Returning from a foray to the Middle Kingdom, Maryam Yusof details what she discovered about understanding and acceptance.
Everywhere we went, passersby kept snapping pictures of us. Perhaps that wasn’t so strange, for our animated little company was a sight to behold. In our group were a Buddhist monk, a Catholic nun, a Taoist priest and a couple of Muslim girls. In our various colourful outfits, I realised that to a regular resident of China, such a sight might appear odd indeed.
The reason we’d all come together was a 12-day inter-religious learning trip in Beijing and Hong Kong. We were there to interact and learn from youth representatives of the various religions of Singapore. It was the most enlightening journey I’ve gone on.
You see, although my friends are of many faiths, discussing religion has always been taboo. Though we respect that we have different beliefs and practices, we’ve never discussed our own faiths, or asked questions about each other’s. This could be due in part to our Asian sensibilities, which compel us to avoid any chance of offending others. At the same time, I had always burned with curiosity. Thus, when given the opportunity to freely talk with and ask questions of those of other faiths on this trip, I gladly took it.
Since 9/11, Islam has been under a media microscope where it is often cast in a negative light. Thus, it isn’t very surprising to me when people who lack knowledge about Islam develop misconceptions of our beautiful faith. With negative perceptions of Islam being so prevalent, I like to have the chance to dispel misconceptions – even while immediately admitting that I too must still learn a great deal.
And this goes the other way as well, for I also had many misconceptions about other religions prior to this trip. After learning from my peers, however, many of my own misconceptions were debunked and my understanding of their faiths has been greatly enhanced. In a previous article I discussed the importance of not just tolerating but respecting other people’s beliefs. I believe that by understanding other religions we take a step towards cultivating such respect.
In Singapore, where religions co-exist mostly harmoniously, sometimes the lack of understanding and respect can cause ripples of discontentment. Over the years I’ve heard grumblings about the ashes from offerings burnt during the seventh lunar month (aka ‘Hungry Ghost Festival’), complaints about the call to prayer from mosques, and laments about the tolling of church bells. I believe that if we have a greater understanding of others’ faiths, we’ll be able to respect such practices instead of merely tolerating them.
We can all do our part. I believe the first step is to increase religious understanding within our own social circles instead of averting the topic like I’ve done so often in the past.
Of course, if we’re not careful this could backfire. For that reason, if we do go down this road we must strive to keep an open mind, be tactful and sensitive to others’ opinions and, above all, avoid judging. The sentence ‘I don’t know’ is an instrumental part of any such conversation when we’re asked a question we’re not sure of. In such cases I believe the best thing to do is admit one’s lack of knowledge and tell the others that we will strive to find out, rather than providing false information or relying on conjecture.
I was truly surprised by how much I learnt from the many ordinary conversations with others on the trip. What impressed me even more was how much my desire to learn about Islam, along with the love of my own faith, increased.