Next Stop: Tolerance

The start of the new year and decade got me thinking: what will the religious landscape look like in the coming year, or 2030? Will hatred and bigotry be given free rein? Or will people of different creeds learn to live alongside one other in greater harmony?

A recent modern-day “parable” offers us some optimism in this department.

Had the Prophet Muhammad been riding the London Underground (subway) in November 2019, he would have been proud, because what started out as a cowardly expression of religious ostracism was turned into a demonstration of tolerance and empathy.

London Underground stop
Photo by Toms Auzins/Shutterstock.com

This is how it played out: At around midday on November 22, a passenger sitting in the train pulled out his phone to film an incident occurring in front of him. The footage (which immediately went viral) reveals a man reading passages from the Bible out loud to a young boy wearing a yarmulke, sitting beside him. He was going out of his way to try to humiliate and harass the boy. A few fellow passengers tried to intervene, but this only incited more threats from the man. A short time later, a mother of two stepped in to give the offender her “two pennies’ worth.” According to the person making the video, Chris Atkins, she was “firm and persistent.” As it turns out, not only was she able to empathize with the parents of the Jewish boy (present on the train), being a mother herself, she also knew exactly what it was like to be in that kind of situation. For the woman, Asma Shuweikh, was a Muslim, and as such, had also had to put up with her fair share of ostracism. That particular day (just like many other days) she was wearing a hijab—her religiously symbolic item of clothing, just as the yarmulke was for the young boy.

“I hope that people see this story and realize, when you go through these things, we can come together and something good can come from it.”

By the way, in case you’re itching to know, the man hurling the anti-Semitic abuse was arrested the following day. So some justice was dealt. But unfortunately, incidents like these are on the rise. According to an annual report released by Reuters in May 2019, anti-Semitic attacks worldwide rose some 13 percent in 2018 compared to the previous year. Most of these incidents occurred in major Western democracies, including the United States, France, Britain and Germany. During the last week of December 2019, there was an attack on a Jewish New Yorker every single day, including one against children. The Anti-Defamation League, established in the Big Apple, still has its hands full, over a century after it was launched.

Two Jewish men holding a sign supporting Muslims
Photo by Marcywinograd

Back across “The Pond,” in London, Ms. Shuweikh’s courage in stepping in and defending the Jewish boys is all the more notable given how much we are often made to fixate on “the differences” between the Jewish and Muslim religions. In an interview with CNN, Chris Atkins summed it up quite aptly: “In this day and age, we are told how intolerant everyone is and [that] all religions hate each other. And there you had a Muslim woman sticking up for some Jewish children.” 

What exactly was said by the woman has not gone viral but her presence in front of the offender certainly stemmed the man’s flow of slurs. As the boys’ father put it: “We are certain that without her intervention and distraction, he would have continued his abuse.” But for Ms. Shuweikh, turning a blind eye simply wasn’t an option: “As a practicing Muslim, I can't see injustice and not intervene. It goes against what we are taught.”

According to Zia H. Shah in his January 2017 article in The Muslim Times, “Muhammad did not monopolize the eternal salvation for the Muslims only. The Qu’ran framed the issue of salvation and submission to God of Abrahamic faiths in much broader terms. Abraham had two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. The children of Isaac are the Jews and the Christians, and the children of Ishmael became the Muslims.”

So, just like this London train, populated with representatives of all three religions—Judaic, Muslim and Christian (and probably many others besides)—we are all part of the same spiritual pool that is Humanity. By sticking her neck out, Ms. Shuweikh gave the bigoted bully traveling alongside her an important life lesson: that using sacred Christian scriptures to ostracize others with a very un-Christian message is NOT okay!

Every cloud has a silver lining, and this was no exception: the incident actually brought the Jewish and Muslim families together after the train ride was over. According to Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Asma Shuweikh and the father of the two boys met a few days later. He reportedly brought her a bouquet of flowers and they had coffee together, resolving to stay in touch. “I hope that people see this story and realize, when you go through these things, we can come together and something good can come from it,” commented Ms. Shuweikh.

She’s right: life is one long learning journey, after all.

Next stop: tolerance. Hopefully, before the decade’s out!

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