Wednesday, November 21, 2007

On Pakistan: Religion and Violence

The volatile situation in Pakistan, with President Musharraf clamping down on civil protests, brought to mind a recent dinner experience I shared with three traveling journalists from India, Pakistan, and China. Part of an international visitors program, these three individuals helped me see not only how Pakistan and other parts of the world are perceived by those of us in America, but how our nation is viewed by peoples around the world. At our host's home the evening we all met, I still recall our conversation around the dinner table. I should say that it took some time for us to gather, because our Pakistani guest required some time for his evening prayers out on the back lawn to fulfill his Muslim faith requirement.

As we became more familiar with each other that evening, our journalist friends dispensed with superficial topics of conversation and pressed on for a more substantive exchange about religion, violence and politics. The Indian journalist asked us a challenging question:
"Why does the American government believe it has the right to dictate terms to the rest of the world about how peace can be achieved?" I personally had no easy answer to that question, nor to the follow-up question about whether America saw itself as an empire. Since several of the neo-cons in the Bush administration have voiced that very ambition, it is difficult to deny that some of our leaders do entertain grandiose visions of American hegemony.

The Pakistani journalist then raised the issue of terroism and religion. You see all of us Muslims as terrorists here in America he said. But we are not! He then told us he rejected violence as a Muslim. In heart-breaking detail he described covering a terrorist attack in Pakistan that resulted in the deaths of several young school children. That is not part of my faith he said to us.

Our Indian journalist dining companion then asked us a challenging question: "What does religion mean to people here in America? I have heard many say that religion is a private matter. But I don't understand that. My faith is everything to me. I don't separate my life into religious and non-religious categories." None of us sitting around the table that evening had an easy answer to that line of conversation.

As I follow the events in Pakistan and the Middle East, I think back on the lively conversation I shared one evening with Hindu, Muslim and Chinese journalists who in a couple of hours provoked more intense and meaningful conversation about faith and religion and violence than I've heard in several years. These are concerns that will remain with us, and call us as American and people of faith to become muli-lingual in matters of faith and religion. We live in a nation with more than 6 million Muslims, more than the adherents of the Presbyterian and Episcopal Churches combined at present. What does that say to us about understanding people of other faith traditions? Can we afford not to learn about what faith means to Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and many other religions?


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