Peace and unity took a step forward last Tuesday, but racism and hatred yanked it back this week.
There is a certain irony that the arrest of a hate crimes suspect comes five days after the World Religions Conference, an event scheduled in reponse to the anti-Muslim incidents this summer.
If anything, there is a dire need for such conferences to provide a counterbalance to the hate crimes and attacks of ignorance taking place on our campus.
The conference titled “Why Religion?” was the latest in a series of colloquia organized by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Students at Ryerson (AMSAR) in conjunction with Hillel at Ryerson and Winners Christian Fellowship.
The format of the conference was simple: Each panelist addressed the issue, “Why Religion?” from the perspective of their faith, and also as a practicing individual within a tradition.
Panelists included Tina Grimberg, Moses Akingbade and Mukgtar Cheema, authorities in Judaism, Christianity and Islam respectively. After all had finished, audience members wrote questions on comment cards to be answered by the panel. The audience turn-out was moderately low, disproportionate to the importance of the issues being discussed.
Yet the mere presence of the three speakers from different faiths sent a strong humanist message of education and tolerance. And by holding the conference at Ryerson, the message was complete: If we can’t find intelligent discussion and debate about religion in a university, we won’t find it elsewhere.
The lecture hall itself was transformed into a sacred space devoted to knowledge and ideas. AMSAR President Umer Raashid, a third-year ITM student, emphasized the goal of the conference. “One of the main reasons why this conference was organized was to raise awareness among the whole Ryerson community, to make sure that the message of peace and unity gets accross.”
Raashid was shocked to hear about the recent arrest, adding that the answer to these attacks is a more intensive campaign of information and education. “I think what should be done is more faith awareness within different groups. Stalls and booths should be set up, and [we need] question and answer periods and open houses,” said Raashid. “If different groups work together, if questions are answered and confusion removed, then there will be less of a chance that these hate crimes will happen within the Ryerson community.”
Second-year Journalism student Aaron Broverman, member of Hillel and a conference attendee, said the forum helped him to overcome some misconceptions and broaden his views.
“I learned a lot about Islam,” said Broverman. “I always thought that terrorism had a little bit of a basis in the Qu’ran, and that it promoted inequality among women. But that doesn’t come from the Qu’ran at all – I learned that from the conference…Now when I watch CNN, I’ll know that it’s not the truth.”
Amatul (Amy) Alli, one of the event coordinators for AMSAR and a first-year science student, commented on this on-going joke within the Muslim community. “CNN Islam,” she said, pointing out the power of the major news networks to misinform people about the practices and opinons of Muslims.
“That’s a joke, everyone knows it: Oh, you got your Islam from CNN.'”
“It’s always a matter of education,” Alli said, adjusting her hijab. “You’re bred to be ignorant…I’ve never met anyone where it’s 100 per cent different. I’ve talked to Christian people and its no adultery, give to the poor, believe in God…’ There’s a lot in common and then it’s like, ‘Why are we fighting?'”
Ryerson alumnus Azam Khan felt the conference provided an excellent forum for ideas and viewpoints. “It’s not ‘you’re wrong I’m right’ – that’s not what open dialogue is all about,” said Khan. “As a Muslim I’m taught that it’s my reponsibility to be tolerant of everyone and the only way to build tolerance is to know and listen to what people believe.”
In response to a question about the recent spate of attacks on Muslims at Ryerson, Khan said that such crimes stem from ignorance. “It’s highly unfortunate that these [hate crimes] are happening this day and age on our campus. I’m a strong believer that these things are due to sheer ignorance…they don’t understand the true teachings of faith.” The conference represented an intelligent response to religious tension, a problem that directly affects Ryerson students here on campus.
To overcome incorrect assumptions, people must open a dialogue. The importance of recognizing commonalities is as important as accepting our differences, best summed up by Rabbi Grimberg during the conference:
“The goal is to be able to live together recognizing [religion’s] uniqueness, celebrating and having a tremendous honourable respect for each other’s diversity.”
– With files from Lane Wade