An Open Letter to Interfaith Activists
A student at the American University in Washington, DC, Fait Mahdini, calls on interfaith activists to do more to attract youth in their quest to counter messages of religious intolerance and violence. In so doing, he outlines a vision of using the arts to inspire and uplift the pluralistic message of interfaith activism, going beyond academic conferences and statements of unity.
Washington, DC - The opportunities for influencing public opinion and promoting peace and mutual understanding are limitless in an age where the world is connected at the press of a button or the touch of a keyboard, but those of us involved in the efforts for interfaith dialogue and tolerance still face obstacles in making our voices heard.
Unfortunately, the same inter-connectedness that should unite us allows those who preach hate and intolerance to spread their messages. Today, it is more important than ever for those of us who support pluralism and interfaith cooperation to double our efforts to break through the wall of images and sounds that surrounds us each day.
In this struggle for understanding, youth are our most important resource, and the group we should all strive to reach. It is youth whose views and future actions will shape the world. For this reason alone, our efforts to increase interfaith dialogue and cross-cultural understanding must focus on them. In an increasingly complex world, young people are sometimes overwhelmed and it is all too easy for the comforting, yet simplistic, messages of rejection and intolerancet to reach them.
In order to combat messages of intolerance and strengthen cross-cultural understanding, we must come up with more than academic conferences and symbolic demonstrations of unity to reach the younger generations. In order to make a lasting impact, we must express our message in ways that appeal to the interests of youth, for example through the use of the visual arts, sport and music. We must think “outside of the box” in order to promote interfaith understanding successfully. Let’s face it: one sentence from the mouth of a famous musician can have just as much power, influence and impact as the work of an entire organisation devoted to interfaith dialogue.
Imagine entering a concert venue where you know you are among people from a wide range of faiths, all there for a common cause - music and international peace and understanding. Walking around before the show begins, you notice young Christians wearing the cross, Jewish youth wearing skullcaps and a group of young Muslims, some wearing kufis (traditional braided) and hijabs - different faiths gathered under one roof together to enjoy music and camaraderie.
Outside the main hall you find hundreds of paintings, drawings and poetry exhibits celebrating the diversity of the world’s religions. Then, as the show begins, thousands of young Christians, Jews and Muslims rise from their seats to watch as rappers such as Mos Def , Common, Talib Kweli, Nas and Kanye West appear. Mos Def begins the concert with a “Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim” (“In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful”), which is then translated into English. Then, Common and Talib Kweli take to their stage, filling the hall with their socially-conscious lyrics. As their deep and introspective sound fills the hearts of listeners, you observe Nas, with a microphone in his hand, preparing for his performance. He begins his performance sitting in a chair (identical to the one from his well-known music video “One Mic”), and sings the line “God forgive me for my sin…” He then goes into the song “Just a Moment” which references Christian and Islamic scriptures.
As Nas winds down his performance, Kanye West’s song begins, and the crowd goes wild. Kanye begins singing over the sea of people, “God, show me the way because the Devil is trying to bring me down”, a message that resonates with any God-fearing individual, regardless of religion. Even Bono makes a special appearance - to sing U2’s famous anthem, “Pride (In the name of love).”
The music is flowing, the beat is rocking and the energy is electric, lively, and full of hope. Most importantly, Christian, Jewish and Muslim youth are interacting, peacefully. While bobbing their heads next to one other, they see people of other faiths enjoying the same music. It is at that moment that they begin to dispel the stereotypes they have learned from the media, or from religious or political leaders, about the “other”.
We have all been touched by a sound, a beat, a lyric, the hair on our arms rising as our bodies and hearts become one. We might even be moved to tears. At such moments, we understand the power of music, and how it can inspire thousands of people to live together and to learn about and respect the beliefs of those different from them.
The positive energy produced by such a concert could affect the perspectives and opinions of those who attend such a concert for the rest of their lives. A hundred interfaith dialogue meetings could not replicate its power. You forget about that article you read a month ago, or the names of the interfaith group speakers at that convention, but you would always recall the night when some of the most popular musicians of our time came together on one stage, making history by promoting a common cause.
And to all artists who have an understanding of the importance of interfaith tolerance and acceptance, I ask you to join us, to consider this proposal, and to use your art in positive ways to inspire and change the lives of the millions of youth who listen to your music, who know every line to your songs, and who turn to you when they feel that the world is against them. Let us work towards organising an interfaith concert that will encourage the youth of the world to respect one another regardless of faith.
* Fait Mahdini is a student at the American University’s School of International Service, studying International Politics and Human Rights.
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), March 28, 2006