We are excited to share a report from Sri Lanka about a cultural exchange on May 14 of this year—which brought together 350 people from diverse communities throughout the island's Northeast. The event was the latest in a series of efforts Karuna Center has been co-organizing with Sarvodaya Shanti Sena Sansadaya and an interfaith group of grassroots religious leaders. Each of the ethnic/religious groups present—Sinhala Buddhists, Tamil Hindus, Sri Lankan Muslims, and Christians—has been deeply affected by the 26-year Sri Lankan Civil War, but in different ways.
by Laura Anderson, Karuna Center Development Coordinator
*Participant quotes are taken from memory and are paraphrased.
On May 10, we held an event in Longmeadow, Massachusetts with Critical Connections, as part of our jointly organized Muslims in America: Dialogues Across Divides series. It was a public dialogue called "American Heretics: the History of Religious Intolerance in America," with two experts adding substance to the discussion: Peter Gottschalk, a scholar of religion and religious intolerance at Wesleyan, and Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, a nationally recognized attorney and civil rights advocate who currently legally represents the hamlet of Islamberg, New York. We named the event after Gottschalk's book, American Heretics: Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and the History of Religious Intolerance.
Two days before our event, we became aware of negative comments appearing in response to a local newspaper article that advertised it online, and related our planned event to ongoing issues of hate speech against the local Muslim community. “I'm not going in support!! I'm going to protest!!” one person wrote in the comments section. “Muslims do not belong on USA soil. They all support terrorists!!” But despite the possibility of disruptions or threats, we decided to go ahead with the event—and what resulted was deeply meaningful.
We had been planning to post a story about an event in our series, Muslims in America: Dialogues Across Divides. We decided to save that for a little later, because right now, we want to first acknowledge the massacre at The Pulse nightclub in Orlando, and reflect on the national impact. This mass shooting cut short the lives of 49 people, and traumatized hundreds more, during a celebration of Latino/a (Latinx) lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender lives.
We are given hope by the many people who have responded to the shooting, and its aftermath, by building consensus against all forms of hate and intolerance. For example: The day after the attack, more than 50 LGBTQ advocacy groups appealed for their communities to reject the Islamophobic rhetoric that they knew would follow because the killer was Muslim. At the same time, mainstream Muslim groups have been calling for an end to homophobia and transphobia.
These voices for tolerance and pluralism are not getting as much media attention as we think they should, in comparison to more divisive narratives. So we would like to pass along the inspiring and hopeful words of at least a few of them:
From survivor Alejandro A. Francisco (who left the building just minutes before the attack), in an open letter to the killer:
From Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations:
From the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity:
From Stuart Milk (President of the Harvey Milk Foundation):
Our collective response to the Orlando massacre is a watershed moment. At Karuna Center, we see common-sense gun control, and banning assault weapons, as a step in the right direction--and it is not enough. To build what we would call “positive peace,” a society must do more than disarm itself: it must coexist with itself.
Through our work, we have come to understand that when people of diverse identities are respected and safe, this forms the foundation of mutual security for everyone. People within a peaceful society are not subject to systemic violence and discrimination on the basis of their identity. Homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexism, and religious intolerance are ways of thinking that foster violence.
We are aware there are many motives and factors that may have influenced the killer, aside from transphobia and homophobia. We've read that he professed allegiance to ISIS and other violent extremists—and that he had a history of gender-based violence. But there is no easy answer to the question, “why?”
With the massacre in Orlando, a safe space for celebrating pluralism was violated. It will take time and work to repair this wound. We are so grateful that the people and organizations quoted above, together with so many more of you, are leading a way forward that will create better security, safety, and belonging—peace—for us all.
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