Because religion is more prominent in many countries around the world than it is in the US, there seems to be much more interest in interfaith activities. As many of you know, in many countries including Malaysia, when you introduce yourself or when you introduce someone to someone else for the first time, the introduction goes something like, “I am…” or “This is my friend Biff Barnard; he is from Moraga, California; and he is a Christian” – one’s religion is part of who you are. URI is working to bridge the religious divide through the CCs in local communities around the world where religion is a visible part of who you are but where it is also a potential source of conflict.
There are so many things I could talk about our visit to Malaysia – visiting with Mother Mangalam, the 85 year old head of the Pure Life Society (PLS) orphanage and school – a Mother Theresa-type woman; talking with the orphans and students at PLS and at a Sikh orphanage about their lives, hopes and dreams about better lives, about their learning to embrace their own religion but accept those of other religions; having tea at the home of a Hindu from India who has been in KL for most of his live and his Muslim/Malay wife, seeing how they live, what their views of America and the world are; dining with Dr. Amir, a devout Muslim, his wife and four children; eating durian, a pungent smelling and tasting fruit that is a favorite of the locals but definitely has an acquired taste, one which I will not acquire…, and on and on.
I am not a good tourist, not good at going to museums or looking at buildings, and I detest shopping… For me, I thrive on and am inspired by trips like this to places far from the familiarity of home, where I can meet the local people in an environment which enables us to really begin to get to know each other; to talk about our lives, hopes and dreams; to hear others’ views of America and Americans; to learn about their cultures and beliefs and the role of religion in their lives.
Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country where freedom of religion is guaranteed and it is a very tolerant multicultural society, though the Malay, Chinese and Indian communities coexist more than mingle. Islam is the official religion of Malaysia and Malaysia is comprised of about 60% Muslims. Islam practiced in Malaysia is relatively liberal. Women take an active part in all aspects of society and, while most cover their heads in public, few wear burkas – I think I saw one woman in a burka the 8 days I have been here.
Through my work with URI I have gotten to know many Muslims (as well as people of many other religions) here as well as in America and from other parts of the world. Contrary to what our media would have us believe, for the most part even the devout Muslims are thoughtful, caring, people, who, like us, want a better life for themselves and their families free from violence particularly religiously motivated violence. They are accepting of people of other religions as the Quran dictates and want to be equally accepted. Many of the Muslims I have had the privilege of getting to know are working hard in their local communities to foster interfaith cooperation and understanding and are as condemning of the extreme Islamists as we are of the extremists in the West.
Those of you who know me know that I am not a religious person, maybe more spiritual than religious, but not involved with any organized religion. However, since getting involved with URI a little more than 10 years ago, I decided that in order for me to better understand the people of religion I was getting to know around the world, I needed to better understand religions and the history of religions. In that study I found that religions have not and are not today the problem but in fact are an important part of what we humans are all about. However, it is some religious leaders – certainly not all religious leaders but unfortunately too many - throughout history who have used religion for their own aggrandizement usually to the detriment of their people. British writer on religion - Karen Armstrong – sums up the relationship of too many religious leaders to their religions well in the Preface to her book Islam:
“Religious leaders fight with members of other faiths, who seem to challenge their claim to a monopoly of absolute truth; they also persecute their co-religionists for interpreting a tradition differently or for holding heterodox beliefs. Very often priests, rabbis, imams and shamans are just as consumed by worldly ambitions as are regular politicians. But all this is generally seen as an abuse of a sacred ideal. These power struggles are not what religion is really about, but an unworthy distraction from the life of the spirit, which is conducted far from the madding crowd, unseen, silent and unobtrusive.”
URI’s long term vision is to reach a sufficient number of people of religion at local levels worldwide that they can pressure their leaders at all levels to begin to come together to accept each other and work toward ending religiously motivated violence. We are not naive enough to think this will happen over night or even in our lifetimes. However, we also believe URI is a process. As we strive toward our long term vision, the amazing people of URI – like some of the people I have talked about in these reports – will make a difference in their communities, bringing people of religion together to address local issues. And by connecting the hundreds of thousands of URI volunteers around the world, we are having an impact globally.
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For URI’s President’s Council, Bailey S. Barnard, Sr.