Fighting Intolerance Requires that We Name It

I recently met a young man who lives outside Toronto, Canada, whose family originally came from Pakistan. I was taken by a tattoo on his arm-from his shoulder to his wrist. I asked him about it and he told me that is depicts the story of his maternal grandfather’s involvement in the conversion of a Muslim woman in Pakistan to Christianity. Think about that. Converting a Muslim woman to Christianity in Pakistan.

The tattoo represents the story of that woman, Gulshan Esther. She was born into a prominent orthodox Muslim family. She was disabled from infancy and severely restricted. The death of her father  triggered her transformation. While reading the Sura Maryam in her Urdu translation of the Quran she came to Christianity. Her conversion was made possible by the young man’s grandfather and grandmother.

This story was so powerful that a young man three generations away inscribed it on his body and in his soul. The top part of his arm depicts his grandfather passing the bible to a woman who wants to convert. That woman, Gulshan Esther, still has that Bible today. Then comes the picture of a statue of an angel holding a cross. It symbolizes Esther’s transition from Islam to Christianity. On his forearm there is a portrait of a woman who represents Gulshan Esther. Finally, on the inner part of his arm, there is a knight who signifies three people- his grandfather, grandmother and mother who all helped to protect Gulshan Esther after she converted. The tattoo also speaks to the book that Gulshan Esther wrote “The Torn Veil” describing her transition and her interactions with this young man’s family.

The Torn Veil refers to the thick curtain that separates the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Holy space. According to Christian Gospel, the curtain was torn upon the death of Jesus making the Presence of God open to all through Jesus.

For those who are Christian this is a powerful symbol. And symbols are powerful tools. This woman who chose Christianity over Islam was brave. To leave Islam is not as easy as leaving Judaism or Christianity because it comes with the threat of death.

I’ve never experienced a tattoo but I think I would find it painful, to say the least. That this young man returned many times to this tattoo artist speaks to his reverence for his family and his religion. To be a Christian Pakistani is unusual and living where he does can be difficult. He is a part of a tiny minority of Canadian Christian Pakistanis in a large community of Muslims. He told me when he interacts with Pakistani Muslims he most often feels that they look down on him. “They acted as if they were better than me”. On the other hand, lots of people were “quite confused by it, they don’t really know how to process how someone who is brown can be Christian too. I also get the feeling at times that Christians of other ethnicities connect to me and open up more to me once they find out that I’m Christian.”

For me, his tattoo speaks to a past that is very present, today. A total lack of tolerance in Muslim countries for “the other.” In 2014 the Pew Research Center report named Pakistan, which is 96 percent Muslim, one of the most hostile nations for religious minorities. Insult Islam and the court will give a life sentence if you are lucky-otherwise it is death. The Holy Communion “wine” is non-alcoholic-to avoid insulting Muslims-despite the fact that there are no Muslims in the churches. Guards stand outside Christian houses of worship to protect congregants from suicide bombers and terrorists. Reminds me of what takes place in Canada-outside synagogues and Jewish institutions every day and even more so on Jewish holidays; parents have to explain to their children why police officers in flak jackets are outside the door.

Human rights groups point out that public school textbooks regularly demonize minorities. The same thing takes place in the Middle East where Arab textbooks demonize the Jews.

There are no Jews in Muslim countries. Should there be a twenty- third Muslim country in the Middle East it will be ethnically cleansed of all its Jews. Christians are fleeing the few Muslim countries in which they live. Despite all these facts we, the West, her leaders, still make excuses for Islamic fundamentalists who murder other Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and Jews.

As I write this there have been more attacks on Jews in Israel-in places like Tel Aviv-a city that is bright and vibrant and diverse-like Paris. We excuse the evil committed by these Muslims by justifying their reasons when there is never a justification for evil. We don’t want to acknowledge that there is in Islam a denying of tolerance for others. And that lack of tolerance goes against everything in which we believe in the West.

It isn’t easy to accept, tolerate, others. We must learn that. We are not born with the innate love of other. It sounds lovely-so John Lennon- but it isn’t true and it goes back to our ancestors who had to make very quick decisions when facing the unknown. We tend to be the descendants of those who didn’t think too much-attacked first- and asked questions later.

Learning to accept others is rather new in evolution. It came from the Jews in the desert a mere 3500 years ago..

About the Author
Diane Weber Bederman is a multi-faith, hospital trained chaplain who lives in Ontario, Canada, just outside Toronto; She has a background in science and the humanities and writes about religion in the public square and mental illness on her blog: The Middle Ground:The Agora of the 21st Century. She is a regular contributor to Convivium: Faith in our Community. "
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