On Difference, Compassion and the Right to Speak

Photo by elFranzo
Photo by elFranzo

I’m Muslim, did you know? You might have guessed, from how I look I suppose. I once was interviewed by a woman, who after I got the job, confided in me that she could almost always tell someone’s religion after speaking to them for five minutes. I wonder if she could tell also that I’d had a convent school upbringing. You see, labels are only so useful. We are more simple, and more complex than any label can foretell.

Being Muslim is only a small part of my identity, along with being European, Indian, a mother, a wife, a writer, a sister, a friend. We are born into our lives on a lightning strike of luck. It is chance that determines which continent we are born on, what gender and religion we are, whether we are born rich or poor. Our experiences shape us, and yes, we might seek out our adventures, but often these too are up to the stars: whose paths we cross, what traumas line our journeys, how we end up being the people we are. A moment of serendipity that sets you on the path to being a mother in a war zone or a German vineyard owner.

Photo by Mike Russell
Photo by Mike Russell

Why is it then, that such enmities develop between different ideas, when we are all simply a product of our environments? Why can’t we dig beneath nationality, race, faith and sexuality and just find cells, bones, beating hearts, the need to be safe and loved? How can it be that in this day and age, individuals are targeted for what they believe, that in our arrogance we feel strong when we judge other people?

The world seems smaller today than ever before. We get breaking news at our fingertips in an instant, not only news curated by networks, but eye witness accounts by normal people through social media. Travel is no longer for the wealthy few. Why then, have we not found ways to understand each other better, to grow our compassion? Why do we continue to act in binary code? Why does it seem that every corner of this earth aches?

Photo by Amélien Bayle
Photo by Amélien Bayle

Today, I read about another blogger dying at the hand of extremists. His name was Xulhaz Mannan. He was 35, and editor of Bangladesh’s only LGBT magazine. He was killed alongside a friend. He was just doing his job, expressing his ideas, using words to give voice to a marginalised community. He was being himself and he paid for it with his life.

It reminds me of Salman Rushdie and the fatwa that was issued after he wrote The Satanic Verses. I’ve written about censorship and self-censorship before. There can be no free society when we are not free – within the rule of law – to explore and give voice to our ideas without threat of violence or imprisonment. How sad to write words, and to have to think twice about whether it is safe to publish them. Despite technology, despite progress, the world makes mistakes on repeat. And we cannot change without looking beyond ourselves.

10 thoughts on “On Difference, Compassion and the Right to Speak

  1. Beautiful post, my dear. And tragic. I often think about that “lightning strike of luck” myself – by what incredible odds was I born to the particular family I was? How different could it have been? I too often wonder why we separate ourselves so artificially when, had lightning struck at a different moment, I might have been your sister, or someone else’s brother, or a Syrian girl in a refugee camp today. No one’s lived experience should be muted or diminished.

  2. Hear, hear! I agree and identify with everything you said. Our world would be infinitely more beautiful, intelligent, and peaceful if we could all freely be our true selves (as long as that didn’t mean harming others). Some of us basically have that freedom, while others live in fear of persecution, and still others have no leisure to create and thrive because their basic life needs are unmet.

  3. Hear, hear, so right! I think those of us who have been born in ‘different’ circumstances and have been made aware of it at some point in our lives are much more aware that ‘there but for a stroke of luck…’ it could be any one of us. A timely, thoughtful and generous post, which on a day when I am sad about the way the Commons voted on accepting refugee children seems even more appropriate (as well as the horrific situation you mention).

    1. Thanks for reading Marina. I agree with you, I saw that too. I resent arbitrary decisions by politicians as to where investment should go and what our moral obligations should be. We are wealthy compared to much of the world and have the means to provide equality of opportunity for all. We should all have a haven and the chance to thrive, n

  4. Joining the debate as a Jew who lost parents in the Holocaust — there’s little I disagree with here. On an individual level – as here on your blog, we can agree to respect, admire and most of all LEARN from each other, celebrating and tolerating our differences, whether they be racial, sexual or religious. It is when these things are seized upon by people with ‘power’ (see the current debate about Hitler/Zionism) who only wish to parade their own egos, that confrontation, misunderstanding and bigotry are allowed free reign.,And look what happens? Let us agree to be the still small voices of reasonable debate….or civilization crumbles and extremism stalks the earth.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts, Carol. My heart goes out to you. My mum’s family fled Uganda in the exodus under Idi Amin. Agree entirely about the extra responsibility of those in power to behave with decency and to have checks against them. The last few months have really shown again the dirty underbelly of politics. Ken needs to apologise, there is no doubt, and just be quiet. There was the Boris stuff about Obama’s ancestry too. And Trump. I used to work in politics and am so thankful to be away from that world, and it is the smaller voices that give me hope, n

  5. I remember a few years ago, having a long conversation with a primary school teacher friend of mine, who was teaching at a school in which the classes were very diverse in terms of race and religion. I asked her the quite impossible question of how does one teach children that we are all essentially, biologically the same but also highlight that we have our differences that need to be respected? It’s been a long time since I was a child but even in my memories of the cusp of teenagerhood, the world was very black and white. Right and wrong. Not much room for the grey vagarities that now swamp my mind with the benefit of experience, education and empathy.

    She told me that she’d asked this very question herself many times and that there were enough textbooks and guides to build a bridge across the Channel all giving various pieces of advice. But she boiled it down to a simple model that she’d ocassionally used on the kids. I cannot recall the exact answer but it ran along the lines of human beings as cars driving down a motorway – some in different lanes, some turning off and rejoining the carriageway, but all essentially built the same, heading from the same place and to the same place – birth, breath, love and death, and everything in between; grazed knees, sneezy summers, discarded and dusty sandwich toasters.

    (That last embellisment is, of course, my own nonsense.)

    1. Your embellishments are delightful. She sounds like a great teacher. I think sadly that it is rare that many people think so intently about commonality. It is too easy to be swayed by all the noise focusing on the other. You’d think my kids, a minority by virtue of their mixed race skin colour and religion in this country, would have an instinctive understanding of difference, be more accepting somehow. But I have found that I need to regularly have conversations with them about about different view points, different physical attributes. In many ways our own sense of what is the norm is like a fortress. We are confident in our own convictions, but that is dangerous. Complexity, the grey, it is everything. Love the discussions we have. Till next time, n

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