"Visions of World Benefit & Global Responsibility: Perspectives of McGill Students

Thursday, August 9, 2007

A Step Towards the Eradication of Religious Intolerance

Today, one of the most troubling global concerns that continues to affect millions of people around the world is that of religious intolerance. Throughout history, religious intolerance has resulted in wars, genocides, and violent uprisings that have resulted in the loss of millions of innocent lives. In the 16th and 17th century, religious intolerance could be seen across Europe with both the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter Reformation. In the early 20th century, the devastating impact of religious intolerance was further exemplified by Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust in World War II. More recently, we have seen a greater emergence of religious intolerance intertwined with political conflict, as in the case of Northern Ireland and its Catholic and Protestant communities, as well as in the Middle East between Israel and its Muslim neighbours (in particular, Palestine). Throughout time, the world has seen first-hand the disastrous effects that religious intolerance can have upon a nation and its people. We have witnessed millions of innocent lives suffer at the hands of ignorance, and it is my belief that we must end this type of intolerance in order to create a more positive environment for global change.

For my contribution to the world, I would like to create a more tolerant atmosphere in which all faiths, peoples, and ideas, whether Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, or Christian; monotheistic or polytheistic; can all be respected for their individual beliefs, as well as interact and coexist with one another without conflict. In order to achieve this goal, my intention is to create an environment that fosters increased dialogue and interaction amongst peoples of various faiths and belief systems. My project involves bringing local religious leaders and communities together so as to educate and provide greater exposure to the religious views of others. I truly believe that by promoting positive dialogue within the community about the need for religious tolerance, one can not only help to create a more positive environment that encompasses greater mutual respect, but one can also inspire others to create change in their communities and help move the world towards a much brighter and more tolerant future.

At its core, religious intolerance can be defined as “the refusal to accept or tolerate different religious views or beliefs and also the people who follow these different religious faiths.”[1] For centuries, religious intolerance has plagued many nations around the world at varying levels and points in time. During the 16th and 17th century, at the height of the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter Reformation, religious warfare divided Europe with the French Wars of Religion (1562-1598) and the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) that resulted in the loss of millions of innocent lives across the continent. In the earlier half of the twentieth century, religious intolerance also lead Adolf Hitler to coordinate the mass murder of several million innocent Jewish citizens during the Holocaust of the Second World War. Even today, many examples of religious intolerance can continue to be seen and heard in many parts of the world. After the tragic events of September 11th, 2001, the anger and frustration that stemmed from the attacks lead to severe backlash against Muslim communities around the world, and the creation of hurtful stereotypes that labeled Islam as a violent faith, and its religious followers as “terrorists.” In Los Angeles alone during the period of September to December 2001, the LA County Commission on Human Relations recorded a 700% increase in reported anti-Middle Eastern hate crimes as a direct result of the 9/11 attacks.[2]

Religious intolerance can not only be seen through violent acts and warfare, but also through the words of public figures and representatives. In September of 2006, the Pope himself was emerged in scandal after stating: “show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”[3] A few months earlier, the President of Iran was also caught in severe religious scandal when he referred to the Jewish Holocaust as a “myth.” [4] Although these comments do not necessarily reflect the beliefs of many Catholic followers or Iranian citizens, it is these kinds of irresponsible and ignorant remarks by public figures that lead to the creation of intolerant atmospheres filled with much anger, hate, and frustration between religious groups. For this reason, it is important that we educate one another about different ideas and beliefs so as to create a more tolerant global atmosphere in which comments like these need not exist.
Through the use of various short, medium, and long-term strategies and goals, I plan to use dialogue, education, and community involvement and interaction in order to improve cross-cultural understanding and appreciation. I first plan to implement these strategies within the McGill and Montreal community, with the intent to later have these strategies implemented on a global scale so as to help other nations develop tolerance both within, as well as outside of their existing borders. In order for these strategies to work successfully and have a lasting impact, I have identified several critical success factors that must be taken into consideration. The most important of these success factors is the need for participation. In order to promote mutual religious and cross-cultural respect, people from all faiths and belief systems must be willing to participate in the process. They must be willing to exchange dialogue and share knowledge, and must also be open to learning and understanding new ideas in order to gain appreciation and tolerance for the views of others. Another critical success factor is that of finding a forum in which such dialogue can take place. In order for the project to be successful, a forum is needed in which religious leaders and community members can actively and peacefully communicate and share their knowledge with one another, as well as discuss issues of religious intolerance. In order to ensure that the project has a profound effect, these two significant success factors will need to be addressed.

In the short and medium term, my principal intent is to work within the Montreal community. To start, I plan on creating my own student run organization on McGill campus that seeks to bring people from all faiths and belief systems together in order to promote religious tolerance in the community. Through this organization, it is my hope that we can spark student interest on tolerance issues through the use of guest speakers, community activities (such as dinners, games etc.), and active participation with other student groups both within, and outside of McGill. With increased student interest at McGill on tolerance issues, it is my hope to then work with student groups in other universities throughout Montreal, such as Concordia and the University of Montreal, in order to expand these projects in scope and introduce them into the diverse Montreal community. In addition to expanding these projects locally, I would also like to use my contacts at each of the universities, as well as get in contact with such local organizations as the Dialog Foundation, in order to present the idea of holding a joint international conference on religious tolerance. This conference would differ from past conferences as it would be sponsored by all four major universities in Montreal, and would involve the participation of community leaders from both local organizations, such as the Dialog Foundation, as well as international organizations, such as the United Nations, in addition to world-renowned scholars and religious leaders. Although this will not completely eradicate religious intolerance from the world, it is my belief that such a conference, held annually, will help to raise awareness on this important global issue and will help move the world towards peaceful change. Mahatma Gandhi once said that “it is the duty of every cultured man or woman to read sympathetically the scriptures of the world. If we are to respect others' religions as we would have them respect our own, a friendly study of the world's religions is a sacred duty.”[5] It is based on these principles that I plan to help contribute to the development of a more tolerant global environment.

Brainstorming/Conference Outline - In order to make the joint conference more concrete, I have provided a sample outline of the themes that could be discussed at the first conference. My hope is that the conference will become an annual event that will continue to promote religious tolerance on a global scale. Possible conference themes include:

1) Religion, Politics, and Law – Goal: To discuss the need to protect religious freedoms through proper legislation; to find ways to avoid religion and politics resulting in warfare (with emphasis on the case of Israel and Palestine).

2) Religion, Media, and Globalization – Goal: To discuss the role that global media plays in promoting religious stereotypes, as well as its importance as an instrument for eliminating these stereotypes and promoting religious tolerance.

3) Universal Themes in Religion – Goal: To discuss the similarities that exist across religions in terms of core values and spirituality; focusing on emphasizing these similarities in order to unite religious groups/promote religious tolerance rather than focusing on the differences that separate them.

[1] http://worldnet.scout.org/scoutpax/en/8/8_religiousintolerance_en
[3] http://www.cnn.com/2006/WORLD/europe/09/15/pope.islam/index.html
[4] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/4527142.stm
[5] http://www.wisdomquotes.com/cat_tolerance.html

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