Interfaith Harmony Week: more than just talk in Toronto

In Newsby

by Habeeb Alli

12 February 2013

Toronto - Given the number of interfaith discussions that seem to generate only documents and hot air, when I heard about the World Interfaith Harmony Week event taking place in Toronto, I thought it may be just another talkfest. Online bloggers and cynics were no help either. “Why bother to drive all the way to this Japanese Cultural Centre when there is a snow storm coming? Your Interfaith dialogues will not stop the death storm hitting Muslims across the Atlantic!” opined one such local blogger.

However, as an imam, and a strong proponent of interfaith dialogue, I am always looking for opportunities to highlight the many examples of faith being used to build peaceful, constructive relationships across artificial dividing lines, such as religion. Suddenly, I wanted to prove to this blogger and his fellow naysayers that there was practical value in this event.

John Voorpostel, the Chair of the World Interfaith Harmony Week Toronto Steering Committee, also wanted the event to be more than talk: “hopefully this dialogue will produce opportunities for faith leaders to engage people of all faiths to come together to practice ‘vigorous hospitality.’”

The phrase “vigorous hospitality” was coined by Brian McLaren, in his 2011 book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, The Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road? Vigorous hospitality goes beyond tolerance to deliberately reaching out to others in acts of kindness. But where is this vigorous hospitality in this particular cosy panel discussion and reception?

Participants at the World Interfaith Harmony Week panel discussion in Toronto were organised to showcase their interfaith work and they networked energetically, almost like speed dating; leaders, speakers and attendees deliberately partnered with one-another on a number of social justice issues.

As a result, Imam Shaikh Ali of the Canadian Council of Imams for example, said he plans to follow up with a Christian congregation that wants to visit the mosque to learn about Islam first hand; a funding agency that supports multi-faith youth projects; and a Jewish leader looking for information on Muslim-Jewish neighbourhood ventures.

These actions are the success of World Interfaith Harmony Week, everything else was icing on the cake.

I found another example of vigorous hospitality when Voorpostel announced that the proceeds of the dinner held earlier at a mosque would go towards Habitat for Humanity, a Christian-based organisation that builds affordable homes for anyone that is eligible. People of different faiths deliberately figured out a way for this event to be kind to others. Vigorous hospitality and viable networking achieved.

Rev Earl Smith of the Church of Scientology, a member of the Toronto Area Interfaith Committee and the Mosaic networks, commented after the event, “People are still living out their misconceptions of Muslim and Hindu traditions,” referring to recent hate crimes in New York City. Smith’s contribution to vigorous hospitality has been to engage with Hindu and Muslim communities in Toronto during his regular Mosaic Show on Rogers TV in Toronto. Smith added, “They have likewise supported us when asked to clear up misconceptions about the Church of Scientology.”

Sid Ikeda of the Japanese Cultural Centre, a diverse ethnic group of Buddhists, and a practical example of how vigorous hospitality in itself, said in his closing remarks at the gala on 7 February that the high point for many speakers had been addressing ways to practically restore trust for each of the religious groups by getting leaders tonight to partner with one another on different social justice issues.

The concept of World Interfaith Harmony Week was inspired by the Amman Declaration and the Common Word initiative, both coming out of Jordan and supported by Muslims around the world. King Abdullah II of Jordan proposed the idea of an Interfaith Harmony Week to the UN General Assembly in September 2010, which was unanimously adopted. This stands in stark contrast to negative press about Islam and Muslims and demonstrates clearly that there are Muslim leaders who are at the forefront of interfaith activism.

World Interfaith Harmony Week grew from 200 events in 40 countries in 2010 to over 300 plus events worldwide this year. The World Interfaith Harmony Week committee is already planning to host this event annually in the city of Toronto. And I am looking forward to talking loudly about the tangible examples of vigorous hospitality that come out of each one.

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* Habeeb Alli is a freelance writer for The Ambition (theambition.ca), a scholar on www.allexperts.com, and the author of 15 books on Islam (www.muslimsincanada.ca). This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 12 February 2013, www.commongroundnews.org

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