... A question of politics, not religion
Nyla McCulloch opened the symposium before a Sunday afternoon group of some 60 Melrosians. Seated are the Rev. Wendy Van der Hart, George Stubbs, Evans Travis and Imam Salih Yucel.
It is not the Jewish or Islamic religions that are at fault today in the Mid-east and in our own country, but the politics that go along with religion in many countries.
This was the assertion of speakers at Sunday's forum titled "Understanding Differences Through Community Dialogue", held in the Barry Auditorium at the Melrose Middle School. Imam Salih Yucel, President of the Boston Dialogue Foundation and Muslim Chaplain at Brigham and Women's Hospital, and Evans Travis, President of Temple Beth Shalom in Melrose, spoke with concern and earnestness about the contrast between the basic tenets of their religions and the violence occurring now in the Mideast.
George Stubbs, Chairman of the Melrose Human Rights Commission, voiced his feelings about Americans' access to fair-minded news outlets, noting that "Nobody tells the media what news they can show, but there are limitations in what and how news is covered."
Also, he recalled how Congressional leaders had condemned certain violent movies, but recommended "True Lies", an adventure film involving Islamic extremism and cruelty, as fine family entertainment.
At this time when, since September 11, there have been many cases of discrimination and abuse toward persons who look as if they might be Muslim, the speakers openly urged sensitivity and open minds.
Rev. Doris Hunter, Minister of the Melrose Unitarian Universalist Church that was one of the Forum presenters, opened the meeting with the story of blindfolded persons who each felt a single part of an elephant - tail, trunk, ears, and drew different conclusions of what the animal looked like. "We have to take off the blinders and see the whole person", she said.
Imam Yucel described the painful confusion of a small girl fearful of going to school in her native dress, wondering if she should uncover her head in typical American style. A native of Turkey, she has lived here many years but recently feels that "I myself do not belong here" since the terrorist destruction in New York and strong reactions against Muslims.
But "Muslims are not allowed to kill innocents, children, woman, elders", as directed by the Muslim sacred text, the Koran. Mentioning frequent references today to "Islamic terrorists", he observed that in discussions about violence in Northern Ireland, "Nobody calls them 'Catholic terrorists'. We are taught to know each other, love each other, respect human rights, even the rights of animals. If it is not harming us, we do not even kill a mosquito!"
He said that unlike the severe oppression of women in Afghanistan and lack of education for girls, disturbing to many viewers of TV recently, in most Islamic countries, following the Koran urging of gaining knowledge, "women are teachers, doctors, even judges. Though you have not had a woman president in the United States, women have been the heads of government in Pakistan, Turkey, Bangladesh and Indonesia."
"There are terrorists, radicals, in all countries, not just in Islamic countries. Terrorists should be brought to justice, but there is a great difference between terrorists and innocents. I would urge Western societies to learn more about Islam, not just the distorted views shown on the media."
"What of reports that Islamic lands do not approve our Western technology and modern ways of life", asked a member of the audience.
"We share many of the values of Western society - benefits for all of the people, education, democracy, technology, modernizing in many ways. We share many of the Christian prophets - Jesus, Moses, David and Mohammed. We are to respect other people, not to be selfish or arrogant."
The Imam (a title of an Islamic prayer leader or scholar) disassociated himself from the Taliban leaders in Afghanistan, who are exploiting the people there. "The Taliban was supported by the United States in the war against Russia; we left them there, but no mainstream Muslims were involved."
He stated that of the 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, only 15% are Arabs, 85% are not.
Evans Travis expressed Jewish beliefs and teachings similar to those of Islam. "We are urged always to know and respect a stranger, help in any way we can. The Torah says we must look after each other and work in defense of the beleaguered.
"Our main reaction to the September 11 devastation was shock - we're not accustomed to having terrorist acts on our own land as Israel and many countries are. So many people are motivated to have some things to lose, while too many people have nothing to lose, a dangerous condition. We all have to build a defense against the craziness of humans. 'A lie makes a trip around the world while truth is just pulling on its shoes.'"
"Before September 11, seven million people in Afghanistan were on the verge of starvation. The United Nations must act to avoid this. So many social and ethical problems have been neglected. During the sixties, there was a buildup of frictions in Africa; there has been some reformation, lowering pain and suffering, but not enough. An old axiom says 'Treat the cause, not the symptom.' So many problems come back to food, clothing and shelter."
The speakers were generous in answering questions and talking to viewers after the program.
Should the Palestinians have their state? "Of course, they have to," said Mr. Travis.
Would the removal of American troops from near the Islamic holy sites of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia lower tensions with Muslims?
"Possibly, but our support for the corrupt government of Saudi Arabia is more serious and offensive" said the Imam.
Should the ten-year sanctions against Iraq be dropped?
What of the extremism in religions that cause trouble?
Mr. Travis replied, "All religions have extremism; in Jerusalem, some people are living in ancient style, but that's not the mainstream."
From the left are George Stubbs, Rev. Wendy Van der Hart of the Highlands Congregational Church, and Rev. Doris Hunter of the Unitarian-Universalist Church.
What of the powerful effects on the lives of people around the world of the transnational companies? "We should work on that", Mr. Travis nodded.
What of heaven? The Imam: "I don't know if I will go - only God knows."
Mr. Travis: "Paradise is open to all who travel the road to God."
George Stubbs: "September 11 taught me one of the saddest things - tragedy and sorrow can bring us all together."
The Forum was produced by the Melrose United Universalist Church, the Highlands Congregational Church, Melrose Human Rights Commission, Melrose Alliance Against Violence, First Congregational Church in Melrose, Temple Beth Shalom, and the Melrose League of Women Voters.
November 2, 2001