Learning Religious Tolerance in Grade School



"You can only trust a Muslim when he's asleep or dead.”

I used to hear some people in my neighborhood say this when I was a kid. I grew up as a half-Catholic, half-Pentecostal Christian in southern Mindanao in the Philippines. My mother brought me to mass on some Sundays and I tagged along with my paternal grandmother to her church service on other days. Our city has a sizable Muslim population but the majority is non-Muslims or rather loosely grouped as "Christians." We didn't have any outright religious riots or sectarian violence but there were occasional bombings attributed to a Muslim terrorist group.

My mother had a friend who would come to our house once in a while and bring us home-made nata de coco, a semi-sweet dessert ingredient made from fermented coconut water. I knew she was a Muslim because she wore a hijab. She and my mother would sit in our living room and talk for hours so I safely assumed that she had no plans of blowing up our house. Besides, my life philosophy as a child was anyone who brings me stuff must be a nice person.

I eventually gained a few Muslim friends when I went to school. The thing about being in a playground is that your religion matters way less than your ability to throw a ball, run fast and find a really cool hiding place. Our 10-year-old selves didn't care much about why we have a different God or who stole land from whom.

One of my friends told me about her father's four wives and how they were able to get along. I was clueless then about the concept of polygamy in Islam. I thought it was strange but she seemed perfectly fine with her dad having other wives aside from her mother so I figured hey, her family just happens to have a different structure from mine. No big deal.

I had another friend who was head over heels in love with a Catholic girl. Like any pre-adolescent boy, he expressed his affection by wordlessly staring at her and running away like a scared puppy whenever she comes near. He swore that he'd marry her someday. I bluntly pointed out that she's not a Muslim. He readily and recklessly answered that he's willing to convert to Christianity just for her. We were 11, what did we know.

My Muslim friend was neither asleep nor dead but I realized that, contrary to what some grownups in my neighborhood had said, I could actually trust him. He was there for me when a mean teacher made me cry, he saw me through my first childhood heartbreak, and he often gave up his seat for me in Home Econ (there was a limited number of good seats in our Home Ec class).

The high school I went to had a slightly higher Muslim population than other schools in our city. It was part of a university system which was established to facilitate "the integration of peoples in southern Philippines particularly Muslims and other cultural minorities." My Muslim classmates attended Arabic classes while Catholics held mass once a month. We did not throw rocks at each other and we didn't set each other's worship areas on fire. For the most part, we really just wanted to get through high school.

In college, I made friends with a girl in my dorm who is an avid Harry Potter fan. She also had this phrase posted on her wall: Allahu Akbar, Subhan Allah, Al-hamdu Lillah (Allah is the Greatest, Glory be to Allah, Praise be to Allah). We watched Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets together, cheered for our school's basketball team in the opening game of the season, and screamed our heads off when our favorite band played in the biggest concert on campus. We had different ideas about Jesus and there were times when we had intense arguments about it but at the end of the day, we still had the same favorite song.

Ever since grade school, my friends and I have never had classes on tolerance and religious freedom. We got along simply because we had fun together, and the things that brought us together mattered more than the stuff that made us different. This is not to dismiss religion as a peripheral issue or to say that our common interest in music is more important that our concept of God. Our spiritual beliefs after all are an essential part of what defines our identity. But as we go through life together, we realized that we can live with our differences and still celebrate our commonalities.

I'm not saying though that things are perfect in my corner of the world as far as religious tolerance is concerned. I also have Christian friends who are afraid of and angry at Muslims. It would be all too easy to brand them as narrow-minded bigots but the thing is, they also grew up in places where grenades were thrown at Christian churches. They've lived with the fear of bomb threats and terrorist attacks. For them, trusting a hijab-wearing woman or a taqiyah-wearing man is out of the question.

Unfortunately, they can't go back to a more innocent time in grade school and meet a Muslim kid who would give up his seat in Home Ec for them. But hopefully, they'd still have a chance to realize that terrorism and Islam are not synonymous terms. Hopefully, we would never be too old to learn that we can still trust people even if they happen to pray to a different God.

Photo: Kristine in her high school senior year 2002 with multi religious friends: Two of them are muslims, one protestant and the others catholics.

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