of Islam, how one-and-a half-billion Muslims do not agree with (nor should they be held responsible for) the actions of a violent minority, and how appreciative we are of a country that protects the religious freedoms of all. We were able to connect based on our experiences as immigrants to Canada and similarities as a Christian and Muslim. By the end, she was laughing and smiling and we exchanged numbers to stay in touch.

What stood out for me in this interaction was although she saw a lot about Muslims in the news, she had never interacted with an actual Muslim until we met. It takes a lot to step out of your comfort zone and expose yourself to a perspective or lifestyle that is so unlike your own.

But that’s the beauty of living in such a diverse world: You not only learn about others, you learn a lot about yourself. Police Chief Steve Anderson so eloquently summarized this sentiment in response to protests in Nashville, Tenn.:

“It is only when we go outside our comfort zone, and subject ourselves to the discomfort of considering thoughts we don’t agree with, that we can make an informed judgment on any matter. We can still disagree and maintain our opinions, but we can do so knowing that the issue has been given consideration from all four sides. Or, if we truly give fair consideration to all points of view, we may need to swallow our pride and amend our original thoughts.”

If we want to truly put an end to global problems, we’ll need to start locally. It begins at home, in our communities, with our neighbours, friends and colleagues. It is easy to deflect the blame to a group an ocean away. It’s much more difficult to be critical of yourself and reflect upon what you’ve done to promote the change you want to see.

Perhaps by these simple interactions, we’ll build the world we want to live in — one step at a time, one conversation at a time, and one friendship at a time.

First published in The Windsor Star and reprinted on with permission of The Windsor Star and the author.