During last week’s Madaraka Day, I received an invitation to an iftar dinner by a colleague. This is the meal that Muslim faithful break the fast with every evening. While I initially assumed the invitation was to join in the evening meal, something that I had done last year too, but this event was special and different.
In the room were a diversity of guests from different professions, cultures and religions. Our host used the occasion to explain to us the meaning and importance of Ramadhan in the Islamic religion.
For me this was the second time in one month that I got a chance to reflect on certain religious practices that have deeper meaning than we normally contemplate.
The first such event was as part of retreat by my church on importance of membership to the church and expectation from members of the church. When my turn to speak at the event came I asked myself how much I knew about Ramadhan.
It was only after my host had spoken that we got to discuss the deeper meaning. The main take-away was tolerance and building an inclusive society.
A lot of the time when we have international conversations about the relations between Christianity and Islam, it is framed as one of tension. Sadly, when that debate is led by one religion it sees the other in negative light. I can speak about views on Islam by Christians. It is not all Christians though.
We have to admit that there is a narrative in this country and in many parts of the world that Islam is associated with terrorism and certain other vices. When this narrative is bandied around, we fail to appreciate that it inculcates a divisive society and perpetuates negative stereotypes.
The Iftar was thus a useful chance to debate the necessity for religious tolerance. Our constitution decrees that we are a diverse society and hence the need for ensuring unity in diversity. There should be more opportunity for religious dialogue.
Such dialogue must seek to understand and learn positive aspects of all religions. In doing so we will discover the richness are useful lessons that religious doctrine and practices hold for our societal development.
How many of us know that one of the critical teachings of Ramadhan includes the essence of caring for the less fortunate and also tolerance? Is this not similar to Christianity and other faiths? Should we not spend more time identifying these areas of commonalities and seeking to build on them.
It is not possible to build a society based on a single viewpoint. To succeed, we have to appreciate that it is our different perspectives that help solve societal problems and set the basis for progress.
Real life is complex. Conflict is very easy to trigger. It does not take a lot of effort. Resolving it, once started, is not always easy. By the time we get round to it a lot of damage, including hurt feelings, destruction of property, injuries and even deaths may have occurred.
The challenges of the modern society are varied and complex. Religious conflicts are numerous. It is easy to use stereotypes in explaining the causes of the divisions.
However, on closer study it is clear that all religions share certain basic traits. They also face the same challenges, ranging from fundamentalism to negative stereotypes.
It behooves us to use our homes, our schools and our associations to develop a different narrative. That will involve creating deliberate spaces for honest and consistent dialogue.
It requires that we open ourselves to sharing about our cultures and practices. While there is a saying that ignorance is bliss, in actual practice lack of access to honest and objective information breeds opportunity for rumours and negative perceptions.
These perceptions have been the basis for obtaining negative views that associate Islam with dangerous criminal events. A policy that takes this position is not only erroneous, but breeds hatred and endangers the society it seeks to protect in the first place.
I was glad to have participated in one such occasion during this year’s Madaraka Day. I hope many more Kenyans will get to have such religious discourse with a view to entrenching a culture of tolerance and appreciating not just our religious but other diversities. This is the foundation for building a more inclusive society.