Manila, Philippines â I am a cradle Catholic – born into a Catholic family, in a predominantly Catholic country. I was baptized into the faith before I was one, and have been educated in Catholic institutions my whole life. So, it isnât surprising that I grew up unaware of other religions and faiths. It isnât surprising that I had no idea what it was like to interact with someone who did not recognize Jesus Christ as God. The way I viewed those with a different faith was always the stereotype of however they are portrayed on television, in the movies, in the media. Or even worse, I forgot they existed, and failed to acknowledge the diversity that exists in my own society.
More than once, I have heard the phrase âA good Muslim is a dead Muslimâ. Because that statement had no direct impact on my life, I would brush it off whenever I would hear it. I was always quite apathetic to those hateful words. It was only when I started working with the World Youth Alliance (WYA) that I started being exposed to young people of different faiths â Buddhists, Jews, Muslims. It was when I started working with these people that I realized how painful and unjust that loosely-used phrase is.
It is also because of WYA that our conversations would always start with us making a conscious effort on focusing what we had in common â dignity. This would jump to school, boys (or girls), parents, and of course, our faith in humanity. We all believe that the person has dignity. We believe that we all have value and have the capacity to do good. And it is here that we realize that we are not so different from each other after all.
Over the past two years, I have gained many good friends â four of them happen to be Muslim. Aliah, Yusoph, Aldin and Annisa. All four are passionate about making a difference in this world and all four are passionate about their faith. They have made me more sensitive to everything that has been happening in Muslim Mindanao, in the Middle East and in most culturally diverse areas. They have always been so eager to share their faith with me â to help me understand their culture, practices and beliefs.
“Palagi kayong nag-iinvite para magChristmas party. Gusto din namin mag-invite para mag-celebrate ng mga holiday namin.” (You guys are always inviting us to your Christmas parties. We want to invite you to our holiday celebrations as well.) This was Aldinâs logic behind our Eid Ul Fitr Celebration last year. Of course it goes deeper than that â they wanted to share their food, their decorations, traditions and faith. They wanted to share what moves them â the center of their being, their belief in Allah â their one God.
And they did. We had our first Eid Ul Fitr celebration last year, and then celebrated again a few months ago. We invited our friends and family, other members of the World Youth Alliance and shared in their festivities. They served us Maranao cuisine â delicious fish cooked in coconut milk and spices, beef rendang and pastries. An effort to help us understand their faith and their heritage was done through games and casual conversation with the other Muslim guests.
One tends to forget the Muslim stereotype that is constantly being hammered into our consciousness by media when you are face to face with a warm-blooded, friendly, young person, who happens to be faithful to Allah.
What scares a lot of people about Muslims is that they do not know much about them as a people – who they are, what they believe or how they live. When we are not informed (or misinformed by those who exaggerate or focus on fundamentalists or ride on the CNNinzation of things) we become fearful. There is nothing scarier than the unknown, for not knowing is almost equivalent to not being in control. To be faced with someone who we think is very different scares a lot of people. You are pushed out of your comfort zone, and in an indirect way, have to think about your own absolutes and values in case you have to defend your own being.
It is this fear that drives us to do strange things â sometimes, even intolerable things. It is this fear that stops us from trying to make a connection with others â that stops us from trying to understand one another. It stops us from getting to that point in which we realize we are all human â that we may have more in common than we may actually think.
The Eid Ul Fitr celebrations and the Dawâas (talks that share the Muslim faith) that my friends are fixing are more than just an effort by a few faithful Muslim youth. It is their contribution to building a more understanding culture, a more peaceful Philippines, perhaps a better world. If anything, these efforts have opened my eyes to a different culture and a different faith â at the same time has moved me to understand my own faith more.
Regional Director of Operations
WYA Asia Pacific