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     Volume 7 Issue 11 | March 14, 2008 |

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Straight Talk

When Knowledge Breeds Tolerance

Nadia Kabir Barb


Photo: AFP

The cab driver looked at me through his rear view mirror suspiciously and queried “You're not Jewish are you?” “Er no, I'm Muslim” I answered a little nervously. His forehead furrowed a little more “So how come you were at the Holocaust Memorial Day Function?” I sighed to myself and prepared to give an explanation of my motive for attending this particular event --- this was going to be a long journey home.

I have been noticing that lately every time I get into a cab, meet people at dinners, or even when I am waiting at the bus stop, conversations I have had all end up revolving around religion. “Islam” to be precise. In fact these days I feel myself to be in a state of recurrent déjà vu where I am reciting verbatim things I have said in my conversation with others! I have decided that my mission now is to send positive messages about Islam whenever I can even if it is to my plumber or builder. I have not suddenly turned into a radical fundamentalist, in fact I hope that I am one of the many moderate voices of our religion and am thoroughly fed up of people misunderstanding what Islam is all about.

Now going back to the particular cab driver in question, I explained to him that I had indeed been to the charity event commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day which he correctly identified as having been organised by The Anne Frank Trust UK. His unnecessary inquisitiveness about my religious denomination made my hackles rise at first but I think I managed to keep the irritation out of my voice and continue with our conversation. The Anne Frank Trust UK, to quote their own words “works tirelessly to use the story of Anne Frank as a means of educating about the dangers of racism and prejudice and the vital importance of taking individual action to help build a society based on compassion, responsibility and respect.” Correct me if I am wrong but I believe that Islam is a religion that teaches tolerance and equality. Therefore, the work that the Trust does appealed to me especially as it does not base it on acceptance just of one religious group per say but tolerance and acceptance of others and helps create awareness that it is unacceptable that people are persecuted all over the world because of their sex, religion or race.

Photo: AFP

During World War II, approximately six million Jews died in Nazi Germany under the rule of Adolph Hitler. People were systematically persecuted, incarcerated and executed on the basis of “skin colour; disability; sexual orientation; ethnicity; religious belief or political affiliation”. Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) is commemorated on 27th January each year. This marks the anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. Anne Frank was one of the millions of victims of the holocaust. She was a 13-year-old girl who wrote a diary for a period of two years while she was in hiding with her family until they were all captured and taken to a concentration camp and ultimately where she died. Anne's father was the only survivor in her family and when he discovered her diary after her death, he decided to publish it to keep her memory alive and those who perished during the holocaust.

I think once both the cab driver and I had weighed each other up, and realised that I was not going to regale him with the virtues of Jihad and that he was not going to ask me some inane questions about Islam, we relented a little towards one another and I was surprised at how enlightened this gentleman was. Although it never ceases to amaze me at how people constantly ask the same old questions the moment they find out someone is Muslim: “Can men in your religion have four wives?” “Why don't you eat pork?” etc. Having learnt from experience, I am always prepared for these queries. As for the first question, my instinct is to say “yes every Muslim man on the planet has four wives and I am wife number four myself” but thankfully bit my tongue. Instead I tell them that although limited polygamy is permitted, it is no longer acceptable in today's society. Also, according to the Qur'an (a verse from the Surah Nisa) there are certain conditions that need to be fulfilled to make this concept of polygamy even possible. As I am not a scholar with a formal understanding of all aspects of Islam, I can only give my interpretation of what I have grown up learning or what I have read or heard or observed. Usually after my reluctant monologue I tend to get an “oh, really, I didn't know that” from the person asking the question.

It is truly sad that a distortion of our religion by a minority can have such a wide spread impact on how Islam is perceived by the masses. There are a number of blind prejudices that people tend to hold against Muslims and one is that most of us condone violence and terrorism to get our point across. I think living in today's world; many of us exist in a constant state of paranoia where we feel rightly or wrongly that being Muslim makes people look at us with suspicion and sometimes hostility. It is therefore almost comforting when I do meet a cab driver or a plumber for that matter who seem to be interested in the other side of the story and do not take everything the media say to heart. They interact with people from all backgrounds including Muslims and form their own opinion.

By the time the cab driver pulled up in front of my house, we had touched upon a whole host of topics, including, the reason for fasting during Ramadan, the importance of Jesus in Islam, the status of women etc. It was very encouraging that he seemed genuinely interested in finding out more about various aspects of our religion. The cabbie even commented that for a religion that teaches compassion for the poor, charity (zakat), equality between men and women, and equality between people (I gave him a crash course!), Islam seems a very misunderstood religion. He would not be far off the mark.

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