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Voices of tolerance

04 January 2013

Marcus Braybrooke on a brave witness

Abraham's Children: Liberty and tolerance in an age of religious conflict
Kelly James Clark, editor
Yale University Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70
(Use code CT719) 

THIS is an important, disturbing, and inspiring book.

The contributors to Abraham's Children are minority voices in their communities, who yearn for their religion to promote peace and tolerance rather than enflame "the hatred buried inside us for so long". Their pleas are firmly based on the authentic teaching of their scriptures and tradition, which is often obscured by extremists and the media. For example, Abdolkarim Soroush, a leading Iranian philosopher, insists that tolerance and public accountability - "the pillars of democracy" - are also key teachings of Islam.

The book is disturbing because it highlights so many examples of prejudice and abuse of human rights, often taught to children at an early age. Leah Shakdiel condemns the Israeli school syllabus's springtime concentration on "victimhood". It makes children "slaves of memory", and blinds them to "to the ethical and spiritual reality of what we do to others".

The textbook for young Israeli children Living Together in Israel scarcely mentions Palestinians, Jewish-Ethiopians, Bedouin, and Druze, who also live in the Land, even if they coexist in daily life. In Afghanistan, the Taliban denied girls any schooling, although, in 1996, 70 per cent of teachers in Kabul were women. In Turkey, children are taught about the "vicious historical agendas of missionaries".

Christians, too, may oppress minorities. Miroslav Volf says that his grandfather, a Baptist minister, and his father, a Pentecostal one, both had an easier time under the Communists than under Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox domination. The horrific accounts of honour killing and female genital mutilation, now condemned by leaders of all religions, sadly show that the practice has been widespread in many communities.

Even when religions campaign for religious freedom and human rights, as Ziya Meral points out, they usually do so for members of their own religion. This is why the book is inspiring. Several contributors, despite the dangers, have challenged their own communities and defended the human rights of those who belong to another faith community. "I struggle from within the soul of my people," says Rabbi Arik Ascherman, who defended a Palestinian boy who was used as a human shield. In his nightmares, the lad remembered that "a tall Jewish man in a kippah came to my rescue and told me not to be afraid." President Carter refused to choose between realism and idealism. "Moral principles", he insisted as President, "were the best foundation for the exertion of American power and influence."

"God has no enemies," Abdurrahman Wahid says. He provides equally for those who believe in him and those who do not. Calvin said much the same. Even those whose views we reject bear the image of God and are beloved by God. Indeed, the closer we come to God by whatever path, as Rumi said, we no longer think of ourselves as "Christian, nor Jew, nor Magian, nor Muslim", but as one child of God's global family.

The Revd Dr Marcus Braybrooke is the President of the World Congress of Faiths.

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