Building hope

I am in Yale for 10 days, participating in a small conference of religious scholars and activists.

Organized by The Reconciliation Program of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture at Yale Divinity School, the conference is entitled “Building Hope: Muslims, Christians and Jews Seeking the Common Good.” Dr. Joseph Cummings, the program director, wrote to me that 10 leaders from each faith community had been chosen for this opportunity “to consult with each other, to learn about one another’s faiths, develop lasting relationships with each other and help create the conditions for more peaceful and tolerant interactions among these faith communities in the twenty-first century.”

Intimidated, I wrote back to clarify that I am definitely not a religious scholar although I had been working with Muslim religious leaders since 2002. We at the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy had realized that our ulama and aleemat have a critical role to play in the attainment of peace and development. Dr Cummings replied that activists such as myself were also invited to provide a needed perspective on today’s challenging peacemaking issues.

I am glad I came. It has been years since I have had 10 days to sit quietly and contemplate, albeit surrounded by learned theologians of the Abrahamic faiths.

On Wednesday, we had an afternoon session on peacemaking and tolerance. I was asked to share our experiences as a Muslim from Mindanao.

I related that the history and geography of the Philippines had been carved out of cultural and religious diversity. Two religious streams entered the Philippines. One, the Islamic, came in the 14th-15th centuries. The other, the Christian, arrived in the 16th century with the Spanish colonization of the country. These two religious streams resulted in the Islamization of much of Mindanao and the Christianization of a part of Mindanao and the rest of the Philippines.

The social landscape of Mindanao has long been defined by diversity. After centuries of western colonization, state attempts at integration, and continuing migration, the region is now shared by three major groups set apart from each other by their religious and cultural traditions: the Christians, the Muslims or the Moros, and the Lumads or the Indigenous Peoples.

Diversity — for the many communities that are characterized by it — can be both a blessing and a challenge. On the one hand, the positive interface between the cultural practices and faith traditions of the community’s diverse inhabitants has enriched Mindanao’s community life. But, on the other hand, the seemingly irreconcilable religious ideologies and tribal interests (for this purpose, I consider the Ilonggos a tribe) can often make it difficult for their adherents to look beyond their differences and search for common grounds.

The religious diversity is often threatened by the conflicts that have periodically conflagrated between the government and the liberation fronts of Muslims struggling for independence — the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Centuries of conflict have exacted a heavy toll on Muslim-Christian relations in the region. To many in these communities, their perception of the “other” has been filtered through the sufferings and hardships they and others in their communities have experienced during the war. Historical stereotypes persist — that of the Moros as “uncivilized heathens” and the Christians as “land grabbers” — and there is very little opportunity — and incentive — in the midst of the traumas of war, to calmly reassess these images.

While Muslims, Christians, and Lumads generally get along as neighbors despite their differences, it is the periodic breaking out of armed conflict and political controversies that strain the relationship of the peoples of Mindanao. Unfortunately, there are those who use religious differences to manipulate these political tensions and differences to further their own interests.

Thus, our leading ulama like to quote Surah 49, Verse 13 from the Holy Quran:

“O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes that you may know and honor each other (not that you may despise one another). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted.”

Clearly, all Muslim faithful are enjoined by God to accept their neighbors who may not be of the same faith or culture.

They also like to quote: “Allah forbids you not, with regards to those who fight you not for (your) Faith nor driven you out of your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them. For Allah loveth those who are just.” Surah 60, Verse 8.

This chapter of the Holy Quran further commands Muslims to treat their neighbors — those who have not committed aggression against their community or their faith — well and justly.

But the verses that gave us the most traction were those quoted in A Common Word: love of God and love of neighbor.

On Oct. 11, 2007, a group of 138 Muslim scholars, clerics, and intellectuals sent an open letter, entitled “A Common Word Between Us and You,” to Pope Benedict XVI and the leaders of other Christian denominations. Led by Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan, A Common Word argued that “if Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace.”

In the Holy Qur’an, Allah enjoins Muslims to issue reach out to Christians and Jews, the Peoples of the Scripture:

“Say: O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside God. And if they turn away, then say: Bear witness that we are they who have surrendered (unto Him). (Aal ‘Imran 3:64)

A Common Word further details the commandment of God for us to love our neighbors. The Prophet Muhammad said: “None of you has faith until you love for your neighbor what you love for yourself.”

Rather than fight each other in conflicts where there can be no victor, the document urged Muslims and Christian to “vie with each other only in righteousness and good works.” It asked both religions to be good neighbors “be fair, just and kind to another and live in sincere peace, harmony and mutual goodwill.”

When I first heard these verses explained and discussed, I felt a strong pull to bring A Common Word to our divided communities in Mindanao. PCID started organizing small discussions with our ulama. This year, with the support of the Australian Embassy, we will be organizing regional intrafaith forums on A Common Word in Mindanao culminating in an interfaith conference in Manila.

A Common Word highlighted the two themes of love of God and love of neighbor as the foundation for serious dialogue or engagement between Muslims and Christians. The two themes are also the two great commandments of Jesus Christ, binding Muslims and Christians together around a set of theological and ethical principles.

Imagine what can happen if we can engage one another in talks where we can state our differences up front and so dialog with a clear conscience and sincerity. Imagine the good that can result if, instead of focusing on what divides, we dialog and collaborate to attain common ground.

Here in Yale, on a lovely sunny day, I will contemplate that lovely possibility and renew my commitment to dialogue.