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From hatred to healing

By Andrew Kille

Who was not stunned by the recent events in Norway, as news of the bombing in Oslo and the subsequent massacre of some 69 young people at a camp on an island nearby broke on the world? As details followed, it appeared that the man responsible for the attacks believed he was fighting for a "Christian Europe" against Islam, Marxism, and multiculturalism.

In his odd manifesto running to over 1500 pages published before the attacks, Anders Breivik described his vision for the future. Although claiming to act on behalf of "European Christianity," he welcomed allies from other faiths: “All individuals of the Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish or otherwise ‘friendly’ faiths/ideologies will be regarded as friends/allies/brothers and sisters of all Europeans and may not be subject to the same assimilation demands now or in the future.”

The enemy, in his mind, is Islam, and he cites the prominent promoters of Islamophobia Pam Geller and Robert Spencer each over 50 times in his writings. While it is impossible to prove direct connections between hateful words and violent action, one cannot help but wonder. Sadly, we are reminded once again of the power of religion not only to heal and bring people together, but to divide us, setting one community against another. How can we respond?

We can make statements, sign petitions, condemn hateful speech, call for more civil discourse, and all these are good. But in the long run, it is by building personal relationships with each other that we weave the fabric of a community that can withstand the attacks of the like of Anders Brevik.

In a 2009 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 58% of the respondents said they believed Mulims face more discrimination in the US than other groups. Since that time, we have seen the vocal opposition to mosques and Muslim community centers in New York, Tennessee, and California, threats to burn the Qur'an in Florida, and Congressional hearings into "domestic terrorism" in Muslim communities. Things don't seem to be getting better. However, the study indicated that when an individual had a personal relationship with a neighbor, co-worker, or friend who was Muslim, their attitudes and opinions of Islam changed.

The month of Ramadan begins today and extends through the month of August. Muslims will be fasting from food and water from dawn to sunset, joining in prayers, and doing acts of charity. The daily fast is broken in the evening with the eating of a date and an iftar meal. Often, friends, neighbors, and community members are invited to share in the iftar, and many Muslim communities hold special interfaith iftars.

Healing comes when we wish a neighbor Ramadan Mubarak (a blessed Ramadan), when we break bread together and join conversations around the table, when we stand together with those who suffer discrimination, when we witness to the power of religion to unite, even in the face of disagreement, and to extend a welcome to all, even those who may not claim a religious tradition.

Rev. Dr. Andrew Kille is co-founder of the Silicon Valley Interreligious Council and editor of Bay Area Interfaith Connect, a publication of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio, which published this essay August 1, 2011, at the beginning of Ramadan.