Defend Truth


Interfaith harmony provides us with a firm foundation for countering religious bigotry and chauvinism


Nic Paton is a musical composer and interspiritual activist based in Cape Town. He has been blogging at Sound And Silence for 17 years around cultural, spiritual and philosophical issues. Musically, he writes for worldwide media with more than 40 albums of production music available. Socially, he organises online and offline community formations in the Cape Town area, and is part of the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative and the Cape Flats Anti-Crime Interfaith Dialogue Community. He is the grandson of author Alan Paton.

The message of interfaith harmony — that people can find unity despite difference, that this unity can constitute the crux of any religious or spiritual path, and that the core of morality is compassion and justice — is entirely relevant to our situation.

The seven days of World Interfaith Harmony Week — the first week of February — left us reflecting on a burgeoning energy that has been simmering for several years and is now approaching a critical mass.

The week in Cape Town saw an interfaith hike, an international poetry collaboration, various online meetings between faith groups, a multi-faith prayer gathering on the Cape Flats, and the re-commitment to the Charter for Compassion by many groups including representation from the City of Cape Town itself.

And not a moment too soon, for at the same time, we live in a city and country in disarray, with dark forces underfoot, seemingly bent on anarchy and destruction.

Overnight on 6 February, St George’s Cathedral, the domain of the late and very great Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, suffered what appears to be an arson attack. Fortunately, this was unsuccessful with minimal damage to property, but it follows hot on the heels of a far more devastating fire at Parliament on 2 January, less than one block away.

The message of interfaith harmony — that people can find unity despite difference, that this unity can constitute the crux of any religious or spiritual path, and that the core of morality is compassion and justice — is entirely relevant to our situation.

Cecil Plaatjies of the Nichiren Buddhist community and an active member of the interfaith movement in Cape Town, stated after the St Georges arson attack that “we have to expect these kinds of acts after every Zondo report release. It’s a form of terror against our people and the rule of law.”

Plaatjies raises an old word that has, thankfully, not been in use much in the new South Africa — terror.

While one might feel that this is hyperbole, terror is the modus operandi of extremists, either fanatically devoted to their beliefs, or under threat of losing ill-gotten gains. In the former, what we now refer to as fundamentalism, these beliefs are usually the underpinning for extreme and violent acts.

The Interfaith work and writings by those such as Karen Armstrong have provided a thorough basis in countering religious bigotry and chauvinism. Wherever fear is allowed to fester, it is likely to emerge. Her challenge to fundamentalists is to “evolve a more compassionate assessment of their enemies in order to be true to their religious traditions”.

However, in South Africa’s highly diverse and relatively tolerant culture, it appears that the new terror emanates from the latter — invisible actors unconnectable to their instigators. The crux of this strategy is avoiding the net of justice by deflecting attention and lashing out at symbols of that very justice, in the case of recent incidents in Cape Town, St George’s — religiously inspired justice — and Parliament — our elected democracy.

And even more palpably, the plight of whistleblowers across the spectrum from government to business, reminds us that these pernicious forces will stop at nothing, not decency, not law, not murder. For Babita Deokaran, Athol Williams and many more, terror is the correct term.

Significantly, the recent interfaith events focused on the Charter for Compassion — a call to place compassion at the centre of life, and to never actively harm another — and reached out to underprivileged communities.

Addressed by veteran Struggle figures Dr Allan Boesak and Father Michael Lapsley, the faith communities re-committed to the Charter for Compassion at Groote Kerk. Joining us online to lend generous international support was Marilyn Turkovich, Executive Director at the International Charter for Compassion.

There was a palpable sense of engagement and City Councillor Mark Kleinschmidt attended for the City of Cape Town and signed the re-commitment enthusiastically. This bodes well for the relationship between the civic structures and the people on the ground, especially those of the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative and Cape Flats Interfaith Declaration. However to be meaningful, much remains to be discussed and implemented and the interfaith movement is well prepared to do so.

On the Sunday of the week, the “Prayers for The City” event (held annually for the last 20 years) was held in Kalksteenfontein on the Cape Flats. Organised by Imam Salieg Isaacs and Rev Nima Taylor, prayers were offered and songs sung by many faith groups.

Memorably, Maulana Abdul Khaliq Allie, First Deputy President of the MJC (Muslim Judicial Council), did not so much speak as demonstrate the Islamic pillar of zakat in focusing us on feeding the neighbourhood children right before our eyes — a very powerful action of compassion indeed.

It was also significant that the Ahmadiyya movement (represented by Rayaan Allom) which has been deemed heretical and false by many parts of worldwide Islam including the MJC, was represented on the same platform.

There is a tendency of orthodoxy to exclude what it deems heretical, as “other”, and Interfaith platforms are by definition heterodox — meaning “multiple truths” and implying at least, tolerance, and at best, deep love for the other, their traditions and their sacred texts.

If one of the main threats to peace in the world is division, then this small step towards unity between estranged Islamic sectors was heartening, and an example to the entire religious sector.

There is no shortage of respect and interfaith solidarity in Cape Town. In fact, it is growing apace, and it may even be correctly described now as a “movement”.

If that is indeed so, then the challenges for this movement right away are:

  • Mental, spiritual and human transformation and wealth and resource redistribution in existing governmental structures: national, provincial and city-wide;
  • Ongoing and further-reaching initiatives between faith (and civil society) groups at all intersections — religion, class, culture, economy, and so on;
  • A deepening understanding of how fundamentalism of any stripe, be it religious or political, stifles tolerance and undermines compassion, and how this connects to xenophobia (fear of the stranger); and
  • Facing the new, nascent “terror” threat sponsored by criminal factions embedded in or around the state, primarily through policing and programmes of preparedness, but also at a moral level by pointing out the roots of this fearmongering in the “cardinal sin” of greed.

It is fitting that the religious sector gains and retains the initiative. As Rev Nima Taylor said, “the terrorism of the St. George’s Cathedral fire must not instil fear in we who are actively cultivating harmony in Cape Town and the world. Let us deepen our resolve, find greater courage, and send more love and light to all our fellow citizens, whether friend, enemy or stranger.” DM


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