SASKATOON — Many perspectives on world peace, terrorism and religious traditions were shared during an event recently hosted in Saskatoon by the Islamic Association of Saskatchewan. A diverse panel of speakers addressed the topic, speaking from their religious tradition or area of academic expertise.
Held at the Royal Canadian Legion auditorium March 12, the evening was promoted as a time of reflection in the aftermath of the Paris shooting at the offices of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, and subsequent terrorism attacks in Europe.
Saskatoon Imam Ilyas Sidyot, who was born in India and has studied his faith under many different scholars, expressed dismay that terrorist actions are being done in the name of Islam, questioning what gives those acting violently the right to claim they are authentic followers.
“This is not Islam, this is their own interpretation. And at times we cannot even identify who are these people and where are they coming from. They are only using the verses of Holy Quran,” said the Imam. “If they believe they are the followers of Prophet Muhammad — peace be upon him — they have to go back and look to his ideal life, which has been presented for all humanity.”
The imam stressed that in all his years living in Canada, he has always been treated with respect, and he appreciates dialogue with those of other faiths. “The intention is not that I would convert you to Islam; not that Bishop Don would try to convert you to Christianity; but that all would come together and listen,” he said, describing how he values the opportunity to share and to hear the teachings of various faiths from leaders in the community.
The imam noted that there are some 10,000 Muslims now living in Saskatoon, with over 60 nationalities in the Islamic faith community, worshipping under one roof. He also described the desire of his community to introduce themselves to their neighbours — “to create more harmony and peace.”
A long list of panelists spoke after the evening call to prayer, introduced by master of ceremonies Dr. Shabir Mia.
Speakers included Harvey Knight of the Muskoday First Nation; Professor Terry Wotherspoon of the Department of Sociology at the University of Saskatchewan; Srikumar Balachandran and Isha Srikumar of the Hindu Society of Saskatoon; Dr. Ahmed Shoker, Division of Nephrology in the Saskatoon Health Region; Rabbi Claudio Jodorkovsky of Congregation Agudas Israel; Bishop Donald Bolen of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon; Dr. Sadeq Rahimi, transcultural psychiatry expert; Mufti Faisal Niazi of the Islamic Association of North Battleford; Brian Walton, a United Church minister who serves as spiritual care educator of the Saskatoon Health Region; and others.
The highlight of the evening was a poem written and performed by Hodan Bakal, a Grade 12 student at Walter Murray Collegiate in Saskatoon. The young woman’s impassioned plea for peace was entitled “Hope has never died.”
“We’re blind to the beauty of difference,” she read. “But nevertheless, like my mother says, hope will never die. In fact I see it before my eyes. Hope has not yet died.”
Dr. Ahmed Shoker, who has practiced medicine in Canada for decades, described how those coming from places in which there is violence and negativity want to be part of Canada. For 35 years he has felt comfortable in his new home, raising four children — but with the events of Sept. 11, 2001, things started to change.
“We came here to be part of you. We love you, and religion is something that we believe can make us better,” Shoker explained. “What is happening in the Middle East cannot be taken as part of us, and should not be. After all, we left there to be part of you.”
Diversity is one of the defining characteristics of a complex society, said Dr. Terry Wotherspoon. “One of the main challenges in a free society is the need to balance the freedom of expression with different ways of limiting language and acts in many cases that are harmful or hurtful. And so it’s crucial to remain open to dialogue, where people are able to express why something offends them,” he said.
Wotherspoon noted that social philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in a recent book The New Religion of Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age, highlights three principles that should guide relations with other cultures and religions: equal respect for conscience; self-critical vigilance; and a sympathetic imagination.
Saskatoon Bishop Donald Bolen described the positive contributions that faith and religion have on the world. “Religion at its best creates a freedom within the human person to give everything they have, and because there is a belief that one’s convictions are linked to eternal truths, it creates a freedom for self gift.”
The bishop noted that people often “associate us with our worst acts”; however, “it is up to us, in our religious traditions, to embody something different, to embody the best of our traditions . . . to embody a real way of peace.
“Christian faith calls on its adherents . . . to be artisans of peace, to be artisans of reconciliation, to use all our energies and our skills to seek peace and to build up peace, and to do so in a way that is internally consistent, so that the means and the ends are in harmony with one another. One seeks peace only in a peaceful way.”
Rabbi Claudio Jodorkovsky noted that the greeting “peace be upon you” is nearly identical for the Muslim and the Jewish communities.
“The Jewish community in Saskatoon is very proud in having a close relationship with our brothers and sisters from the Muslim community — a relationship that has been strengthened in different levels, not only from the level of the clergy, our participation in Multi-Faith Saskatoon, but also from the level of members of our communities. There are strong friendships, and programs, activities that members of the Muslim and Jewish communities do together,” he said. “We are proud to live in a city which gives us an example in terms of respect, coexistence and collaboration, and we are committed to continue working with everyone to protect that ideal.”
Jodorkovsky noted that the Scriptures tell us all are descended from Adam and Eve. “More than a biological affirmation, this is a moral statement. We are all brothers and sisters, we all come the same mother and father, we are all equal in the eyes of God.”
Jewish teaching suggests that it is “precisely human diversity that bears testimony, that demonstrates God’s majesty and glory. It is through a variety of attributes, qualities, personalities and particularities within humanity . . . that the infinite nature of the divine is expressed,” he said. “Religious pluralism requires spiritual humbleness. We think that in our limited condition as human beings, in our smallness, there is only one way to understand or to know God (of course my way), but that is not only arrogance, that is dangerous.”
One cannot use violent means to get close to God, the rabbi said. “We haven’t been able yet to develop a vaccine against fundamentalism; against those who take fundamentals of religion which are mostly positive, and destroy them . . . as if they only were ambassadors for the divine.”
However, some antidotes include “the values of democracy, interfaith dialogue, developing a culture of divergence, and a healthy co-existence,” he said.
Jodorkovsky concluded: “We are not living in easy times for sure, but I think we should not fear. Standing for our own traditions, society and the world is able to shine in the beauty of a multi-colour mosaic. That way we will be able to live true the words of the prophet Isaiah: ‘Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they live war anymore.’ ”