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Insults and the Zen of Interfaith Respect

Every other week,I do a forty five minute podcast with my dear friend who is a practicing Jew and we talk about everything religious and otherwise: kosher versus halal, Batman versus Superman and even Palestine and Israel.

My relationship with Mike and the public nature of our friendship gives me insight into his faith and him insight into mine. I was also educated in a Protestant environment until the sixth grade and that experience gave me a strong knowledge of the Bible and of Christian belief systems. It also gave me an opportunity to see how similar my faith was to the one that was taught at school. Finally, as a Pakistani-American growing up in the South, my family blurred the lines between Pakistan and India in a way that some of my dearest friends growing up — the kind that are considered family — were Hindu, Parsi, Sikh and Buddhists.

My experience hasn’t been a cerebral one when it comes to world religions, but an empathetic and emotional one. These friends were not “learning experiences” for me. They are my friends. Getting to know what they believe and how they practice arose through a happy accidentalism, not an intentional endeavour to educate myself. Whereas others have struggled to find common ground, I came of age as a person who took the existence of that ground for granted.

In a lot of ways, the natural assumption of friendship has highlighted my confusion with the general way in which most people approach interfaith discussion and topics. For example, last week, I wrote a light piece on Hanukkah that was aimed at impressing upon people the need to pull lessons from a holiday they may not celebrate. I thought it was benign. In the minds of a vocal few, the post was extremely “insulting” and “should be taken down.” And, believe it or not, someone even called me a “raghead” and questioned why I needed to bring up the fact that I’m Muslim in every, single post on Babble.

I’m not a stranger to controversy, but I’m not going to lie, I’ve never been called “insulting”. I tried to respectfully engage the comments.

What is it about what I’ve written that’s so offensive?

Why is this upsetting?

How is this disrespectful?

Then, of course, there were the questions I asked myself, “Is this because I’m not Jewish and writing about Judaism with a light-hearted tone? Is that not okay?”

Of the people I tried to engage, only one responded. I assume that this is because people think when you ask questions like this, you’re looking for a fight. That wasn’t the case with me. I was genuinely interested.

People can be bothered long enough to tell a stranger that they’re offended, but not be bothered to communicate towards peaceful coexistence. The Buddha said that “Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with it.” I’m going to take license and modify that to “Coexistence isn’t the absence of insult, it is the ability to resolve it.” Telling someone they’re insulting without trying to help them stop being insulting is a metaphorical toilet papering of their soul. It’s a statement devoid of peaceful intention and meant only to invoke shame or hate. The world will not change for the better as long as we think these are useful catalysts for bettering each other’s behavior.

I’ve discerned that people took issue with my suggesting that “Hanukkah was a minor holiday” and that it’s proximity to Christmas has made it a big deal in America. Thing is? The people who were so offended don’t seem to know enough about religious terminology enough to know that the term “minor” doesn’t mean it’s not important. It simply means that there isn’t fasting or restrictions involved. In fact, I’ve read in several places that businesses in Israel don’t close for Hanukkah like they would for other “major” holidays.

In terms of being offended that I insinuated that the holiday’s proximity to Christmas is the reason it’s gained currency in America is neither meant to be insulting nor something I pulled out of thin air. Beth Kisseleff explains in the Huffington Post article, “Why Some Jews Can’t Get Jazzed About Hanukkah” that many American Jews feel that the holiday is overblown and over-celebrated in an attempt to compete with Christmas. Regardless of whether everyone agrees with that or not, my point in bringing that up in my Hanukkah post was to show respect to the Jewish tradition of being able to assimilate into disparate communities in a way that does not compromise their identity.

It was a compliment, not an insult. That some found that insulting may be more of a reflection of the lens with which they view my lack of proprietary rights to explain what someone else’s religion means to me and less about feeling insulted.

I suspect many people view interfaith dialogue and discussion as something that should be conducted with such an incredibly high degree of respect that we can only tread upon eggshells when doing so. Let me ask those who feel that way the following: can you truly be friends with people you feel you have to walk on eggshells with?

I don’t think so.

There is a word in Urdu that comes to mind: apnayee. It’s a derivative of the word “apna” which means “mine.” In my heritage we use this word to describe relationships in which we are most comfortable. I suppose the closest translation would be “like family.”

When I write about Hanukkah or the religions of friends with whom I am close, I come from this place of “apnayee.” I don’t worry about being insulting or offending because I have engaged in laughter, tears, hugs, meals and everyday life with these people. I don’t approach our relationships as some sort of “learning exercise.” The learning is a natural consequence of friendship. I suspect that individuals who demand that I present the lessons I’ve gleaned from my friendships with individuals from other faiths expect that I offer them as pat, little show and tell items to be presented for the good of everyone’s education.

My last post wasn’t about educating people about Hanukkah. It was about what my friends have taught me about Hanukkah. I don’t think it gets more respectful than that, especially when most people expect our communities to be cruel and unkind to one another. My friends of different faiths are not lessons to be taught to the public, and I won’t treat them that way. Because they’re my friends, not teaching tools, and I feel like treating them that way would be the true insult.

More on diversity, dialogue and multiculturalism in America at Faiqa’s blog at Native Born or her co-produced interfaith podcast at Hey! That’s My Hummus! For mostly relevant updates, you can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter

photo credit: The Anna Taylor

 

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