this story originally appeared in the philippine daily inquirer on october 2, 2008.

I AM A CATHOLIC, BORN INTO A CATHOLIC FAMILY IN A predominantly Catholic country. I was baptized in the faith before I was one year old, and I was educated in Catholic institutions all of my life. So, it isn’t surprising that I grew up unaware of other religions and faiths. It isn’t surprising that I had no idea what it was like to interact with someone who did not recognize Jesus Christ as God. The way I viewed those with a different faith was shaped by the stereotypes portrayed on television, in the movies, in other media. Even worse, I forgot they existed, and failed to acknowledge the diversity that exists in our society. 

More than once, I heard it said that “a good Muslim is a dead Muslim.” Because that statement had no direct impact on my life, I would brush it off whenever I heard it. I was apathetic to those hateful words. It was only when I started working with the World Youth Alliance (WYA), an international youth NGO that focuses on dignity and human rights, that I became exposed to young people of different faiths—Buddhists, Jews, Muslims. It was when I started working with these people that I realized how painful and unjust some loosely-used phrases can be. 

In WYA, we begin our conversations by making a conscious effort to focus on the one thing we have in common: dignity. From there we would start talking about school, boys (or girls), parents, and, of course, our faith in humanity. We all believe that a person has dignity. We believe that we all have value and have the capacity to do good. And from this proceeds the realization that we are not so different from each other after all. 

Over the years, I have gained many good friends. Four of them happen to be Muslim: Aliah, Yusoph, Aldin and Annisa. All four are passionate about making a difference in this world and they are all passionate about their faith. They have made me more sensitive to everything that has been happening in Muslim Mindanao, in the Middle East and in other areas where there is cultural diversity. They have been eager to share their faith with me and to help me understand their culture, practices and beliefs.

We all believe that a person has dignity. We believe that we all have value and have the capacity to do good.

“You guys are always inviting us to your Christmas parties. We want to invite you to our holiday celebrations as well.” This was how Aldin explained his invitation for us to join in the celebration of Eid’l Fitr a few years ago. Of course, it went deeper than that: They wanted to share their food, their decorations, traditions and faith. They wanted to share what moves them, the center of their being, which is their belief in Allah, the one God.

We had our first Eid’l Fitr celebration in 2006, and we celebrated it again last year. We invited our friends and family, other members of WYA and shared in their festivities. They served us Maranao cuisine: delicious fish cooked in coconut milk and spices, beef rendang and pastries. To help us understand their faith and their heritage, we played games and made casual conversation with other Muslim guests. You tend to forget the Muslim stereotype constantly being hammered into our consciousness by the media when you are face to face with a warm, friendly, young person, who happens to be faithful to Allah. 

What scares a lot of people about Muslims is that they do not know much about them as a people—who they are, what they believe, how they live. When we are not informed (or we are misinformed by those who exaggerate or focus on fundamentalists or ride on the “CNNization” of things) we become fearful. Nothing is scarier than the unknown, for not knowing is almost equivalent to not being in control. To be faced with someone who we think is very different scares a lot of people. They feel as if they have been pushed out of their comfort zones, and in an indirect way, they start thinking about their own absolutes and values in case they have to defend their own being. 

It is this fear that drives us to do strange things, and sometimes even intolerable things. It is this fear that stops us from trying to make a connection with others, from trying to understand one another. It is this fear that stops us from reaching that point in which we realize we are all human, and that we have more in common than we may actually think.

Our Eid’l Fitr celebrations and Daw’as (talks that share the Muslim faith) are arranged by our Muslim friends. It is their contribution to building a more understanding culture, a more peaceful Philippines, and perhaps a better world. These celebrations have opened my eyes to a different culture and a different faith. At the same time they have helped me appreciate my own faith even more.

I love sharing the Christmas spirit with family and friends as well as people who smile at me as we go about shopping for gifts. I grew up with the notion that Christmas was for everyone, that you share what you have with everyone, even if all you have is a smile and a Merry Christmas greeting. Through the efforts of my friends, I have come to understand that Ramadan and Eid’l Fitr are somewhat similar: they are occasions for peace, reconciliation, thanksgiving and sharing. Similar values expressed in different ways to be experienced by all, because somehow we all seek to be faithful to our God, to our people and to the rest of humanity. 

A Blessed Eid to Everyone. 

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