I attended a meeting of the Interfaith Council on Ethics Education for Children from 14 -16 August 2015, in Tokyo, Japan. The Interfaith Council forms part of an international NGO called Arigatou International sponsored by a Japanese Buddhist organization. The raison de etre of Arigatou International is to promote and enhance the dignity and rights of children all over the world.
The key focus of the August 2015 interfaith meeting in Tokyo was to consider how ethics education could strengthen families in building healthy environments in which children can develop spiritual sensitivities and life skills that would enable them to become global citizens. In my khutbah today I would like to share with you some of the issues we grappled with and key insights I gained from my participation in this international interfaith meeting.
First and foremost, it might be useful to begin by considering why the interfaith council chose the topics of ethics education, the strengthening of families and global citizenship for joint reflection. These specific topics were identified for discussion since the interfaith council believes that one of the most critical crises facing humanity at this time in history is that of a global pandemic of fear and hatred of the so-called “other”. Notwithstanding the fact that more than ever before human beings from diverse religio-cultural and national backgrounds have unprecedented opportunities of interacting and getting to know to each other they are becoming less embracing of diversity. All over the world we are witnessing a growing tendency towards ghettoization, exclusion and segregation. Emblematic of this trend is the growing phenomenon of xenophobia across the world.
The key question that the interfaith council meeting in Tokyo thus deliberated upon was how to account for this contemporary crisis of xenophobia, and what specific role religious institutions and communities could play in the resolution of the problem?
Second, in its response to the global crisis of xenophobia the interfaith council acknowledged that the problem was deep-rooted and complex and thus required a multifaceted and sustainable cure. Given the epic proportions of this human crisis, the interfaith council recognized that religious institutions could not resolve the problem on their own, but that each sector and component of society was morally obliged to contribute to its resolution from their own vantage point and capacity.
For example, the interfaith council recognized that global economic inequalities, widespread poverty and war in many parts of the world were impelling human beings to migrate from rural to urban areas and from one country to another in search of better living conditions. Because of declining economies all over the world since 2008, host communities are becoming less welcoming of refugees and migrants. This was a challenge for economists, who are called upon to formulate alternative economic policies that will not only pay lip service to the eradication of poverty but will in its implementation reduce the intolerable levels of wealth inequality in our world.
It was against this backdrop that the interfaith council identified ethics education of families as being the specific niche and unique contribution of religion to mitigate the global crisis of xenophobia. The interfaith council proposed that since the home is the first school and families are children’s first teachers by strengthening families through ethics education we would be able to nurture new generations to becoming more respectful, empathetic, and compassionate global citizens.
Third, in meeting its goal of empowering families the Interfaith Council has produced an ethics education training-manual called Learning To Live Together, which has been endorsed by the UNICEF and is currently being used in many regions of the world. One of the recommendations of the Tokyo meeting was to follow this up by devising a manual for positive parenting specifically aimed at assisting families and caregivers to nurture children who are more welcoming and embracing of religio-cultural and national diversity. Using these learning tools that includes carefully designed exercises, stories, dialogue, listening, reflections and actions, the interfaith council believes that families and caregivers would be enabled to nurture children with ethico-moral values and skills necessary for embracing diversity from a spiritual vantage point.
Fourth, and the most important insight and learning that I derived from my participation in the interfaith meeting in Japan was to appreciate more profoundly than before, the fact that we as parents and caregivers need be more attentive to not only our awesome responsibility as mentors of the future generation but also the great spiritual gifts that children have to offer to us. Our children have the potential to not only transform themselves, but also their parents, families, caregivers and their communities. In order for this potential to be realized, however, we need to be fully aware of this and then to relish the spontaneous and natural sense of wonder and awe in children whenever it presents itself to us. This is a theme that I would like to explore more thoroughly in the next months and years.
From an Islamic perspective it is instructive to note that Allah, the Most Compassionate, makes an oath in the Glorious Qur’an, in surah al-Balad, chapter 90 verse 3, by the mystical ties and spiritual bonds that exist between a parent and a child (Q90:3). Furthermore, our spiritual guide and exemplar, the Prophet Muhammad (may Allah’s everlasting peace and blessings be upon him) has taught us that our children are precious not only because they offer us our best opportunity and hope for securing a more positive future for ourselves and humanity but also because through them parents and mentors can secure salvation in the hereafter.
Parenting and nurturing children is undoubtedly the most important responsibility a human being will bear during her or his lifetime. It is ironic, therefore, that we educate and prepare ourselves for every other responsibility we carry out in our lifetimes but for child rearing we get little training and have to learn on the job. The work of the Interfaith Council on Ethics Education for Children in empowering and enabling parents and caregivers is vital and I am privileged and am grateful to be a small part of this global initiative.
I would like to conclude with some inspirational words from the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, that has become a motto for the work of the Interfaith Council on Ethics Education for children:
“Every child born comes with a message
That God has not yet despaired of humankind”,
Please join me in a prayer for our children:
O Allah protect our children
And guide them O Allah, on every path of goodness
And grant them sanctuary in your compassionate Care and Mercy, O Lord of the Universe
And distance our children from all causes of sorrow and grief
O Allah! Strengthen and empower them and instill in them a natural inclination towards everything that is beneficial
And guide them to the most noble of conduct in all their affairs
So they may rise up as worthy leaders and global citizens
For indeed in our children lies our hope for the future and our aspirations for transformation
So we beseech Thee O Allah to realise our dreams,
Thou art truly most noble and generous
All, Praise, Thanks and Gratitude Belongs to God Alone,
Lord of the Worlds