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Embrace compassion, regardless of religion

By Masked Crusader

With one eye on the brooding sky, I strode out one evening about eight years ago to take my dog on her daily walk around my condominium.

Rosie, a Jack Russell mix, had stopped growing when she was around six months old and was then about two years old. She was an excitable little dog when she was out, and loved getting attention.

We had just gone past a children’s playground when Rosie reacted to someone whistling. It was not an altogether unfamiliar whistle and came from Steven, a 30-ish Chinese security guard who was approaching us. On this occasion, I gave a little lead on the leash to allow her to run toward him.

Rosie reached him and had just put her paws on this knees when Steven said, “I’m so sorry, I am Muslim!”

I had always kept Rosie on a short leash when taking her out precisely to avoid such an incident. I knew Muslims consider it haram or unclean to be licked by a dog.

Quickly I tugged her back and apologized profusely to Steven. Steven himself was very contrite and assured me I should not worry. He loved dogs he said and had owned one himself. And, it wasn’t Rosie’s fault because he was the one who had whistled at her. He explained it was a small matter of praying and using clay and water to ritually cleanse himself. Besides, he said, “How would your dog know I’m Muslim?”

I struck up a conversation with Steven as I was curious about his conversion to Islam. Rosie waited patiently.

Steven had grown up in a dysfunctional Christian household and had dropped out in secondary school. He had been involved in petty crime and drugs through most of his youth and had spent terms in juvenile detention and prison. He felt he had been a terrible sinner and said he had violated every commandment, which I assumed to be hyperbole as surely he was no murderer.

During his final release from jail in his late 20s, he resolved to turn his life around and sought work in earnest, though few leads paid dividends. An opportunity arose for him to work in a factory in Indonesia which he took up as it also isolated him from those who had such detrimental effects on him in Singapore.

Whilst in Indonesia, love soon blossomed with a co-worker, who rebuffed his advances as she was a Muslim. Eventually, he was allowed to spend time with her on the condition that he not touch her. Steven had enough encounters with women to know this relationship was different and special. After initial visits to Islamic religious teachers, he decided to convert to Islam and marry his love. Marriage, religion and a child gave Steven new purpose in life and changed him. He decided to return to Singapore.

Steven’s family in Singapore, however, disowned him, his wife, and his baby because of his conversion.

“They stood by me all the years I was a bad person. They visited me in prison. Never insisted I go to church. But they rejected me when I became a good man. They will speak to the Muslims who are their neighbours or at the market but they won’t speak to me or my child,” he said.

I asked him why his name tag said ‘Steven’. Did he not have an Islamic name? He said he is the same person whatever the name on his uniform. His colleagues all knew he was Muslim and covered for him when he had to pray while on duty. But, because he looked Chinese, 'Steven' meant not having to repeat his story every time a resident was curious about an Islamic name on his name tag.

Steven kneeled down and played with Rosie for a few moments and then we parted ways.

It is an encounter I have revisited in my mind from time to time. The irony in Steven’s story is obvious but why did it resonate with me?

Perhaps it is because it is manifestly wrong that in modern society one’s race, sexual identity, and religious affiliation should trump righteousness and compassion. Particularly so when it is a religious label since faiths extoll these virtues.

Regrettably, faiths stress the rewards of the afterlife as being exclusive to adherents creating dissonance and neuroses that makes humans behave in the strangest ways.

In 2013, Pope Francis stunned the world by his inspirational words, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Later, he suggested that virtuous acts and following one’s conscience—rather than mere religious piety—lead one to Heaven implying that atheists too could receive redemption.

These statements sent Christiandom into a tizzy. His words offered hope of salvation to the religiously marginalised of course. But much of the commotion was within the ranks of the clergy who had to explain away Pope Francis’ words to their congregants who needed reassurance that membership still has its benefits.

One thing I am certain Steven’s story is not about is the supremacy of one faith or adherents over another. The attitudes of family and friends towards an apostate of any religion is not likely to be too different.

Rather, Steven’s story puts into crisp focus the need to embrace righteousness, behaviours valued by all humanity, and mankind’s common destiny.

Fixation on labels and religious affiliation is unhelpful and divisive in today’s society.

This post was first published at maskedcrusader.blogspot.sg