Managing Editor’s note: all Contributing Scholars begin writing by answering the following question as their first post: Why are you committed to building relationships with those from different religious or ethical traditions? Their answer to this question is below.
I grew up in an unexpectedly interfaith environment, something that most people living in Muslim majority Pakistan have probably not experienced. My parents were very liberal and highly educated, and their bookshelves held not only the Quran but the Bible and Bhagwat Gita as well. As a child it never occurred to me that these scriptures were different or mutually exclusive: I saw them all as books of God and from God. My grandmother tried to balance the perceived inequities by placing a load of Islamic literature on her bedside; being the voracious reader I was, and still am, all books were fair game, and my education was truly multi-faith.
My mother was the principal of a college associated with a Catholic boys’ school, and we were as used to Christmas and Easter as the two Eid celebrations. The Bishop of Karachi would visit us on Eid, and we would buy gifts for the teachers and staff at Christmas. I attended a convent from elementary school all the way to high school, and the crucifix on top of the doorway in each classroom and the giant statue of Jesus at the school entrance meant that Jesus became as familiar a figure to me as the Prophet Muhammad. It never occurred to me to differentiate between these two great religious traditions or to find one better than the other. It was almost as if they were two important parts of me that helped shaped who I am today.
When I emigrated to the United States, I quickly found it a completely different place, worlds apart from everything I was used to. Most people here tend to live their lives in a multi-faith space without actively interacting with those of other traditions. That might have worked some decades ago, but in a post 9/11 world I think such emotional distance is no longer useful. Many research organizations have found that in the last thirteen years the attitude of Americans towards Muslims has been deteriorating steadily, which comes as no surprise when the narrative of Islam seems to be overtaken by terrorists and murderers.
So what’s the solution? Many people have offered different ideas, but with my interfaith background and my memories of coexisting so peacefully with other faiths in a region known for its less than stellar record for tolerance, I knew the answer could only be interfaith dialogue. It clears the air, it allows people to ask questions without worries of being politically incorrect, and it enables everyone to learn and grow. It has an absolutely transformative effect on those who are committed to it. I have found those involved in interfaith dialogue to come away forever changed, ready to carry on the torch of dialogue to their families and communities. More than anything else, this is what America is all about to me. Is there any better time for interfaith dialogue?