URI’s Executive Director’s Op-Ed on Religious Intolerance Media Fans the Flames of Intolerance

5 August 2010, 1:37 PM

When a Florida church announced last month that it was planning an “International Burn A Koran Day” to commemorate the September 11 terrorist attacks, the news spread rapid-fire through the Internet and on to media outlets worldwide. Within the week, the story had been covered by CNN, Al Arabiya, The Times of India, UK’s Daily MailPress TV, an Iranian-based international news organization, and others, and pastor Terry Jones’s image and words were everywhere. This is the kind of publicity that most organizations dream about. Public acts of intolerance like this are designed to make a splash, to both incite fear and rally followers to a cause. And the controversy they engender, the acrimony they spark, makes a salacious news story. But is this news? Or should it be? The burning of holy books of any kind is indeed an outrage against humanity, and we condemn it unequivocally, but this kind of violence is not the story of our society; it is a sideshow. For every one act of hate in the world, there are hundreds, thousands, millions of acts of kindness.

All over the world, through United Religions Initiative (URI) and other interfaith organizations, millions of people are overcoming religious divisions in some of the most divisive societies, working side-by-side to end religiously motivated conflict and build cultures of peace in their communities. A group of Muslims and Christians in Pakistan helped reopen girls’ schools burned down by the Taliban in the Swat valley and is providing aid to hundreds of victims of violence there; URI’s regional coordinator in Kampala, Uganda, after narrowly escaping a bomb in July’s deadly attacks, worked with Muslim and Christian leaders to organize an interfaith response that resulted in new programs to promote religious tolerance and non-violence among youth; and in Spain, a URI group is defusing inter-religious tensions through education and dialogue in conflict-prone urban areas in Catalonia. Every day, in ways large and small, ordinary people of all faiths, all cultures, all traditions are working to bridge differences and bring an end to the senseless violence that undermines lives and livelihoods. 

Their stories rarely make headlines, yet they reflect who we are as a people so much more accurately than the voices of intolerance at our fringes. If we as a society can find a way to put the good news ahead of the bad, to give stories of hope and courage the kind of viral attention we now give stories of anger and despair, we will take the megaphone away from those who would sow division and hatred and allow the quieter chorus of peace and fairness to prevail. 

The Rev. Canon Charles P. Gibbs

Executive Director, United Religions Initiative