সম্প্রীতির উদাহরণ

০৭ জুন ২০১৭, সমকাল।

সব পথ, মত ও ধর্মের সহাবস্থান সামাজিক সম্প্রীতির অংশ। এ সম্প্রীতি রক্ষায় কিছু কিছু দৃষ্টান্ত অনুপ্রেরণার। সাম্প্রতিক উদাহরণ বোধ হয় ৪ জুন আনন্দবাজারে প্রকাশিত একটি খবর। ‘রমজানে নিয়মিত রোজা রাখে এই হিন্দু পরিবার’ শীর্ষক প্রতিবেদনটি বলছে কলকাতার বারাসাতের হিন্দু পরিবারটি কেবল রোজাই রাখে না, একটি মসজিদও দেখাশোনা করে। সেখানে জুমার নামাজ, রমজানে তারাবি-ইফতার সবই হয়। প্রতিবেদনটি বলছে, ৬৭ বছর বয়সী দীপক বসু নিজে রোজা রাখতে না পারলেও তার ছেলে নিয়মিত রোজা রাখেন। মসজিদে ইমামের সঙ্গে ইফতার করেন। দীপক বসুর আদি নিবাস আমাদের খুলনার ফুলতলার আলকাগ্রামে। ১৯৬৪ সালে পূর্ব পাকিস্তানে দাঙ্গার সময় কলকাতার বারাসাতের ওয়াজুদ্দিন মোড়লের বিশাল সম্পত্তি পাল্টাপাল্টি করে ওপারে চলে যান। সে জমির মালিকানায় মেলে একটি মসজিদ। মসজিদটি আজও বসু পরিবারটি রক্ষণাবেক্ষণ করে চলেছে। এমনকি আড়াই দশক আগে যখন উগ্র হিন্দুত্ববাদীরা অযোধ্যার বাবরি মসজিদ ভাঙে, তখনও বসু পরিবার পাহারা দিত যাতে মসজিদের গায়ে কোনো আঁচড় না লাগে। মসজিদটিতে কোনো অনুদান গ্রহণ করা হয় না। ২৭ রমজানে লাইলাতুল কদরে কোরআন পড়া সম্পূর্ণ হলে চাঁদা তুলে পাড়ার সবাইকে খাওয়ান রোজাদাররা।
প্রায় এ রকমই আরেক সম্প্রীতির প্রতীক হয়ে দাঁড়িয়ে আছে কলকাতার জোড়াসাঁকোর মার্বেল প্যালেস মসজিদ। মসজিদটি বাঙালি বাবুর মসজিদ নামে পরিচিত হলেও এটি রক্ষণাবেক্ষণের দায়িত্বে রয়েছে হিন্দু ট্রাস্ট। বিশেষভাবে বললে একটি হিন্দু পরিবার। ভারতীয় সংবাদমাধ্যম সংবাদ প্রতিদিন ডট আইএন-এ প্রকাশিত ‘কলকাতার মসজিদের রক্ষণাবেক্ষণে নিযুক্ত হিন্দুরা!’ শীর্ষক প্রতিবেদনে এর বিস্তারিত রয়েছে। প্রতিবেদনটি বলছে, মলি্লক পরিবারের দেবোত্তর জমিতে তৈরি মসজিদটির বয়স ১৮১ বছর। মসজিদটি মলি্লক পরিবার দীর্ঘ সময় ধরে দেখাশোনা করে আসছে।
হিন্দুপ্রধান দেশ ও হিন্দুপ্রধান এলাকায় এ দুটি মসজিদ ও দুটি পরিবারের কাহিনী প্রেরণার। এ রকম দৃষ্টান্ত যুগে যুগে নানা জায়গায় আমরা দেখেছি। ইসলামের দ্বিতীয় খলিফা হজরত ওমরের (রা.) সময়কার একটি ঘটনাও প্রাসঙ্গিক। ওমর (রা.) আলেকজান্দ্রিয়া বিজয়ের পর রাসূলের (সা.) সাহাবি হজরত আমর ইবনুল আসকে (রা.) সেখানকার দায়িত্ব দেন। তার সময়ে আলেকজান্দ্রিয়ায় একদিন কে বা কারা রাতের অন্ধকারে খ্রিস্টানদের গির্জায় প্রবেশ করে যিশুখ্রিস্টের মূর্তির নাক ভেঙে দেয়। তাই খ্রিস্টান পাদ্রিরা আমির আমর ইবনুল আসের (রা.) দরবারে অভিযোগ নিয়ে যান। ঘটনার বর্ণনা শুনে আমর ইবনুল আস ব্যথিত হলেন। তিনি বললেন, ব্যর্থতা আমারই। তাই এর দায়ভার আমাকেই নিতে দাও। কাল জুমার পরে ভরা মজলিস ও খোলা মাঠে ফয়সালা পাবে। পরের দিন সবাই উপস্থিত হলো। হজরত আমর ইবনুল আস (রা.) নিজের কোমরের তরবারি বের করে পাদ্রির হাতে দিয়ে বললেন, তোমরা আমার নাক কাট। পাদ্রি হতবাক হয়ে গেল। পাদ্রি যখন নাক কাটার জন্য অস্ত্র উপরে তুলল, ঠিক তখনই ভিড় ঠেলে এক মুসলিম সৈন্য এগিয়ে এলো। সে বলল, আমিই নাক ভেঙেছি। আমার আমির নির্দোষ। আপনি আমার নাক কাটুন। এভাবে মুসলমানরাও অন্য ধর্মাবলম্বীদের জানমাল-ইজ্জত-আব্রুর হেফাজত করেছে। আমাদের দেশে বিভিন্ন সময় কিছু দুর্বৃত্ত অন্য ধর্মাবলম্বীদের উপাসনালয় ভাঙাসহ কিছু ঘটনা ঘটালেও আমরা অধিকাংশই শান্তিপ্রিয়। অন্য ধর্মাবলম্বীদের ওপর নির্যাতনের মতো কাপুরুষতা আর নেই। হিন্দু-মুসলিম-বৌদ্ধ-খ্রিস্টান সকলে মিলে আমরা সোনার দেশ চাই। ওপরের ঘটনা দুটি সে প্রেরণা দিচ্ছে। আর আমাদের নজরুল তো বলেই গেছেন_
গাহি সাম্যের গান_
যেখানে আসিয়া এক হয়ে গেছে সব বাধা-ব্যবধান
যেখানে মিশছে হিন্দু-বৌদ্ধ-মুসলিম-ক্রীশ্চান।

-মাহফুজুর রহমান মানিক

সম্প্রীতির মেলবন্ধন বান্দুরায়

০১ জানুয়ারি ২০১৭, প্রথম আলো।

তাঁদের ধর্ম ভিন্ন, পেশাও। সমবয়সী নন। জাতি-গোত্র আলাদা। কিন্তু আছে মনের মিল। তাই বন্ধুর মতো একসঙ্গে আড্ডা দেন। হইহল্লা করেন। বিশেষ করে ধর্মীয় অনুষ্ঠানগুলোতে একে অন্যের বাড়িতে আমন্ত্রিত হন। খুব মজা করেন। সামাজিক-ধর্মীয় সম্প্রীতির এই চিত্র ঢাকার নবাবগঞ্জ উপজেলার বান্দুরা ও আশপাশের গ্রামে দেখা গেছে।

১৬ ডিসেম্বরের ঘটনা। তখন সকাল ১০টা বাজে। বান্দুরা বাসস্ট্যান্ডের কাছে বান্দুরা ডেকোরেটরের সামনে কয়েকজন দাঁড়িয়ে খোশগল্প করছিলেন। এর মধ্যে পুরোনো বান্দুরা গ্রামের আবুল খায়ের খোকা একটি বরফকলের মালিক। কিছুটা চুপচাপ ধরনের। আড্ডার মধ্যমণি দিলীপ গমেজ। হাস্যরস ছড়াচ্ছিলেন। তিনি বান্দুরা ইউনিয়ন পরিষদের (ইউপি) সদস্য। বাড়ি আড্ডাস্থল থেকে মাত্র কয়েক শ গজ দূরে। মোলাসিকান্দা গ্রামে। দুর্গাচরণ হালদার ফ্লাস্ক থেকে কাপে রং-চা ঢেলে একে একে সবার হাতে তুলে দেন। তিনি এই ডেকোরেটরের কর্ণধার। বাড়ি নতুন বান্দুরা গ্রামে। দীর্ঘদেহী হাসনাবাদ গ্রামের পিটার বিকাশ গমেজ নামকরা বাবুর্চি। দীর্ঘদিন সৌদি আরব ও কুয়েতে ছিলেন।

এক প্রশ্নের জবাবে আবুল খায়ের খোকা বলেন, ‘আমার জন্ম মুসলিম পরিবারে হলেও বড় হয়েছি খ্রিষ্টান ও হিন্দুদের সঙ্গে মিলেমিশে। আপনি খোঁজ নিলে দেখবেন, বান্দুরা ও এর আশপাশের গ্রামগুলোতে হিন্দু, মুসলিম ও খ্রিষ্টানরা মিলেমিশে শান্তিপূর্ণ সহাবস্থান করে। ধর্ম নিয়ে কোনো ধরনের বাড়াবাড়ি করে না। বরং নিজ নিজ ধর্মীয় উৎসব অন্যদের নিয়ে উদ্‌যাপন করে।  বংশপরম্পরায় এমনটিই চলে এসেছে। আমরা শিখেছি আমাদের বড়দের কাছে। আর আমাদের সন্তানেরা শিখছে আমাদের কাছ থেকে।’

খ্রিষ্টান পরিবারে বেড়ে ওঠা দিলীপ গমেজ বলেন, ‘এই এলাকার পোলাপানরা একটাই স্বপ্ন দেখে। বড় হয়ে তারা বিদেশ যাবে। টাকা কামাই করবে। দেখা গেল, আমার এক বন্ধু হিন্দু কিংবা মুসলিম, হে কাজে গেল দুবাই। পরে আমারেও নিয়া গেল গা। এই হলো হিসাব। ধর্মটর্ম নিয়া কেউ এত মাথা ঘামায় না। পড়াশোনাও খুব একটা হয় না। তবে নতুন প্রজন্মের ছেলেমেয়েরা বেশির ভাগ ঢাকায় থাকে। পড়াশোনার দিকে তাদের খুব মনোযোগ। হা হা হা…’

একজন পাশ কাটিয়ে যাওয়ার চেষ্টা করছিলেন। কিন্তু দৃষ্টিতে ধরা পড়েন। আড্ডাস্থল থেকে আঙুলের ইশারা করেন। আর হাসিতে ফেটে পড়েন। কারণটা বোঝা যায় একটু পরে। আগন্তুক সিগারেট নিয়ে এসেছেন। কে কোন ব্র্যান্ডের সিগারেট ফোঁকেন, তা তাঁর মুখস্থ। সে অনুযায়ী ব্যবস্থা।

মাথা চুলকাতে চুলকাতে আসা লোকটির দিকে তাকিয়ে কিছুটা রাশভারী দুর্গাচরণ হালদারও হাসি আটকে রাখতে ব্যর্থ হন। রহস্য করে তিনি বলেন, ‘তুমি চোখের সামনে দিয়া যাও ক্যান। চুপ করে পেছনের দিকে আইস্যা খারাইতা। তাইলে কারও নজরে পড়তা না। সিগারেটও আনতে হতো না।’ তিনি বলেন দেখেন, ব্যবসাপাতি ভালো না। তারপরও এখানে প্রায় প্রতিদিনই এমন আড্ডা হয়। চা-সিগারেট চলে। এরপর যে যাঁর কাজে যান।

এরপর আবুল খায়ের খোকা হাসনাবাদ গ্রামের জপমালা রানীর গির্জা ঘুরিয়ে দেখান। মুসলিম হওয়া সত্ত্বেও ১৭৭৭ সালে প্রতিষ্ঠিত এই গির্জায় ঢুকতে কোনো বেগ পেতে হয়নি। বড়দিনের উৎসব সামনে রেখে গির্জার হলরুম সাজাচ্ছিলেন কয়েকজন তরুণ। গির্জার সামনে মাঠের এক কোণে একটি খড়ের ঘর। তাতে মাতা মেরি ও শিশু যিশুর মূর্তিরয়েছে। আশপাশের বাড়িগুলোর সামনে ক্রিসমাস ট্রি সাজানো হয়েছে।

বান্দুরা বাজার থেকে কয়েক কিলোমিটার দূরে বড় গোল্লা গ্রাম। প্রতিটি বাড়ি বড় বড় গাছপালায় ঘেরা। আধুনিক দোতলা-তিনতলা ভবন কিন্তু জনমানুষের খুব একটা দেখা মেলে না। এই গ্রামের বাসিন্দা মাইকেল গমেজ। নদীর তীরে চায়ের দোকান চালান। তিনি বলেন, এখানে খ্রিষ্টান ছাড়া অন্য কোনো সম্প্রদায়ের মানুষের ঘরবাড়ি নেই। আশপাশের হিন্দু ও মুসলিম-অধ্যুষিত গ্রাম আছে। তাঁরা শান্তিপূর্ণভাবে বসবাস করেন। তাঁদের গ্রামের প্রায় বাড়ির কোনো না কোনো সদস্য বিদেশে, নিদেনপক্ষে ঢাকায় থাকেন। বেশির ভাগই বাবুর্চি। তবে বড়দিন উপলক্ষে অনেকেই নিজ নিজ বাড়িতে ফিরে আসেন। তখন গ্রাম বেশ জমজমাট হয়ে ওঠে। এই গ্রামে রয়েছে সেন্ট ফ্রান্সিস জেভিয়ার গির্জা। গির্জাটির কিছু দূরেই দেউতলা গ্রামের একটি মসজিদ। সেখান থেকে মাইকে ভেসে আসে মাগরিবের আজান। আর দূরে কোথাও হিন্দু বাড়িগুলো থেকে ভেসে আসে উলুধ্বনি। সন্ধ্যার বাতাসে মিলেমিশে যায়।

Starting at Home

To discriminate against a minority religion is to discriminate against any and all religion.

 

“There is not a single nation in the world that both respects religious freedom and poses a security threat to the United States,” writes William Inboden in his article “Religious Freedom and National Security.”

 

Think about it for a moment—every religion is a minority religion somewhere.

Christians enjoy a majority in the United States and many other nations, but they are discriminated against and persecuted in Indonesia, for example.

Jews are only 2 percent of the American population but are a huge majority in Israel.

And Muslims, the majority in Arab countries, are minorities in many of the countries of Earth.

With that in perspective, we can agree that it doesn’t do well to discriminate against “minority religions,” does it? To discriminate against a minority religion is to discriminate against any and all religion.

As a Scientologist, I subscribe to L. Ron Hubbard’s view that the only way to survive in a diverse world, rich with all manner of views on spirituality, is to “respect the religious beliefs of others.”

In a chapter of that title in his book The Way to Happiness he states: “Religious tolerance does not mean one cannot express his own beliefs. It does mean that seeking to undermine or attack the religious faith and beliefs of another has always been a short road to trouble.”

This truth holds on an individual level, all the way up to a state level, and awareness is increasing of the relationship between religious freedom and national security:

“There is not a single nation in the world that both respects religious freedom and poses a security threat to the United States,” writes William Inboden in his article “Religious Freedom and National Security.”

So don’t you think we would do well to set the example, starting at home?

In that endeavor, one of the most important targets for reform is the media, all too often a worshiper of stereotypes and a propagator of falsehoods on the subject of faith. For that reason, my Church published a Charter on Journalistic Ethics in Relation to Respect for Religion or BeliefTake a look.

Author

 

Robin Saenger’s story

In the Arab town of Furedis in Israel-Palestine, I had the pleasure of re-connecting with a long time friend and amazing woman, Iptisam Mahameed. She is an Arab Israeli who is actively involved in women’s right’s issues, peace building, and local village politics. She also works with Jewish and Muslim women to build understanding and connection. It’s a common sight to see Iptisam closely woven into the fabric of her community as a local mover and shaker. One thing that is not so common to see in Furedis are Israeli Jews – the towns in the area are pretty strongly segregated.

 

On this particular day, however, Jewish Israelis were wandering through the markets of Furedis, and Iptisam’s role was expanded a bit out of the norm. On this Iptisam was meeting with a group of Israeli Jews lovely autumn day in Furedis from Tel Aviv to give a cooking lesson. Somehow, “Ipti” had met a chef from Tel Aviv and invited him and a group of his “foodie” restaurant clients to Furedis for a food extravaganza! This was the first time most if not all of these Israelis had been in an Arab village, let alone shopped in an Arab market. Later, at Iptisam’s home, they watched closely, with concentration and growing interest as Iptisam put together an incredible feast. Tasks like chopping and stirring were doled out freely. Gradually, everyone got involved and in anticipation of the meal to come stomachs began to growl, and mouths watered.

Here were Muslims and Jews meeting and mingling, getting to know each other and most of all, absolutely bonding over the shared meal to come. Iptisam cooked an incredible fish stew in an outdoor propane fueled wok-like pot – fish heads bobbing in the fragrant broth. The table was absolutely loaded with authentic home-style Arab food of every sort. It was a sight to see Ipti and the chef, heads together and speaking passionately in the shared language of cooking and food. This was a fascinating and delicious experience on so many levels. We can connect over art, music, language, children, but in my opinion, food is right up there at the top of the list of ways we can be together and one that should happen more often! – Robin Saenger

Inspiring Student Voices Reflect on an Interfaith Exchange

This week, Facing History’s Learn + Teach + Share blog featured a series of blog posts from the students and teachers involved in an exchange between two Los Angeles middle schools: Sinai Akiba Academy, a Jewish day school, and New Horizon School, a Muslim day school.

“In my Jewish History class, students analyze how people have created an ‘us’ and ‘them’ in history, and they talk about what they can do to create a more inclusive school and society,” Rebecca Berger, a teacher at the Sinai Akiba Academy, says. “They say all the right things when talking about groups and stereotypes, and yet I realized that my students would never really be able to see Muslims as part of an “us” unless they had the chance to get to know Muslim teens.”

 

As part of the exchange program, Sinai Akiba teens are paired with New Horizon teens. New Horizon students spend a day at Sinai Akiba and then a month later, Sinai Akiba students spend the day at New Horizon. On both days of the exchange, students get to know each other through games, witness each other’s prayer, and engage in activities around key questions such as, “What does it mean to be a Muslim/Jewish American?”

“We hoped to give these students an opportunity to learn from, understand, and appreciate other students who are ‘very different’ from them,” New Horizons teacher Aysha Mehdi says. “Through the exchange we would like them to understand that, despite their faith and other differences, they are very much alike, that when they dig deep they will find that they share more things in common than it appears on the surface. And then if we dare to dig even deeper, we find that at the core, we are the same, we have the same feelings, emotions and insecurities, that we are human.”

“Beginning the exchange, it was something I had to do,” one of the student participants says. “Now, it something I would want to do over and over again.”

“We may not use the same prayer book, but if the next generation of Jews and Muslims, my generation, can begin a dialogue, then maybe we can work to find a solution,” says another. “This is a beginning.”

I am a Jew and he was my Muslim Uber driver

Jewish and Muslim leaders link arms in a silent march to honor the victims of a shooting at the Ozar Hatorah school in March. PHOTO: REUTERS

I walk out of my SAT test and turn on my phone. I see that four more Israelis have been stabbed. This has become our sad new normal. I then proceed to order an Uber taxi home. Within a minute, I get a text message saying that my driver, Muhammad is on his way. Muhammad, he must be Muslim, I thought.

Maybe as an American Israeli, I should have hesitated, it wouldn’t really be unwarranted, would it? Regardless of the driver’s religion, I’m a five-foot tall, 17-year-old girl, getting into a taxi alone with a stranger. Instead though, I was optimistic — I’d just started taking Arabic, and was hoping to strike up a conversation with my driver. What actually happened during my journey home, however, far exceeded my expectations.

As I got in the taxi, Muhammad asked me where I was coming from. I told him that I had just taken the SAT.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what that is. I’m not so educated, I’m not from this country,” he said in his strong accent and broken English.

This was my in.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Afghanistan.”

“Really? I actually just started learning Arabic.”

He smiled.

“Kif halak?”

Sitting in Arabic class the first day, just a few short weeks ago, my teacher explained why it’s so important for us, as Jews especially, to learn Arabic. He explained that the Muslims are a humiliated people, and by learning their language, we are showing them that we do care. Hearing this, I was sceptical, to say the least. They don’t seem humiliated at all to me, I thought. What did I know?

“I actually don’t speak much Arabic. We speak Persian. But I know a little bit from the Quran.” he said.

He was clearly very intrigued by me. It didn’t take long for it to come up that I also speak Hebrew.

“So you’re Jewish?” he asked.

“I am,” I responded without hesitation.

Before I knew it, we were discussing Shabbat, the Messiah, the Torah, and the Quran. He was so fascinated by everything I was saying, and so uninformed about Judaism. He asked me about our Shabbat and why we celebrate it. I explained to him that it’s because God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, so we do the same. He really liked this story and thought that was a very good reason. We agreed that neither the Quran nor the Torah ever says to kill anyone, and that only radicals do such things. When he told me that Jesus was the Christian’s messiah and David was the Jews’, I corrected him.

“David wasn’t our messiah. We’re actually still waiting for the messiah,” I explained.

“Really? So are we! So what happens when the messiah comes?” He was so excited.

“Well he wakes up all the dead people and there’s supposed to be peace.”

Here we were, a Muslim and a Jew innocently discussing our own religions, and answering each other’s questions, without any prejudices. He was surprised by how many similarities there were between our religions, and so was I.  And then he opened up to me even more.

“You know, I expected America to be the greatest place in the world… That’s what we all think back home.”

“Yeah, I know. Israelis think that too… It’s not so great is it?” I said.

“No, it isn’t. I actually prefer Afghanistan. Yes, we have our security problems, but we love each other. Back in Afghanistan, a person can work and feed their family. Here I work, and I can’t even feed myself.”

“Yeah America’s just another place…”

“And here, people think we’re all terrorists. When they see my name, Muhammad, they don’t want me to drive them.”

And at that moment, my heart broke for him and his people.

“Why do you want to learn Arabic, anyway?” he went on to ask.

“Because I don’t think you’re all terrorists.” I responded.

He smiled.

I smiled.

And just like that, we’d bridged the gap in understanding that was beginning yet another war in Israel as we spoke. I will always remember Muhammad, the Uber driver who opened up to me and reminded me that we’re all just people. And I hope Muhammad, a Muslim who previously knew nothing about Jews, good or bad, will always think of us Jews fondly.

Empathy paradise: Students at a Jewish Day School reflect on Zak Ebrahim’s experience growing up with an extremist Muslim father

 

 

With Rosh Hashanah fast approaching, Sara Beth Berman of the Davis Academy in Atlanta, Georgia, wanted to create a lesson for the school’s middle school students around the ideas of empathy and forgiveness.

“In the month preceding the Jewish New Year, we talk a lot about how to forgive, how to accept forgiveness, and how do you want to be better in the new year,” says Berman, the experiential educator at this Jewish day school. “I was working on finding something to teach on these topics. And I was coming up short.”

Zak Ebrahim: I am the son of a terrorist. Here’s how I chose peace.But an a-ha moment came when one of her colleagues, Judaic studies teacher Samara Schwartz, forwarded her a TED Talk all about the life-altering things that happen when we dare to have empathy: Zak Ebrahim’s “I am the son of a terrorist. Here’s how I chose peace.”

“I thought, ‘This is amazing,’” says Berman, who quickly jumped into a conversation with Schwartz, the school’s administrators and the school’s counseling team to discuss how to frame it for a lesson. “It’s this amazing person with such a positive message, who is a Muslim and whose father who was an extremist terrorist. I watched it a couple of times, and I knew it was going to be powerful.”

On Friday, September 12—just three days after Zak’s talk was released (and the day after September 11)—about 200 middle school students at the academy took part in a lesson framed around Zak’s talk and the song “Change Your Mind” by Sister Hazel. In the classroom where Berman observed, the students sat at desks arranged in a big U-shape and watched the talk. When Ebrahim revealed that his father is El-Sayyid Nosair, who was convicted of planning the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and who assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane, the leader of the Jewish Defense League, in 1990, the kids audibly gasped.

“They couldn’t believe it,” said Berman. “They said, ‘We didn’t know that you could have a father that’s a bad man and then be so good.’ That’s really an important lesson for us in terms of teaching them how to make their own decisions and grow and be their own people.”

The students in the class also had a big reaction to the part of the talk where Ebrahim describes going to the shooting range with his father and uncles, and the glee that erupted when a target burst into flames. “I’m not sure how many of them could hear this,” says Berman, “but Zak said the Arabic phrase ‘ibn abuh’ — like father, like son. It sounds close to father in Hebrew—‘abba.’”

After watching the talk, the students got up from their seats. Around the classroom, a series of questions were posted for them to consider: How do you feel Zak’s experience growing up was different from yours? How was Zak’s childhood the same as yours? Why was he able to be empathetic? How could you be more open and welcoming to your peers who have struggled like Zak has?

Quietly, the students walked around and wrote down their thoughts on Post-it notes, which they then stuck to the walls. Says Berman, “Many students were like, ‘I ran out of Post-its. Can I have more Post-its?’”

Students reflect on questions spurred by Zak Ebrahim’s TED Talk. Photo: Twitter/@sbbEZas123

Around the question, “Where do you learn stereotypes, and how can we bust them?” students posted answers like, “We learn stereotypes from the people around us, but we can bust them by doing what we think is right.”

The question, “Zak struggled as the new kid in class who was quiet and chubby. Have you ever felt like Zak?” also prompted some interesting answers. One female student wrote, “My brothers make fun of me for being small all the time. So I get what Zak is saying.”

Berman loved watching the students find common ground with Ebrahim. “There were some realizations that Zak was just like them—which was awesome. That’s all we want from our students: to realize that everybody is a human,” says Berman. “When you’re in middle school, it’s really hard to realize that there are other people around you that also have feelings. These are kids, so they aren’t on the terrorist path, but this reminded them that they also shouldn’t be on the bullying path. That they have choices.”

Overall, Berman calls the lesson “empathy paradise.”

The lesson also served as an important opportunity to talk to the kids about the realities of terrorism and about the importance of religious tolerance. “The majority of the kids were not born yet on September 11, 2001,” says Berman. “We really try to speak with kindness and to be authentic that we’re talking about a specific group of extremist terrorists—that we’re talking about ISIS, Hamas and Hezbollah, not Muslim people as a whole.”

Berman and her colleagues work hard to make sure that the students hear from people of many faiths. Last year, the school held a panel that brought together a rabbi, a Baptist preacher, a Presbyterian minister, and an imam, all senior clergy members from around Atlanta. Berman hopes that this talk will further help students be open-minded. “I enjoy finding things to help them have a nuanced understanding of Islam as a religion and Muslim people as a whole,” says Berman.

TED Talks are a popular teaching tool at the Davis Academy for students and teachers alike. And Berman hopes that this talk will have a lasting effect on how students think and act. “We want them to be able to have high-level conversations and to think about becoming a better person in the new year,” she says.

And for Zak Ebrahim, it was incredibly moving to see images of this lesson posted on Twitter. “Beautiful and humbling,” he wrote in response. “This is my dream.”

 

An up-close look at some answers to this question. Photo: Twitter/@sbbEZas123
In this classroom, students answer questions ona chalk board. Photo: Twitter/@rabbispen
A scene from the end of this lesson. Photo: Twitter/@rabbispen

A story of religious tolerance

I would like to relate an important story of religious tolerance with which you may be less familiar, but which is an integral part of the my Unitarian heritage. It comes from sixteenth-century Transylvania. Transylvania is now mostly in Romania, but was then an independent part of the Hungarian Empire where Unitarianism received its first vibrant expression. In 1557, Transylvania’s Queen Isabella, mother of the young King Janos Zigsmond, issued a decree of religious toleration in order to quell controversy between Lutherans, Calvinists, and the Catholic Church. It stated, “each person [could] maintain whatever religious faith he wishes … just as long, however, as they bring no harm to bear on anyone at all.” This decree established a synod to conduct comparisons of doctrine. This was a radical move in a region of continuing religious intolerance because it allowed public debate of religion. Freedom and reason had made way for tolerance. Eight years later, in 1563, this edict was reaffirmed and extended to say, “each may embrace the religion that he prefers without any compulsion …” Another three years passed, and the Holy Trinity itself was on the table for debate. Barely a decade earlier, Miguel Servetus was burned at the stake in Geneva for publishing several volumes on the errors of the trinity.

The debates between Trinitarians and the new Unitarians, the latter led by Francis David, continued for several years. In 1569, King Zigsmond converted to Unitarianism because of these debates. He was the first and only Unitarian King! The story concludes in 1571, when the young King, only thirty years old, in the quest for religious tolerance begun by his mother, named Unitarianism, Calvinism, Lutheranism, and Catholicism as the received religions of the realm. This offered more than tolerance. It offered each of the four faiths a measure of protection under the law, and was the first time a ruler had formally allowed his citizens to worship a religion other than his own. Unfortunately, the King died the following day in a hunting accident. The Unitarians continued to have a difficult time of it, but the seeds of religious freedom and tolerance were firmly planted in the western world.

Freedom, reason, and tolerance. These are not without necessary limits. With freedom comes a critical responsibility to maintain a healthy social and moral culture. With reason comes the responsibility to use, rather than abuse, the power that accompanies new knowledge. With tolerance comes the careful discernment necessary to affirm the worth and dignity of every person, but to reject intolerance and damaging behavior. We need not tolerate intolerance, hate, and violence, regardless of the moral code invoked in the name of such acts.

Although freedom, reason, and tolerance come with limits, simple tolerance is not enough. Tolerance is the language of the powerful–of the dominant culture, as evidenced by the near complete absence of writings and speeches on tolerance by women throughout history. Members of minority, marginalized, or otherwise non-dominant groups don’t speak in terms of tolerance because they are still struggling for some measure of freedom. They are struggling to be understood–more than just tolerated. Tolerance is a far cry better than intolerance or outright hostility, but it is still a half-empty glass. We can tolerate people, groups, or some stereotype of the other–of those people–and still hold them in contempt. We can tolerate someone and know nothing about them except that they are somehow different from us. Without moving beyond tolerance, we reinforce our differences in negative ways. Only through knowledge and first-hand understanding of the other do we begin to move beyond tolerance into affirmation and advocacy.

In my next post, I will present a continuum of tolerance that anyone can use to move from hostility to advocacy.

Keep the faith,

Rev. Matt

The power of empathy: How tolerance transformed two lives wrecked by terrorism

Zak Ebrahim is the son of a terrorist. Phyllis Rodriguez lost her son on 9/11. In an inspiring conversation, the two share their personal histories of lives devastated by violence — and rebuilt by tolerance.

Zak Ebrahim’s father was convicted of plotting the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Phyllis Rodriguez’s son, Greg, worked in the World Trade Center. While Greg happened to have left the building the day of the bombing in 1993, he was killed on September 11, 2001.

Both Ebrahim and Rodriguez have seen their families upended by terrorism, in very different ways. And yet, each of them delivers the same powerful message: that peace, tolerance and empathy are the only way forward.

In his TED Talk and book Ebrahim shares how he was able to transcend extremism. And in her TED Talk, Rodriguez shares how she formed an unlikely friendship with Aicha el-Wafi, the mother of Al Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, by identifying with her as another mother in pain.

We connected Rodriguez and Ebrahim via Skype for a discussion on the power of empathy. Below, read an edited transcript, in which they talk candidly about bullying, forgiveness and family.

Both of your stories are, at their core, about the incredible things that can happen when we dare to have empathy. Why is empathy such a powerful thing?

Phyllis Rodriguez: Because the cycle of violence will never end, unless we put a stop to it. That’s why nonviolence is so important in the world.

After my son was killed, I realized that I didn’t want revenge. I knew I didn’t want anyone to be executed. We didn’t want military responses, because we knew it would be wrong and that it would be done in the name of our son. And sure enough, look at the last 13 years and the whole escalation of violence.

One of the things I thought of early on after the attacks in 2001 was how the families of the 19 hijackers were dealing with this — how they felt. When I saw Zacarias Moussaoui’s mother in the media, I really felt for her. She was also a mother who was suffering, but people didn’t see her and say, “Oh, I feel for you. Oh, your poor son. Your son was a hero.” For her it was, “What did you do to create such a horrible human being?” I thought: Why are we different? Why shouldn’t she get the same sympathy and understanding that I was getting?

For me, the intention in sharing my story isn’t to make people feel sorry for me, but to show — without trying to take any of the spotlight off the victims or the victims’ families — that my family was destroyed by terrorism too.
Zak Ebrahim: That really is just extraordinary. I don’t know many people who have that kind of empathy inside of them. To have gone through what you went through and still come out of it trying to empathize with the family of a man who had caused such devastation in your life — I mean really, it’s just astonishing.

For me, the intention in sharing my story isn’t to make people feel sorry for me, but to show — without trying to take any of the spotlight off the victims or the victims’ families — that my family was destroyed by terrorism too. We suffered consequences the day my father left [for prison]. My mother’s intention was to be a Muslim housewife and to have my father be the breadwinner. After he left, it became her sole responsibility to pay the bills. We had to move around a lot to wherever she could find work. My mother was a private Islamic school teacher, and when word got out to the community that she was the wife or ex-wife of El-Sayyid Nosair, oftentimes that was the end of her job. We had to keep secret who we were.

Phyllis Rodriguez: It takes a lot of courage to speak out. In my case, what I realized very early on was that, because of the culture we have, it’s automatically expected that you’re going to want revenge. But my opinions about the death penalty were no different on September 11, 2001, than they were on September 10. All that changed was that I had a voice — that people listened. That’s why people want to hear you too. We’ve lived through it. Maybe we can be instruments of change.

Our culture is a culture of violence. And in the United States, we also have a very isolationist history. I don’t know if you remember, but there was a man several years ago who went into an Amish school and killed students and teachers. He was arrested right away. That evening, a delegation of people from the community — including family members of victims — went to visit his wife and kids, and said, “How can we help you?” That was seen as an aberration.

Phyllis, your son was working at the World Trade Center in 1993. How did you find out about the bombing that day?

Phyllis Rodriguez: I was driving to my mother’s house in the Bronx, listening to the radio, and they interrupted to announce what had happened. My heart jumped into my mouth. At that point, I didn’t know which building he worked in, what floor he worked on — maybe he had told me, but it didn’t sink in. We didn’t have cell phones then, so as soon as I got to my mother’s, I said, “We have to call Greg.” We tried calling him; he didn’t answer. I left him many messages. About a half hour later, he called up and said, “Ma, I got your messages. I was in Jersey — I didn’t know what had happened until I came home.” My mother burst into tears. She said, “We can’t let him work there.”

Zak, you were only seven years old in 1993. Did you know about the bombing? Did you have the sense that something was going on?

Zak Ebrahim: I was actually home from school that day. It was a Friday, if I recall correctly. I’d been having a lot of trouble with bullying, so occasionally, my mother would let me stay home when I told her that I just wasn’t up for it. I was sitting in the living room, watching Harry and the Hendersons on television, and it was interrupted by breaking news saying that there was smoke coming out of the World Trade Center. I went into my mother’s bedroom to try to tell her that something was going on. I had no way of connecting it to Islamic terrorism — certainly not to my father.

I pretty much sat there all day, watching the news. Watched the people being pulled out, covered in smoke. I saw everything unfolding on television as it happened, but I had no idea that it was going to affect our family’s life in the way that it did. I had no idea, watching the news coverage that day, that I would never see my father outside of a prison cell again.

Phyllis Rodriguez: How old were you the last time you saw him at home?

Zak Ebrahim: I was seven. Every morning before he left for work, he would try to teach me to tie my shoes and I was unsuccessful. I’d walk out onto the stoop and just watch him walk down to the corner. He would turn around, and he’d wave goodbye. That was my last memory of him from before he went to prison. I don’t have a whole lot of memories of him from before he left. Now, they kind of meld together with the memories I have of him in prison. A lot of times, when I think back to that last moment I saw him as a free man, in my mind, he’s wearing an orange jumpsuit.

Phyllis Rodriguez: Do you visit him?

Zak Ebrahim: No, I haven’t visited him in over 15 years. We stayed in communication for a while, but when I was about 17, my whole family changed our names to hide our identity from him and from people that knew us, as well as from people who wished ill will toward us.

I didn’t talk to him at all for about 10 years. Actually, the day that I gave my first public speech, I was on the cover of the Philadelphia Daily News. By the time I got back to my hotel room after the speech, there was an email from one of his lawyers saying, “Your father has been looking for you for many years, and he’d really like to get in communication with you.” I was so shocked that I never even responded to the email.

About a year later, I got an email from the Bureau of Prisons saying that an inmate, El-Sayyid Nosair, wanted to begin communication, and that I had 10 days to respond yes or no. It took me about a week, but I ultimately decided that I did want to talk to him. That conversation turned out to be terrible. So ultimately, I decided that it wasn’t healthy for me to be in communication with him.

Phyllis Rodriguez: Am I right in getting the sense that he is not repentant? That he’s not looking within or questioning his beliefs, or taking responsibility for what he did — to you, to your family, or to society?

Zak Ebrahim: One of the difficult parts about talking to him through email was that I could never really tell if what he was telling me was the truth or just what he thought I wanted to hear, because he so badly wanted to be in communication. I always had to take everything that he wrote and try to look through that lens, which was very difficult. I can tell you what he told me. With regard to the bombing of the World Trade Center, at least, he maintains his innocence — and yet somehow also says that he wishes that they hadn’t gone to such extremes. He sent me letters that he had apparently been sending for years to world leaders trying to find peaceful resolutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for instance. But again, it’s just difficult for me to know when he was being genuine.

As far as taking responsibility, his answer to me was pretty much: it was all god’s plan. And for me, I’m an atheist, and that wasn’t what I wanted to hear. When I told him all of the struggles that I had with self-esteem and self-worth after being bullied and abused at home by my stepfather for so long, he basically just said, “It’s because you’re not Muslim anymore. If you became Muslim again, all of those problems would go away.” It wasn’t a healthy conversation, so I decided to cut it off.

In what ways have people let you know that your speaking up has been meaningful to them?

Phyllis Rodriguez: Both friends and strangers have said to me, “I don’t know if I could have done what you’re doing.” And I say, “I thought that too.” For so much of my life, when I read about some kind of reconciliation — the family of a murdered person sitting with the mother of the offender in court — I’d wonder if I could do that. You don’t know how you’re going to react to a situation. Part of me has always wanted to dig a hole and drop out and not talk — not necessarily to hide, but to be incognito. But the other part of me feels that it’s healthier to speak out and try to change our culture a bit.
One woman came up to me and said, “You probably don’t remember me, but I’m one of the agents that worked on your father’s case. I always wondered what happened to the children of El-Sayyid Nosair.”

Zak Ebrahim: The most emotional responses that I’ve gotten have been from the Muslim community. I’ve had so many Muslims come up to me with tears in their eyes, because I try to make people understand that growing up in the ideology that I grew up in is not the norm.

One of the most emotional experiences I had was when I spoke to a group of FBI agents and analysts, and a few of them formed a line afterward to talk to me. One woman — an agent — came up to me and said, “You probably don’t remember me, but I’m one of the agents that worked on your father’s case. I always wondered what happened to the children of El-Sayyid Nosair.” She told me how happy she was to see that I hadn’t followed in his footsteps, because even she had presumed that I would.

I also got the opportunity to speak to a large group of kids from Tuesday’s Children, which began as an organization for the families of 9/11 victims and eventually grew to one that helps families of victims of terrorist attacks all over the world. Here I am, sharing my story with kids as young as 12 years old, up to 22, people who — frankly — understand my story more than I can. What a humbling, incredible experience that was, getting to interact with all of them. To hear their stories of loss and how they want to do something positive from this negative experience.

Phyllis Rodriguez: That’s what connects us — not whether we were the victims or the perpetrators — but our feelings. How we see the world, what we want the world to be like, what we think relationships should be like.

Zak Ebrahim: That’s why empathy is so important. We don’t have to have the same experiences; it’s about the human emotions that we all feel. As unique as my experiences may be, we’ve all had those same emotions. That’s the important thing—that we can relate with one another.

Phyllis Rodriguez: Empathy. That’s where we started, right?

 

This write-up first appeared in http://ideas.ted.com Read more

“I Still Matter!” 4 Stories About Empathy

Over the holidays I was thinking about some real-life stories that I sometimes work into my training programs. The four anecdotes below help me help those I train make Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® training stick for their participants. I find the anecdotes helpful when I’m presenting concepts such as Empathic Listening, Precipitating Factors, and the Integrated Experience.

I encourage you to share your own experiences with friends, family, coworkers, or even in the comments section below. And if you’re a Certified Instructor, work your anecdotes into your trainings too! Or create an activity around empathy stories, where your participants share theirs as well.

Here are some thoughts I use to help those I train stay grounded and focused on the realities of the people around us, and those we support.

1. “I’m not invisible.”

When I travel through airports, I notice folks who may seem invisible.

For example, have you ever paid attention to the attendants who are stationed in airport bathrooms? In the men’s rooms (as I can only speak to this sector), some have a table and mouthwash. Their job is to keep the bathroom they’re assigned to, clean, sanitary, and nice for us to visit for only a few minutes. Can you imagine how nasty an airport bathroom could become in just one day, if these folks were not so strategically positioned?

By mentioning this, I’m not trying in any way to diminish anyone’s value, station in life, or contribution to the greater good. Rather, I try to go out of my way to say hello, tell them “Thank you,” or contribute to their tip jars. Their response is often one of amazement that someone noticed they were there.

Whenever I can, I try to erase the “in” from “invisible.”

2. “I’m still in here.”

A caregiver in a recent training of mine told the following story.

She worked in a setting that cares for persons with dementia. She shared that a lady she supports with dementia was at a medical appointment. The lady’s daughter was with her at the appointment. The doctor carried on for quite some time and dispensed an inordinate amount of diagnostic observations, medical terminology, and advice to the daughter. The mother waited patiently for this very learned physician to finish. He then asked the daughter if she had any questions about her mother’s situation.

The mother with dementia said, “I’m still in here. So now that you told my daughter all that stuff, can you please tell me?”

3. “I still matter.”

Have you ever been walking and encountered folks who are homeless? Have you ever crossed to the other side of the street, or redirected your gaze to avoid eye contact, and pretended they were not really there?

Come on now, be honest. I have, and I was not proud of myself when I did.

Another time, I was in downtown Indianapolis for my job and I was walking out of a restaurant after a meal. I noticed a couple quietly sitting on the sidewalk, with a sign that said, “Homeless vet. No job. No food.”

So this time I decided to engage, not avoid. I asked if I could sit down and talk to them for a while. I also had a bag of leftovers and asked if they minded if I left the food. The man immediately gave the leftovers to his wife.

As he began to talk, I just listened. He thanked me for the food and just for stopping. He went on to tell me how he had served in Iraq, came home, and worked construction. As the economy tightened, both he and his wife had lost their jobs, their home, and much of their dignity. This young man placed his life in harm’s way, for me, and for you. He thanked me repeatedly for the food, for stopping and listening to his story. I thanked him repeatedly for his service.

He did not need or deserve my pity, just my respect. 

I try to no longer avoid the homeless, or pretend they don’t exist.

4. “I’m not stupid.”

A number of years ago at a school for students with special needs, I had a conversation with a 13-year-old student. He was a person with Down syndrome. He asked to talk to me one day. He said:

“Heh, Boardman. I know I am not all that smart because I have that syndrome thing, and guess I will have it for quite a while. But I just hate it when people talk to me like I am stupid.”

I learned a lot from a very insightful young man that day.

We have choices.

We have choices each and every day with those we encounter within our circle of influence, our work, and our life space. They may have had different opportunities than we have had.

When provided the chance, consider what you can do to help others become more visible; how you can talk to, not through others; how you can respect, not disrespect a person in need; and how to value, not devalue those who do not appear just like us.

Remember: “I’m not invisible.” “I’m still in here.” “I still matter.” And “I’m not stupid.”

 

The stories have been taken from https://www.crisisprevention.com