Notes from the Field

Diversity in Faith at the International Ramadan Fair

September 23, 2009

Annually, I have the distinct pleasure at the invitation of the Young Moro Professionals Network to give a message to the International Ramadan Fair. In 2006, I attended as a visitor and found the idea of an International Ramadan Fair in Manila so valuable that, in the following years, I encouraged The Asia Foundation to provide a small amount of support to help in this outreach to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The theme of this year’s fair, “Recognizing Diversity in Faith,” clearly reflects the realities of modern Philippine society, but is also drawn from the Qur’an where it says:

Surah 49:13
O mankind!
We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female
and made you into nations and tribes
that ye may know each other.

Since Muslims are a minority in the Philippines, it requires special efforts to educate the majority population on the tenets of Islam. A sad fact of Philippine life is that mainstream Filipinos have a dimmer view of Muslims than Muslims in the Philippines have of non-Muslims. In scientific surveys sponsored by The Asia Foundation late last year (to explore the aftermath of the MOA-AD debacle), we found that, nationwide, Filipinos have moderately positive views of the trustworthiness of Muslims, while Muslims have strongly positive views of the trustworthiness of non-Muslims.

There is a bright side, though, to the survey results. In Isabela and Cotabato cities, which are surrounded by the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and roughly split between Christians and Muslim residents, the picture is better. The rating of the trustworthiness of non-Muslims by Muslims goes up, and the rating of the trustworthiness of Muslims by Christians goes up to the same levels. In short, it seems when people of diverse faiths actually live together and learn from each other, they are more willing to positively recognize and accept diversity in faith.

I’ve blogged before about a letter entitled, “A Common Word between Us and You” to all leaders of Christianity, coming from Muslim Scholars from every denomination and school of thought in Islam. The title of the letter comes from the verse in the Qur’an where Allah enjoins Muslims to issue the following call to Christians and Jews:

Surah 3:64
Say:  O People of the Scripture!  Come to a common word between us and you:  that we shall worship none but God …
The letter pairs this verse with the injunction of the Prophet Muhammad,
None of you has faith until you love for your neighbor what you love for yourself.

The letter connects these Islamic thoughts with the New Testament of the Bible. When Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment he responded (Mark 12:29-31)
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
This is the first and the greatest commandment.

And the second is:  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The response to the letter can be followed on the website, www.acommonword.com and illustrates efforts to recognize diversity in faith.

A particularly important response was the First Seminar of the Catholic-Muslim Forum held between the Vatican and a delegation of the Muslim signatories of the open letter, A Common Word, in Rome in November 2008. Twenty-four participants and five advisors from each religion took part in the meeting. The theme of the seminar was “Love of God, Love of Neighbour,” as emphasized in the original letter. Pope Benedict XVI addressed the forum, and the Final Declaration included “We recognize that God’s creation in its plurality of cultures, civilizations, languages and peoples is a source of richness and should therefore never become a cause of tension and conflict.”

Mapping out practical action is a concrete way for people of different faiths to interact in positive ways. Next month in Washington, D.C., there will be a two-day conference entitled A Common Word Between Us and You: A Global Agenda for Change. The goal is to “develop proposals to advance global peace and security between Muslim and Western societies.”  The recognition of diversity in faith is taking a practical turn.

September 21 is the official Philippine holiday for Eid’l Fitre. It is also the International Day of Peace, endorsed by the United Nations (UN). Jacqui Badcock, the Philippines UN Resident Coordinator, in her message for the International Day of Peace, reminds us of the tens of thousands of families in Mindanao still displaced by the conflict that flared up in September 2008, and who still fear returning to their homes. And, she added, the conflict makes it that much harder to achieve the Millennium Development Goals [http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/] regarding health, education, poverty, and more, that the world community pledged to fulfill by 2015.

On September 21, 1972, 37 years ago, Martial Law was declared by President Ferdinand Marcos, initiating a period of 14 years of one-man-rule. We should use the coincidence of our celebration of Eid’l Fitre with these dates to remember that conflict and dictatorship are detrimental to all societies and to all faiths.

Eid Mubarak!

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative for the Philippines and Pacific Island Nations. Below is adapted from his address to the Young Moro Professional Network’s 4th International Ramadan Fair on September 21, 2009. He can be reached at srood@asiafound.org.

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