It's hard to believe that in American there are still problems with religious intolerance when we, as a nation, pride ourselves in being a free and diverse country. In America we have Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists, Pagans, Atheists and so many more. A lot of time, the only intolerance we hear, and even participate in, is with other countries and their cultural practices. But sometimes it's not just with other countries or cultures, it happens with in our very own backyard.
I was recently reading one of my fellow Odyssey writer's article about her first experience with religious intolerance and it immediately brought back to light my very recent experience. And then after much thinking on how I should approach this topic, I remembered my very first experience that happened when I was so young I didn't even know what religious intolerance was.
I grew up in a very small community that was mainly Catholic and many elementary (and older) students had religious parents. Now, everybody knows that young children tend not to have a filter, but my experience happened in the fourth grade when kids are at least a little older to know the difference between knowing what to keep to themselves versus what should be spoken a loud.
First of all, I am not religious and did not come from a religious family, but I was very okay with going to a school and being in a class that held different beliefs. In fact, I remember being quite jealous of those kids. I wanted to be in that group and be able to talk about their passions, however, it became very clear to a couple that even though I was their friend, I was not their "neighbor."
In fourth grade, I was told by a fellow classmate that I was going to hell. It was upfront and spoken very bluntly. It was quite shocking. I understood the concept of heaven and hell through various discussions with friends and family, and until that moment I believed that everyone goes to heaven.
I told my best friend, also Catholic, this the next day. She grew upset that someone said this to me but also became flustered. I could tell she wanted to tell me that I would go to heaven with her, but because I was not religious she told me the next best thing; I would go to Purgatory. I was still upset that I wasn't going to go to heaven with my friends but it did make me feel better. I laugh at it now.
Many years, countless conversations, and another non-religious-friend-to-our-group later, we would discuss this topic numerous times. I will not go into what we discovered and what we argued about, but let me tell you that it made us stronger as individuals and as friends.
It would be a decade before I was to have my next religious intolerance experience, and even though it was months ago, it still gets me riled up.
My college hosts and promotes many days discussing the topic of other cultures/religions; one such day was World Hijab Day. This entails for women to put themselves in other women's shoes who wear the Hijab. It was to give us insight into their everyday lives and open our minds to other cultures. My school is so liberal and tolerant of many beliefs that I did not expect any problems or mumbles of other students to discourage me. I did get a few questioning stares from students that almost made me want to take it off, but in my mind I kept thinking that if other women do this everyday, then I can sure as manage one day. (It also helped that other women on campus were wearing an hijab as well.)
All was well until dinner came. I was sitting with my roommate at a small dining table enjoying small talk; I remember that as we were talking I was searching for other girls in the cafeteria who were wearing an hijab, but I don't think I spotted any at that moment.
We grew silent in our conversation and that's when I heard him. A man on the table, not but five feet from me, was discussing the property's of the hijab. Loudly. And the things he was saying were incredibly rude and insensitive. My roommate also heard this and we began to listen in on his rant. He rambled on and on (for about a good ten minutes) about how hijabs were oppressive to women, how the hijab is meant to control people and what they think, and more on the beliefs of Muslims that would anger many people. As he talked, or rather-shouted, his opinion, my face grew redder and my heart burned with embarrassment, rage, and frustration. I was looking down but I could see my roommate glimpsing at me to see if I was okay.
I was not. I wasn't even a religious hijab wearing or a practice of Muslim beliefs, and yet I suddenly understood how these women felt everyday they were accosted about their beliefs and practices.
It became clear that I had to say something. The man nearly ended his rant and I waited for the courage to come to me. It felt like the time to say something passed, but then he brought the topic back up, luckily for me.
I calmly got up, walked two steps over to his table, and asked one question, "Do you have any idea how insensitive and rude you just sounded?" He immediately began to defend himself, seeing me in my hijab, and in that loud voice of his restated all the things he just said.
I spoke again, my voice calm and even, "I understand those are your views, but there are people in this very room that don't have the same opinion and because of how loud you were discussing them, may have angered people." He rants again on how this is a free country and how he's entitled to free speech. I understood this and I also understood that this man was not going to change his mind on how to behave with this topic, so I simply stated again that he need to mind what he says and that "Even though I am not Muslim, the reason why I am wearing this hijab is to understand what women who do go through." Of course he goes on again. So I say my goodbyes and leave, much to his dismay. (He wasn't done arguing yet.)
The minute I turn around I am cheered on by my friend and later, as I was sitting down trying to eat my food again-shaking in anxiety, I had people who were near by and heard and saw what just occurred commend me on my bravery and for sticking up for a belief that was not even mine. I felt good, but shaken up. I still am. I question if what I said was okay, if how he acted was how other people felt about other religions, and if I was in the right place.
I like to think of myself as a very open and religious tolerant person, yet this event really shook me.
Recently, I have found what I believe to be a great faith. I am still not comfortable sharing my ideas, though, because of what has all happened to me. The opinions of people and their ability to judge who you are the moment you speak what you believe in scares me. I do not want to fight or argue about what makes me happy.
I love to learn about religions and their beliefs and will openly ask people (seeing as they are a decent person) what they believe. And I almost never have a problem with others as long as they as don't push their beliefs on me, and I do the same as to not push mine on them.
Now I look back. My experience with religious intolerance came from two views, one from an American with no strict beliefs and one from the view of a Muslim (hijab wearing) woman. It comes from everywhere and anywhere you least expect it; in your home town, at college, and everywhere else in the world. Wars are fought over this, people are killed, and countries are torn apart, simply because we cannot learn to, as the famous quote goes, "Love thy neighbor."