Understanding crucial to global citizenship

It is both difficult and important, no matter what society one comes from, to understand the cultures and religions of other peoples. To understand these things is to be civilized. As I saw more of Indian society, I learned how true this was.

During my first visit to a Muslim mosque, for example, I learned the hard way just how sensitive one must be to religion in India. Midday, we arrived at a large old mosque situated in a small village. The mosque was busy with imams (priests) and other Muslims going about their daily prayers. It was sometimes a little awkward when we were at a mosque. Mostly I felt this was because many of the men did not know why we were there and because we were intruding in a place of religious significance. After some time, I noticed an older man who had been following us with an air of suspicion. There was no malice in his gaze; he seemed only to want to understand what we were doing there. In an attempt to break the ice and show good will, I placed my hands together and said, Namaste, a respectful greeting almost anywhere in India – well, anywhere but at a mosque. The old man’s eyes narrowed and he pointed to himself saying, Mohs-lim, Mohs-lim. He then lowered his eyes and said, Salaam alaikum, several times touching his hand to his forehead with each saying. I could tell I had said something wrong, but did not know what. The head imam, our guide at the mosque, came over and told me that namaste is Hindi, and should be spoken to Hindus; salaam alaikum, and its complementary hand gesture and lowering of the eyes, is Urdu, and is how one greets a Muslim. Needless to say, during the rest of my time at that mosque my hand hardly stopped going up to my forehead, and I could not lower my eyes and say salaam alaikum enough.

This was my first introduction to how broadly religion affects life for Indians, and just how practical cultural knowledge can be. We may not all find ourselves in a mosque somewhere in India, but with globalization and technology, we are all being exposed to and interacting with an increasing number of cultures that we may know little about. It is difficult to show someone respect, let alone be polite, if we do not understand his or her culture.

Perhaps this story can help me illustrate my relationship to religion in India as well. An open mind is important so that new things can be learned about other people. I am as much a foreigner to religion and religious life in India as I was a foreigner that day at the mosque. However, I left that mosque with a better understanding than I had when I arrived, and I am still no expert. So, I urge you to remember as you read these articles that they represent an ongoing exploration and discovery, and that at this point it is very much my goal to ask questions more than I give answers.

Religion is always a difficult issue, not just because of the personal beliefs that everyone brings to the table, but also because it is a subjective experience that can never be adequately generalized.

My aim is to offer a window, into how cultures are used to perceive outsiders and their religious beliefs. I do not pretend to understand all aspects of the differing faiths I am interested in, nor am I interested in somehow deciding whether one is “better” than another.

On this note, I further urge you, the reader, to keep an open mind, suspending judgments of value if necessary, in the name of simply discovering how people on the opposite side of the globe make sense of themselves and of you.