Ill-conceived labels can kill: Religious labels fail to define true believers

Written: Khosrow Semnani, posted in the Deseret News

People attach labels to other people, but rarely do so with understanding. For example, look at the tragedy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Three Muslim students were shot in the head — allegedly by an atheist who posted hate-filled rants against religious people on social media.

Shift and change the labels around in this story and imagine the assumptions and treatment it would receive: Three atheist students were allegedly killed by a Muslim who posted hate-filled rants against non-believers on social media.

Many Americans can sense the double-standard inherent in how, in one instance a horrific act would be labeled a hate crime with little coverage, and in the other an act of terrorism that would dominate the news for weeks. Even if facts eventually show the shooting in North Carolina was not primarily motivated by hate of Muslims, the reaction to the labels reveals biases.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. People can expand their knowledge of other people and do so without resorting to shallow labeling. The Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable, for example, is a shining example of how differences do not need to divide us. It proves we can get along and maintain our own deep expressions of conscience.

I am a firm believer in my faith’s teachings, but I also admire deeply the faith of others. I see in my interactions with sincere believers in other traditions a wonderful tapestry of goodness. But within the differences I also find much that we have in common.

Among religions there is a common goodness of intent. There is a belief in the brotherhood and sisterhood of all people, a belief in the pursuit of knowledge and a respect for human rights and a belief in the family.

But feeling respect for other religions does not just happen. It requires what people really believe. It requires reaching out, such as in interfaith gatherings.

Oftentimes, we hear pleas for tolerance for religion, races and nations. These are good impulses, but I have an issue with the word “tolerance,” because it doesn’t seem to go far enough. I prefer the word “acceptance.”

For example, there is a difference between accepting a neighbor and just tolerating them. As a Muslim, I do not want to just tolerate someone, but accept who he or she is.

Small groups in the Middle East and in North Africa try to justify their barbarity by using religious language. Unless people have attempted to understand the teachings and faith of other religions, they may think these aberrations of belief are representative of the 1.3 billion Muslims in the world.

But those who take just a little effort to look beyond the labels will know otherwise. They will understand how painful it is for Muslims to see people twist their faith. They will recognize how frustrating it can be to see so much misunderstanding instigated by so few. They will see a commonality with their own beliefs and begin to appreciate and show acceptance of their Muslim friends, neighbors and co-workers.

The students who were killed in North Carolina were great examples of this. News reports tell of their generosity participating in local charitable activities as well as promoting international efforts to help victims in the Middle East. They reached out to others and were not blinded by labels. They epitomized part of one of my favorite verses in the Koran, “Righteousness is not determined by facing East or West during prayer. Righteousness (is) … to give money for the love of God to relatives, orphans, the destitute, and those who are on a journey and in urgent need of money, beggars” (Koran 2:177).

This, for me, is the beauty of Islam. And I will always be grateful that I have taken the effort to look beyond the labels to discover the same beauty in the many faithful expressions of the marvelous tapestry of religious belief.

Khosrow B. Semnani is a Utah businessman and a member of the Muslim faith community.