“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” ~ Nelson Mandela
Friends, I have been meaning to type a recollection of my experience at the Muslim Jewish Conference in Bosnia & Herzegovina earlier this year. However, time has not been kind and when I did have time, I seemed to have been short of enthusiasm to get typing. The past week has seen the passing of a great man, Mr Nelson Mandela, bringing much sadness to those close to him and at the same time, much jubilance to his countrymen celebrating a life of great stride and achievement. For many, this event has led to much introspection and contemplation on the current state of affairs in which we find ourselves.
I was fortunate enough to have been granted the opportunity to attend the Muslim Jewish Conference this year together with a diverse group of participants from around the world. I’m not going to relate a fairy tale or insist that a world free from divisions can exist, but I dare you to open your mind and join me on a journey that explores all possibilities.
The conference was free from political ambition as it arranged attendees into five different committees discussing topical issues that arise regularly within our religious and cultural communities (gender equality, historical narratives, conflict resolution, etc). Coming from a religious background, I had opted to join the committee on religion, aptly named “back to basics”.
It was not so much about the content of the committee for me, but the idea of engaging in discussions about community with a group of individuals I wouldn’t otherwise find myself paired with, that was the focus of my presence at the conference. Indeed, many fruitful issues were engaged with in the committees as well.
I had always known that Judaism and Islam shared a lot in common as Muslims believe that Islam is a continuation of the faith of Moses (through the line of Abraham and through to Jesus), but I had never given this very idea much thought until my interaction with the back to basics committee. It was there that I realised that it is not just the idea of monotheism, or the belief in the Bible, nor the lineage through Abraham that are points of mutual interest. Instead, it’s about the finer aspects of our faith, like the idea that any act, no matter how small or undogmatic it may be, can be made into an act of worship by mere good intentions and willingness to serve G-d and His creation. Kindness to humanity and a real sense of consciousness are traits that are espoused by both of our faiths. We may, as other creatures, eat, sleep, create family and earn our daily bread, but with a sense of consciousness and noble purpose added to these routine activities, we add value, not just to our lives, but to humanity. Only a person who is aware will eat in moderation, knowing that many others go hungry on a daily basis. Only a person who is aware will smile at passers-by, no matter their class or background, because you know the value of a smile :-)
The conference began with many participants (myself included) dipping in their feet to test the water and tip-toeing around the “others”. Move five days later and there was such a profound sense of family and community that spread not only amongst the conference attendees, but its organisers and also the staff at the hotel!
During our stay in BiH, we were addressed by many great speakers including the Bosnian president, the grand Mufti of Bosnia, Rabbi David Rosen and others, but most memorable was the story told by a survivor of the Srebrenica massacre. His story, coupled with the visit to the Srebrenica memorial centre thereafter was a chilling reminder of the consequences of leaving a conflict unchecked. It reminded me a lot about the history in my own country (South Africa), but of course, the shocking events of that massacre in Srebrenica was an unfortunate event of its own magnitude. Having walked out of the memorial centre however, I felt a sense of relief, realising that even that came to an end. Like Apartheid, perhaps we can end our conflicts throughout the world.
So what is the approach to solving a conflict? Of course there is no simple answer to that, but the more important lesson for me is the approach to moving beyond a conflict. Only with a sincere intention to move forward can a generation of people break the cycle of conflict. Here is where I refer to the quote of Nelson Mandela which I typed at the beginning of this post. There! was a man who decided the fate of his country. Had he, as leader of South Africa, chosen not to move beyond the conflict, but to pour out hatred on the minority in his country, I am certain that no amount of international pressure or resolutions would have ended the conflict in South Africa. If anything, that would have signalled the beginning of a much darker period with an unspeakable amount of bloodshed. Instead, Mr Mandela was aware and he took an enlightened decision on the path to reconciliation.
In the words of President Obama, “It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailor as well; to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but a means of confronting it with inclusion, generosity and truth. He changed laws, but also hearts.”
This is so true and this, I believe, is a key to moving beyond conflict. No people, nor any nation should be excluded from our compassion and tolerance. To those who doubted my journey to the conference and those who still distrust the idea behind it, I invite you to an alternate approach. As exemplified by non other than Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) himself when he prayed for the people of Ta’if and refused to order their punishment even after they pelted him to the point that his blood dripped to the ground, as Prophet Muhammed showed us reconciliation when he did not act against the man who mercilessly assassinated his daughter Sumayya, but accepted him into the faith and amongst the believers, I invite you to contemplate the idea of moving beyond conflict through reconciliation by forgiveness, mercy and compassion. I extend this invitation to all my friends, regardless of background, in fact I extend this invitation to all who read this post.
I intend to write more about my experience at the Muslim Jewish Conference soon.
Special thanks goes to all those who made the conference possible, especially its founder, Mr Ilja Sichrovsky.