By Aly Yarwood
“My family celebrates Christmas.”
“My family celebrates Chanukah.”
“We celebrate both because half my family is one religion while the other half recognizes the other but we really don’t observe the religion.”
Theses are the types of words you hear when speaking to American families about their holiday and religious traditions. While visiting the Bo-Kaap neighborhood in Cape Town, however, I heard a phrase unlike any I had heard in our home country. It went roughly like this:
“The whole community celebrates with the different holidays together as we are neighbors, regardless of our own religious affiliation.”
The South African and United States constitutions both speak of Freedom of Religion and our countries acceptance of all forms of worship. The difference between the two however is that South Africa has an entire section dedicated to religious communities. The Bill of Rights states that any one that is part of a religious community cannot be denied the right “to enjoy their culture, practise their religion and use their language; and to form, join, and maintain cultural, religious and linguistic associations and other organs of civil society.”
At first I thought nothing of the words I had heard, as so many American families celebrate different religious holidays as our country has become more accustomed to interracial marriages. It wasn’t until our guide started going into more personal detail that I really understood the stark differences between my home country and the one I was standing on at that moment.
He told us that whenever he celebrates Easter with the rest of his Muslim community, they always get their fish from dinner from the Jewish neighborhood as they make it best. What an amazing concept. In that one sentence alone the difference between American and South Africa in terms of religious differences was more apparent than ever before. Why was this the case in a country like South Africa, when I had never experienced anything like it in our own country, one that was supposed to be so far ahead in terms of religious acceptance?
As our class tour continued, the discussion of the history of the Muslim community in South Africa began and it was hear that I began to form some possible answers to my questions. While our guide was speaking to us, he mentioned many times how all of the three main religions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, were established at the same time in Cape Town. Unlike America, one religion was not established early on during Cape Town’s colonization and the others had to work themselves into the existing community; in a way, they all showed up at the same time. This made it easier to establish relationships between the religions instead of fighting for land, community and respect among the peoples.
“We are a very laid back religious community.” As one of the most prominent Muslim leaders in Cape Town spoke these words, I began picturing what the world would be like if the rest of us adopted this outlook. By no means do their relaxed nature prohibit them from observing their religion in the same way as their stricter counterparts. They still view themselves as devoted worshipers who abide by their religious teaching, but at the same time being more accepting of the people that they share their earth with.
To me, this seems like the answer to most of the world’sproblems. Of course I am not naïve enough to believe that over night the world will take on a “love thy neighbor” view point and everything will be sunshine and rainbows. But with just a little bit more effort put in by everyone to take the time to educated themselves on other religions we can reach a worldwide acceptance. You don’t have observe and believe in their words and worships in order to celebrate their holiday and gain a better perspective.
As I write this now I realize how much my own perspective was changed by the quick tour our guide gave us through his home community. I consider myself somewhat knowledgeable on religions all over the world and what the basis of their worship is. However, even I have not participated in celebrating Ramadan or a Passover dinner so how can I truly know what it is like to be a part of that community?
As a class, we have taken the first step in the direction towards religious freedom from all barriers set against us. Simply by taking the time to speak to these different community leaders allowed us a a group of young students to gain perspective that most of our peers will never be able to experience. Listening to the experiences of our elders are learning from their mistakes and successes is the only way to move on to a better world. So now it is up to our generation.
As so many of our guest speakers have told us over the past week, there is only one race on this planet. It’s not black, white, Jewish or Muslim; it is the human race and we are all neighbors sharing the same dirt to stand on. Lets start acting like it.