Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Sydney was united in grief after the Martin Place hostage siege. Two million poured through Paris streets, defiantly supporting “fraternity” and freedom of speech. Pakistan was in shock at the mass slaughter of school children; Nigeria is confronted by Boko Haram’s deadly agenda; Japan reels from the execution of its citizens... Who has an adequate answer for fanaticism and hatred? This issue of Newsbriefs samples a few messages from readers giving examples of “building trust across the world's divides”. We invite readers to contribute any such experiences in coming issues:  

Off the Top of Her Head 

Tanya Fox, Sydney, was having her hair done:

My hairdresser shared how distressed she was at all the anti-Muslim remarks that women are saying while having their hair done. She finds it so difficult to listen when people unfairly generalise their accusations against all Muslims. She never knows what to say.

I replied that derogatory and disrespectful remarks would inflame anyone, especially a brainwashed misguided radical fundamentalist. And I suggested she could say something like: “We need to get to know more Muslim people before we condemn them all in this way.” One thing we can each do is to “be the peace we want to see”. She identified with this, and was really grateful. 

By the way, I went on to tell her about Creators of Peace and she’s interested to do a Peace Circle.”

(Editor’s note: the Australia Coordinator of Creators of Peace is Zohra Aly, a Muslim living in the western suburbs of Sydney). 


Reparations for Creating Anxiety

Nivanka Bhagwandas reflects on her visit to the home of a Muslim couple in Melbourne:

I was experiencing their generosity and warmth over a shared meal when the conversation touched on recent events. Building trust and finding answers to hatred, anger and violence are much on people's hearts and minds.

While many Muslims do not condone the violence, they feel a deep hurt at the lack of respect for their Prophet shown in the name of free speech. No shootings or hostage-takings are justifiable. Yet perhaps the West needs to understand what Muslims, indeed people of all faiths, consider sacred and holy. 

As Leunig writes in the preface to his little book, A Common Prayer: "I was originally asked to draw a weekly cartoon for the (Sunday Age) but found it difficult to be enthused… The boom in humour and satire I found somewhat oppressive. It seemed to me that newspapers might carry some small spiritual message of consolation as a tiny reparation for the enormous anxiety and distress I believe they can create… I also wanted to gently foster the notion that the mass media might take on a spiritual responsibility. I learned much as I proceeded."

The world would reap a different harvest if the media chose to play this constructive role.


Together at the Indo-Pak border

Melbourne educator Margaret Hepworth has returned from a 34 day program set up by an IofC India team of teachers to facilitate 25 workshops in four cities with over 1,200 teachers from 65 schools:

The IofC India team of educators, working through Education Today, Society Tomorrow, believes that change will come through education. When taking this message across India last October-November through peace-building workshops in schools, something extraordinary happened: I found myself connected with a team of Indian educators and others working towards building peace bridges between India and Pakistan. My own visions began to form: of Pakistani and Indian children coming together at the Wagah border which I visited.

Unexpectedly, in Asia Plateau (the IofC centre in India) I met Chintan Girish Modi, who was taking part in the Caux Scholars’ Program held there in December. Chintan is a joy-filled, tenacious character, whose community initiative, Friendships Across Borders, is a testimony to his life-long dream of bridging the divide between India and Pakistan. Through it, Chintan and his team create email-pals between the separated peoples of these tense and wounded nations. When the massacre of school children took place in Peshawar, their immediate call for letters of love and support to the people of Pakistan from India generated a flood.

What grew from my visions has taken flight with an initiative called ‘When the Sword becomes Words’. We are creating a music video that incorporates school children from Pakistan, India, Australia, Fiji and China united in singing the inspiring song One Day.

Yesterday I received my first email from a Pakistani teacher confirming that the dream has begun. Our intention is that Indian and Pakistani children will “come from their hearts”, to use Chintan’s words, so that when they finally meet, hatred and ignorance will unravel. 


Bridging the Next Great Divide

Rob and Lyn Pattison build their home and relationships at the same time.

Growing up in Britain I did not meet many Muslims. But in the 1980s I was teaching in a school in Fiji where we tried to support a Muslim girl, an orphan who was dux of the school and wanted to go to university. But her uncle, with whom she lived, prevented her, wanting her to marry. In 2007 we visited her in San Francisco. Just before this last Christmas she came to see us in Adelaide.

After teaching for six years in Fiji we moved to Adelaide in 1987, with two children we had adopted, and started looking for work while building a house for ourselves. At the stage where we could move from the garage into the house, we asked ourselves, “What else are we doing in Adelaide?”

It was just after the Berlin wall had come down and the idea entered our minds that the next great divide would be between the West and Islam. We had met a Russian family who came to live in Adelaide from Kazan. Through them, we met many Muslims who had immigrated to Adelaide, particularly Tatars from the west of China and from the east of Russia. We also knew some from Fiji who had fled after the coups there.

As we began to get to know these people, we learned of their history. One journalist, a Uighur from East Turkestan whom I interviewed at the Adelaide Mosque told how he had been imprisoned for nine years by the Chinese with a 25kg ball chained round his ankle, working as a slave labourer in a coal mine. He showed me the scars on his legs. He told us countless Muslims had been killed from his community there, but ”no one does anything about it”. Another man had been in solitary confinement for 18 years.

In 1997 we were the among the few local people attending the first Sabantoi in Adelaide, a Tatarstan celebration  of the plough prior to harvest time. In Fiji we had often joined Muslim for Eid-al fitr after Ramadan. So we did the same in Adelaide.  One year, during Eid-al Fitr, we visited 13 homes and were satiated with the delicious foods – but from the look on the faces of the women, for whom we were often the only non-Muslim visitors, the discomfort was well worth it!

For the last three years we have hosted 21 Muslim teachers and students from West Java who have come to Adelaide to further their teaching skills and experience. It is a privilege to sit around the dinner table discussing educational ideas and stories. Many still keep in touch, some almost daily, and we look forward to learning from many other Muslim friends.


Courageous commentaries

The staff of IofC France – who run an “Initiative Dialogue” in refugee communities and “Education for Peace” among schoolchildren – issued a press release expressing their “deep pain and condemnation of this horrible deed”.  See www.iofc.org/

The IofC-International website has carried three courageous commentaries – by a controversial Imam in London, a woman who volunteered to mentor refugees, and a once “fanatical Christian” – in response to the terrorist attacks. Visit www.iofc.org/global-voices