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Seeing through the great religious divide

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Religious acceptance and tolerance is something this world is in dire need of (Image via Wikimedia)

In the wake of the Sri Lankan Easter attacks, we could reflect on the innocence of children to see past religious differences, writes Safiya Cader.

TO BE HONEST, I felt quite nervous heading to church with my two-year-old in tow one recent evening. I wasn’t sure how well my hijab would be received — whether there would be any animosity or whether I would face any security checks, let alone be considered a security threat. I felt awkward, unsure of myself, carrying my satchel of toy cars and milk and snacks to bribe my two-year-old, Omar, into behaving.

Of course, me being Sri Lankan, I was there a few minutes late. The place was packed with people spilling out of every entrance. I was asked if I’d like to go inside, to which I replied, “yes”. I was told as long as I found a nook and could find somewhere to park the pram, I should be alright. I headed in, face down, eyes lowered, trying to get the two-year-old to whisper while I heard beautiful hymns. With my gaze lowered, I noticed a little nook. A crevice I could sink into. Phew. I made it.

After a few minutes, I stopped worrying about people watching me and was taken back in time. I’m taken back to assembly/mass at school and the choir sounding spectacular. I remember flashbacks of having friends next to me, being monitored by the prefects and also being able to relate to the sermon, the beliefs and the underlying concepts and practices. It took me back to a warm, fuzzy place. A place that was home. A place I felt secure. A place I was carefree and a place I dearly miss — my alma mater. It felt comfortable knowing that I was in a Catholic school but I didn’t have to be “less Muslim” to fit in.

We didn’t have concepts back then of what’s “moderate” enough to be acceptable and what’s not. I was Muslim and you were Christian/Catholic. Big deal. I knew that I was valued and respected regardless and exchanging stories from the Quran and the Bible were a favourite pastime for me and my best friends. Well, one of them anyway.

The magnificence of St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney was breathtaking. I’d never been into a church like that before. It was majestic and magical. Of course, Omar didn’t stay quiet for long. I remember his first few minutes inside, taking it all in. He didn’t know what to make of where we were and he’d never seen so many people in one place. And, to my surprise, most of them were Sri Lankan. Having recently moved, a sense of community is something we sorely missed.

Omar is the type to get excited to go to the doctors so he can chatter to everyone else seated there. He soon made friends with an elderly lady with a walker seated at the pew next to us, to the extent that this sweet soul wanted me to take her seat because she could sit on her walker. My heart melted. Of course, I couldn’t allow that but the gesture was so warm and loving. I wanted to start crying.

The next thing I knew, Omar wanted to head down to meet a little boy nearby. He looked at me and I nodded “okay”. He took his shiny troop of vehicles and offered one to the boy who accepted. After a few minutes, he and the boy were sprawled on the floor making “broom broom” noises and crashing the vehicles together.

I’m not sure of the etiquette in church — is this acceptable? Am I being disrespectful? Is everyone silently annoyed at the Muslim in church whose kid is being disruptive? I cringed and tried to get Omar’s attention when the lovely elderly soul next to me says “let them be, this is God’s house”. I was touched. Relieved. I take Omar for Friday prayers and the resemblance in belief systems is what strikes me the most.

After a while, Omar became crotchety and I had no choice but to take him outside. The first person I met as I headed out happened to be a family friend. We embraced and I said “I’m so sorry about all of this” while I didn’t really understand what I was apologising for. Our exchange was warm and sincere and I was completely at ease. The awkwardness melted away, it felt like family. And, as a Muslim who loves the traveller who travels alongside me on an alternate path in this world, I realised I am sorry.

I’m sorry for the pain you’re suffering. I’m sorry that something that gives my life meaning and something that I find so profoundly beautiful could be used this way. I’m sorry that you weren’t safe or protected. I’m sorry you feel like no one's in your corner. I'm sorry that I feel helpless to change any of it for you. I’m sorry for all these things because you are my brother and seeing your pain hurts me. It’s also relatable and I would never wish those feelings on anyone.

What struck me the most from the whole experience was how technology tends to isolate us. Fear has backed us up into our own little corner and our only means of being aware, of feeling productive and of feeling heard is by means of a keyboard. We don’t say things that divide when actually looking someone in the face — at least we’re less inclined to. We don’t think much of ourselves when we’re in the presence of those who are grieving. But somehow that compassion fades away on a screen.

I don’t know if my presence and that of the other Muslims I saw there was appreciated or not but it definitely gave me something. It gave me the chance to remember and see through Omar what it is to see the world through the innocent eyes of a child. It made me happy to feel that I was among other Sri Lankans who knew my favourite haunts and always knew someone who knew someone who was related to you or to be amongst people who knew how to appreciate really spicy food. It made me happy to feel part of a wider community again, to know that knowing and valuing our differences is what makes us richer and complete.

And so I pray that our children might play together as I saw them do that day, nonchalant to our different belief systems. I pray that you might find me a friend you trust to stand in your corner and fight injustice with you in these dark days just as I might depend on you to do the same for me. I pray that we realise that even in our panic and fear, your God and my God is the same God who protects us all and tests us all and the differences we might see in each other, from the way we dress to the way we pray, may only strengthen us, not isolate us.

The more we find the spaces and the causes to come together – be it to play or pray or be productive – the more likely we will respect one another and not fear the unknown. I certainly know my childhood was enriched by being around different people of different beliefs. I pray our children have that same privilege.

Safiya Cader is a qualified lawyer from Sri Lanka who is currently living and working in Sydney, Australia. You can follow Safiya @SafiyaCader

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