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A Tale of Two Mosques

04/07/2016 16:16 | Updated 04 July 2016

As a Buddhist, I have spent the last month - to the surprise of many - visiting the morning and evening prayers at my local mosque during this holy month of Ramadan. In brutal contrast, this morning I woke up to the news that my fellow Buddhists in Southeast Asia had just razed a local mosque to the ground.

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Myanmar's state-owned Global New Light newspaper reports that Buddhist residents in the country's Kachin State attacked the mosque armed with sticks, knives and other weapons, and burnt it down. A man squats in the ruins (above). The security forces said they had been unable to control the mob.

Sadly, this incident - and a similar attack on 23 June in which a mob of 200 demolished a mosque and a Muslim cemetery in a village in Bago Region - are part of a pattern of Buddhist hate crimes in the country. Similar violence erupted in Sri Lanka, led by monks in their saffron robes, prior to the change of government in 2105.

Buddhist leaders and teachers around the world have appealed to their counterparts in Myanmar to reduce hostilities and prevent attacks. Numerous appeals were made to Nobel Laureate Aung Saan Su Kyi before her historic election victory this year, including from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, urging her to use her prodigious influence to end the attacks.

In the same week as the latest outrage, the United Nations said that putting an end to the abuses should be the government's "top priority". It stated that the violations, which include executions and torture, may amount to crimes against humanity.

Hatred, political violence and global turmoil

Hatred, political violence, and global turmoil have been recurrent themes of my Ramadan experience - despite the fact that the month is said in the Islamic tradition to be the most peaceful. It is believed to be a time for personal purifcation and social harmony as the forces of evil are subdued in this sacred period. But almost everyone who has spoken to me after morning and evening prayers has the same question on their mind: "What is happening to the world?"

My "local mosque" for the past few weeks has been the royal mosque at Al Akhawayn University in Morocco, where I was invited to teach a course on "mindful leadership". The university sees my Buddhist background as an asset since it was established to promote "the values of human solidarity and tolerance" in this predominantly Muslim nation.

Two days ago, I talked with the most senior cleric of the mosque, Imam Suleiman Khanjari, about the tide of hatred that we see arising in so many places in the world.

This was the day after gunmen, believed to be from the death-cult ISIS, launched their horrific assault on Istanbul's Attaturk Airport. It was yet another indiscriminate mass murder that claimed the lives of 42 and wounded 239.

In an unnerving development, it was the same day that the number of reported hate crimes reported in the UK soared to five times the usual level following the Brexit vote. The National Police Chiefs' Council said 331 hate crime incidents had been reported since the EU referendum, compared to the weekly average of 63.

At the end of our conversation, as we were about to go our separate ways, Imam Khanjari, the elder of the university's Muslim community, turned back to me. He had been deeply moved as we contemplated what could be done to change humanity's disastrous trajectory. He came towards me in silence, his hand held over his heart, and embraced me. I could feel his tears as he pressed his cheek against mine in the traditional manner of greeting and bidding farewell.

Another rising tide

Fortunately, the voices of the world's spiritual leaders, and ordinary citizens are not being totally drowned out in the cacophony of hate speech and violence. There have been notable, and far reaching gestures. Among them the repeated public statements and actions by Pope Francis - condemning "senseless hatred", bringing refugees to safety from the Greek Island of Lesbos, and meeting Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar mosque in Egypt, the highest religious authority of the Sunni Muslims.

In the UK, in a spontaneous response to the wave of racist and xenophobic attacks that have swept the country, the safety-pin movement has been born.

People are being encouraged to wear a safety-pin, not just as a symbolic protest against the attacks, but as a visible indicator that any immigrant or member of a minority could feel safe sitting beside them or near them on public transport.

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Local governing councils are being urged to condemn any racist or xenophobic actions immediately and do everything in their power to make people feel safe and welcome. "Tell your council to speak out against racism, xenophobia and hate crimes now," is the theme of a nation-wide campaign by Amnesty International.

Witnessing the plight of the 1.3 million Muslims in Myanmar, known as the Rohingya people, more than 380 Buddhist teachers in the United States earlier expressed their concern, noting that the values of tolerance and kindness are "values shared across all the great spiritual traditions as nations face challenges of injustice and prejudice." In America, too, they said, "we are working to reduce intolerance and developing humane ways to treat the many immigrants who have come across our border, by including them in education and offering them protection under the law."

A subsequent "Joint Buddhist-Muslim Statement on Inter-Communal Violence in Burma" stated:

Both of our religious traditions uphold the dignity of all persons, and assert that all people, regardless of race, ethnicity or religion, should be treated with dignity and compassion. We affirm that the suffering of any one person or any groups is our suffering and that our faiths instruct us to do all we can to relieve this suffering.

"We are one family and that is what is most important"

Back in my "local" mosque, here in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, I talked to a group of the country's young imams. They have completed their Islamic scriptural studies, but are being exposed in a special program to all the world's other major religions and wisdom traditions.

They are appalled by the staggering levels of violence that are tearing apart so much of the Middle East, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa - and the repercussions around the world. "After all," as one of them said to me, "it is our people, the Muslims, who are suffering the most at the hands of ISIS."

I ask them about the flood of hatred. In the midst of the pain, the confusion and fear, the words of these young people strike a deep note of understanding, truth and hope:

It all begins with the idea of 'us' and 'them'. It is either 'them' or 'us'. You may be right, I may be right. We both believe we are right. But that doesn't mean that we cannot make a relationship with each other and work together. We are human beings - that means we are different. We have different backgrounds, different languages, different beliefs. But we are human and it is our humanity that is most important. We are one family. Even now, if you examine our DNA, it is clear. We are one family and that is what is most important.

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