Monday, June 25, 2007

My June 9th 2007 Speech to the 3rd Annual Ireland Inter-Faith Roundtable Conference


Please allow me to welcome all of you who are attending this year’s Inter-Faith Roundtable Conference and to thank you for allowing me to participate in it. I would also like to thank Sheikh Shaheed Satardien in particular for asking me to address this Conference and express my views on the subject of Faith, Education and Integration. It is indeed an honour for me to do so.

I would like to begin by providing you with some background information, which may prove helpful in terms of understanding how I have come by a few of the beliefs which I will be discussing with you today. I was raised as a Roman Catholic but I disagree with many aspects of the Catholic religion. While I am still a Catholic, currently I would have to characterize myself as being more spiritual than religious.

Some of you are no doubt familiar with the weekly opinion column which I write for Ireland’s multi-cultural newspaper, Metro Eireann. As such you are probably already acquainted with my political views regarding US politics as well as the US’s domestic and foreign policies. But it was a combination of personal experiences, family background, upbringing and education, which helped form most of my perspectives on politics and on the importance of religious issues and spiritual values.

My mother’s great grandfather, Michael Lynch, immigrated to the United States from County Cork here in Ireland. My father’s great grandfather, Peter Laffiteau moved to the US from the Bordeaux region in southern France. As a result, I am a fourth generation American descendant of European immigrants from different cultures with different native languages. Indeed the United States of America is a nation made up primarily of immigrants and a mixture of their descendants.

The story of most Americans is the story of immigrants. More than 75 percent of all people who ever moved from their homeland have settled in the United States, the country that has welcomed more immigrants than any other in the world. Among the first American immigrants were Puritans fleeing religious persecution in England.. They were later joined by French Protestants fleeing religious persecution in France and by Jews trying to escape the clutches of 16th century Europe’s Holy Inquisition. Other immigrants came to the US because of political repression or a lack of economic opportunities in their homelands.

The United States’ ability to absorb wave after wave of immigration over the last 350 years is the central theme of its very existence not to mention its subsequent rise to become the most economically powerful nation in the world. Immigrants from around the world were and still are drawn to the US because of the wealth of economic opportunities there in contrast to the lack of such opportunities in their home countries. But not all of these immigrants were absorbed and integrated into US society as successfully as those immigrants who originally came from Europe.

You see, I was born and raised in Atlanta Georgia, deep in the heart of the southern United States. For over 200 years the states in the southern US were home to millions of African slaves and their descendants, who were bought and sold by the Caucasian settlers who lived there. These natives of Africa didn’t have the same skin pigmentation as the European immigrants and they didn’t leave their native lands and come to the US voluntarily. After they were finally freed from slavery over 150 years ago, there still remained a considerable residue of prejudice against them on the part of many Caucasians, a certain level of which still persists today.

However, I was extremely fortunate to have been raised by parents who did not share the same prejudices as many other Caucasians in the southern United States. The “n” word was never said in my home or in the Catholic schools where I was educated, (although I heard it a lot outside of these two spheres of influence). While there were no African American families in my neighbourhood, I did go to school with African Americans and regarded them as no better or worse as people or students than myself and my fellow Caucasian classmates.

Even though I attended a Catholic military high school, many of my classmates were neither Caucasians nor Catholics. All of us were educated about the history and basic tenets of many different religions in the classroom. My home life and religious education also heavily emphasized the fact that the differences between us were only minor physical or cultural distinctions. That we were very much the same in all other respects. This same philosophy was later applied to all other ethnic minorities that we might one day come in contact with.

Before returning to college to obtain my undergraduate and post graduate degrees, I spent over 10 years as a sales executive in the telecommunications industry. Many of my clients were engineers who had emigrated from countries like Iran, Pakistan, India and China for economic and or political reasons. Thanks to these relationships I was fortunate enough to be able to learn a great deal about their respective cultures as well as their different religious beliefs and social values. I received a wonderful education about their native countries without ever having travelled there to visit them in person.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, immigrants from Asia and their descendants were another group that experienced difficulty integrating with US society because of some minor physical differences. Only in the last 50 years has this prejudice begun to evaporate, thus allowing Asian Americans to become accepted as members of American society despite their difference in facial features.

More recently an increase in illegal immigration by Hispanics from Mexico and Latin America has been the cause of heated political debate in the US. This has been largely due to popular misconceptions that these immigrants are taking jobs away from native citizens and taking advantage of government services without paying their fair share of taxes for them.

Hispanic immigrants and their descendants have had less difficulty integrating into US society because they share the same physical characteristics and religious backgrounds of most Caucasian Americans. Like many European immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries (including my own great, great grandfather), the main distinction between them and Caucasian Americans is in terms of their native language. Thanks largely to their ability to more easily immigrate and assimilate into US society; Latinos have now replaced African Americans as the single largest ethnic minority group in the country.

Over the past 40 years the US has also witnessed an increase in immigration from countries in Africa and from nations in the Middle East where Islam is the dominant form of religious worship. However, unlike most of their Hispanic counterparts, language is not as much of a barrier for these immigrants because most of them already speak English as their second language. What distinguishes many of these immigrants from other African or Caucasian Americans is their use of the traditional dress of their native lands. Hijabs, robes, saris and turbans which were once rarely seen in the US outside of New York City and the United Nations, have now become commonplace in many cities and towns throughout the country.

I believe the recent bans on the wearing of hijabs by Muslim women in the cities of Antwerp and Berlin are very discriminatory and not conducive to the integration of Muslims into European civil society. I wonder how Christians would react if those same city councils were to ban the wearing of crosses as well? I believe actions such as these, to coerce people from other countries to “fit in” to the dominant culture of the country where they are living, only serve to arouse resentment and act as a barrier to integration with that nation’s civil society.

Based on my personal experiences dealing with people from other countries and cultures, I believe we should not only respect cultural and ethnic differences but that we should actually celebrate them. I have learned something which has benefited me personally, from every culture and ethnic group I have ever had the pleasure of coming into contact with. I also believe that ethnic homogeneity weakens the fabric of a country’s society in much the same way that a lack of genetic diversity weakens biological species. Societies and biological species which lack diversity evolve in ways which emphasize their flaws and weaknesses, leaving them more vulnerable to unexpected changes in their external environment.

Cultural diversity allows a society to draw on the strengths of various different cultures leaving it in a better position to cope with political and social changes in its external and internal environment. The United States was originally a group of British colonies so it isn’t surprising that English is the un-official language and that the US legal system is based on English Law. Yet according to the latest US census figures, more than 60 million Americans trace their ancestry to Germany and over 40 million to Ireland while only 35 million claim to be of English descent. 25 million Americans are of African descent and over 15 million have their roots in Italy. More than 12 million legal US citizens are from Mexico while over 10 million trace their heritage to France with another 9 million claiming Poland as their ancestral homeland.

For the first time in its history, non-Irish immigrants now comprise more than 10 percent of Ireland’s population, thanks largely to the recent economic boom often referred to as the “Celtic Tiger”. Like most US immigrants these non-Irish citizens are hard workers performing tasks which are essential to the economic health and well being of Ireland. The key to helping them become a part of Irish society is education on a number of levels. Religion has a vital role to play in this educational process.

I wish that the national governments of all nations would mandate that school children be taught not only about the history of their own country, but also about the history of the many different religions and cultures which exist throughout the rest of the world. I think that a better appreciation and understanding of why differences exist would go a long way towards preventing violence stemming from cultural, ethnic and religious misunderstandings and conflicts.

Ireland has already experienced first hand the violence which resulted from political conflict rooted in the religious differences between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Similar conflicts are being played out around the world between Jews and Moslems in Israel and Palestine, between Shiite and Sunni Moslems in Iraq as well as Christians and Moslems in other parts of the world.

I find it ironic that so many adherents of Islam, Christianity and Judaism either can not or will not acknowledge the many religious, geographic, historic and cultural similarities ( i.e. monotheistic, Middle East roots and birthplaces, descendants of Abraham etc.) shared by these religions. I like to refer to these religions as the “Abrahamic faiths” in an effort to emphasize our common heritage and shared values.

However, the “Abrahamic faiths” (as well as other religions) also share a history of using violence to advance their political goals in the name of religious beliefs. The Muslim conquests of parts of the Roman and Persian Empires in North Africa, Spain and the Middle East in the 7th and 8th centuries were followed by the Christian crusades in the Middle East during the 10th and 11th centuries.

Nor are militant Muslims the first religious extremists to use terrorism to advance their political goals. The first known use of terrorism was over 2000 years ago by Jewish Zealots, who terrorized Romans and citizens suspected of aiding them by murdering them in crowded marketplaces. Just 60 years ago Jewish Zionists used terrorist bombings against the British and other civilians in Palestine. Christian extremists were responsible for terrorist bombings in India and the murders of abortion providers in the US during the past 15 years as well.

All of the world’s major faiths have members who consider themselves to be “fundamentalists” but not all “fundamentalists” are “militants” who advocate the use of violence. Jehovah’s Witnesses are resolutely pacifist Christian fundamentalists who completely reject violence or militancy and refuse to serve in the armed forces of any country.

On the other hand there are currently religious militants perpetrating violence against non-believers in Sri Lanka and Myanmar (by Buddhists), Kashmir and India (by Hindus), Uganda and India (by Christians), Indonesia, Sudan, Somalia and the Philippines (by Muslims), Iraq (by Shiite and Sunni Muslims) and Palestine (by Jews).

So much media attention is focused on the negative views of militant religious extremists and violent clashes between the Judeo-Christian and Muslim worlds, that informed discussion of the many similarities and positive influences they have (in the past) and could have (in the future) on each other is lost in the debate over the positions of a few militant religious extremists. This has given members of religious faiths who wish to return to the practice of the fundamentals of their faith a bad name.

The basic principles of Islam involve, praying, fasting, and giving to the poor. Islam provides clear guidance for all of a person’s life, and its teachings reference care for the family, concern for the welfare of parents and the aged, and concern for learning and work. Proscriptions against racial discrimination are also included in Islam’s teachings.

Christianity and Judaism embrace these same principles as do most other religious faiths. It is therefore difficult for me to understand why we have allowed religious extremists of many different religious persuasions to hijack their respective religions and use their religious fundamentalism as an excuse for violence. Such violence is contrary to the basic teachings of all religions.

The ongoing conflict between Israeli’s and Palestinians is a prime example of the futility of using violence to achieve ones pseudo-religious political goals. In an existential conflict driven by memory, identity, religion and national trauma, the Israeli and Palestinian capacities to absorb and inflict pain are limitless. Osama bin Laden has hijacked Muslim sympathies for the plight of Palestinians and used these sentiments to wage a violent war against western governments and what he believes to be western cultural pollution, which has heightened tensions between non-Muslim natives and Muslim minorities in many western countries.

If meaningful alliances are to be made among societies that have recently clashed or harbor historic resentments, religion - like it or not - must play a central role. Since Muslims and Roman Catholics comprise the two largest religious communities in the world, each with more than a billion followers, it thus follows that they are both essential elements in resolving the current conflicts between Western and Middle Eastern societies within an increasingly globalized and secular world.

Both religions are currently struggling to reconcile the ways in which they interact with one another as well as the so-called secular world due to the effects of globalisation. Thus, building long-term professional, personal, and institutional relationships between Muslim and Roman Catholic scholars, public intellectuals and religious leaders constitutes a difficult but necessary task. I fervently believe that such a dialog is possible and will support efforts by those who promote such dialog and seek to emphasize our many religious and cultural similarities while also celebrating our differences.

I hope that all religious leaders will begin to solicit the support of their congregations to promote more cultural exchanges involving the citizens of other countries, particularly those from whom their immigrant populations are drawn.

A World History or Ethics & Humanism course which also explores the formation of most of the world’s current ethnic identities and religious denominations could highlight their similar moral and or ethical values and allow students to better relate to their counterparts from other countries. Over time, these students could then help educate their parents and the general populace about those members of society who appear to be different from them. I believe these measures are essential to achieving the goal of successfully integrating “new” Irish immigrants into an “old” Irish society, while also allowing these immigrants to retain the culture and customs of their native homelands. I hope you will find my suggestions helpful and I want to thank you again for allowing me the opportunity to discuss them with you here today.

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