Blessed are the peacemakers

( My thoughts on the Dec 2019 Declaration of the new Alliance of Virtue, organised by the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies and held in Abu Dhabi.)

When 300 Christians in Nigeria were being chased and attacked by local terrorist group Boko Haram, an elderly Imam called Abu Bakr Abdullah came running out of his home to help. He rushed the fleeing, terrified crowd into his mosque and home, closing the doors behind them. As the angry militia surrounded him with their guns, he dropped to his knees and pleaded with them to leave the people alone. “If you wish to kill these Christians, who are from our own families and our own blood, then start with me first.” The angry rabble of militia walked away in silence.

When a far-right terrorist opened fire on Muslim worshippers in a Christchurch Mosque in March 2019, Farid Ahmed was praying in his wheelchair in a side room. He managed to escape the bloodbath that was unfolding in the mosque, unaware that his wife Husna was shot to death. He spoke to reporters immediately after the incident, saying that he forgave Husna’s killer and would pray for his soul. When asked how he could forgive a man who shot his wife in cold blood, Farid quoted the Quranic verse, “Repel evil with that which is better.”

He continued to say, “The killer gave us hate, so we give him love. He gave us death, so we give him forgiveness. People are scared of us Muslims, but let them know that we love them. Islam teaches us to be merciful to everyone, as the Quran says, “We sent you, O Prophet, to be a mercy to all of humanity.” And finally, the Prophet commanded us, “Be merciful to the people, and He in heaven will show mercy to you.”

Tears flowed down my face as I listened to the gentle voice of Farid, sitting on his wheelchair. We were gathered in Abu Dhabi for a historic conference in which we signed the new Alliance of Virtue, a declaration affirming that all humans are one family and that it is imperative we strive harder than ever for peace, understanding, love and respect for everyone. Religion is regularly condemned for bringing intolerance, distrust, hatred and war to almost every region of our world. But the truth is that all religions are the seat of love and mutual respect. But as with any ideology or belief system, religion can be manipulated, warped and twisted by the peddlers of hate. The signatories were in Abu Dhabi to make a commitment that we would use all our skills and influences to combat lies, misinterpretations and hate in the names of our respective faiths.

The conference was part of a series of seismic, global events that have taken place in the last decade, including the Marrakesh Declaration (on citizenship and rights of minorities in Muslim countries) and the American Caravan for Peace. It was attended by hundreds of delegates, including Arab royalty, ambassadors, senior government ministers, vice presidents, religious leaders, military personnel, activists and academics from across faith communities and countries. I have heard critics over the past few years mocking these conferences for being too elitist. Are these conferences an echo chamber of like-minded voices preaching to the converted, they ask? Why are so few women present? Why are Arabs in the majority, and white, English converts ignored? Is this an old boy’s school network for princes, diplomats and military personnel to reconnect and party in luxurious surroundings? Is there any effect on grass-roots activism? Why is an American member of Congress even allowed into the building? And why, oh why, are Saudis invited when they are bombing Yemen, starving Qatar and generally being horrid to women?

I hear these concerns and reflect that activists often focus on local issues and ignore the national and international stage. Certainly we need to change our local communities. One cannot legislate for love and understanding, and as individuals we have to live these values on a daily basis. But real and lasting change comes when governments and the powerful incorporate changes into international norms and policies. There is much wisdom in hosting the elite, the policy makers and those in positions of power and influence. Many of the terrorist groups we see across the globe justify their ideologies of hate and violence along political lines: the incarceration of the Uighur Chinese, the oppression of the Palestinians, the inhumane treatment of the Kashmiris in India, the invasion of Iraq, the attacks on a church on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka, the Manchester Arena bombing, 9/11, 7/7… many dates, places and innocent deaths.

Greta Thurnberg has mobilised ordinary people to worry about climate change on an individual level, but she has also succeeded in bringing the crisis into the international conscience, because that is where real change will come from. The remarkable achievement of Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah and the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies is that it has been bringing together activists, royalty, government Ministers, academics and religious leaders for decades. For example, the Declaration on the new Alliance of Virtue was signed by a clergyman who represented 600,000,000 evangelical Christians across the globe. Six hundred million Christians! It is this inclusive vision at every level that will give this Declaration and Call to Action longevity and success, by the Will of the Almighty God.

One American delegate commented that the new Declaration was as monumental as the American Declaration of Independence of 1776. Although the American declaration had stated that human beings have the right to be free, one fifth of people in the new colonies were slaves and Thomas Jefferson himself was the owner of one hundred slaves. But with time and effort, slavery was finally abolished and all men did become free. The declaration of the new Alliance of Virtue is also about bringing real change. It is unique because it is using the shared language of values, such as goodness, fairness, justice, love, forgiveness and compassion. Instead of treating religion as a ghoul and a foe, it reminds the world that God has taught us to be compassionate and merciful, just as He is compassionate and merciful. Religion is not the enemy of peace but the promoter of peace.

The conference focused on general principles and values but searching and difficult questions were also asked. Richard Sudworth, advisor to the Archbishop of Canterbury, asked about apostasy, especially when Muslims leave their faith to become Christians and many will be expelled or killed. If governments do not treat apostasy as a crime, then certainly their local communities will turn vigilante to hunt them down. Blasphemy and Muslim reactions to it remain a burning issue. My answer would be the Quranic verse, “There is no compulsion in religion.” Pre-modern, traditional society was defined along religious lines; one lived, married and died within one’s tribe and one’s faith. More importantly, one fought other tribes to protect one’s tribe, one’s idols and one’s faith. To leave one’s religion was therefore problematic as the individual could potentially give protected information to enemy tribes and thus commit treason. The dangers inherent to the tribe if a person left the tribe’s faith justifiably led to the death sentence for the traitor or the apostate. But the post-modern world is multicultural and multi-religious. Our world has changed quickly and dramatically. Globalisation, ease of fast travel, speed of communication and large-scale migration have changed the face of all nations. Allegiance is now defined by a passport rather than a religion or ideology. Leaving one’s faith is no longer an act of treason or danger to the community, but simply an act of individual choice. Punishing someone who leaves their faith no longer makes sense.

One Quranic principle that needs to be given wider attention is to look for that which unites us rather than that which divides us. As with any family, we will have disagreements and real conflicts with each other. But functional families will discuss, debate, examine past grievances, and ultimately reach forgiveness and resolution. Our world is seething because of unresolved grievances, wars, oppression and injustice. The celebrity culture that surrounds us teaches selfishness, narcissism, love for fame and appreciation of the shallow. Faith can be our saving grace. Faith teaches us to do for others what we would wish for ourselves. It teaches us it is better to give than to receive. It teaches us to forgive faults and show humility. It teaches us that we came from the same origins, and we will return to the same dust. The peddlers of hate manipulate our beautiful faiths and our wisdom-filled scriptures to disunite and harm us. It is imperative that people of faith and knowledge stand up and shout from the rooftops that we will not allow the status quo to remain. That we will return to our scriptures and prove the murderers and war-mongers wrong. That we will not isolate our faith communities but will work together with all faith communities. That we will focus on the brotherhood of mankind, not enmity and difference. That though our rituals, worship, hymns and dress may be different, our values are identical. That we can love the difference in others without compromising our own faith traditions.

The Quran uses the example of a ship in a wild storm, when rain and wind lashes the faces, when darkness envelops the craft, when lightning flashes and the waves toss the ship. In such time of terrifying distress, the people turn to God in prayer. Humanity is travelling on the same boat. The issues that affect one community affect all communities, no matter where we live, how much we earn, and what religion we follow. We are surrounded by problems of drugs, violence against women, human trafficking, hunger, water shortage and famine, abuse of children, sexual exploitation, homelessness, poverty, increase in cancer rates, climate change, flooding, wars, extinction of species and so much more. Our global ship needs to steer towards mutual understanding so that we can work together to combat these real and pressing problems. I thank Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah and the team at the Forum for Promoting Peace for the dedication to the peace project which culminated in two declarations: Marrakesh Declaration and the new Alliance of Virtue. May the Almighty God give enduring success and wisdom to both charters.

Salam, Shalom, Ahimsa, Sukhmani and Peace.

Khola Hasan, Editor at Imams Online

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