Volume 11 Number 4
Blowing the Stereotypes Out of Our Minds
01 August 1998

When Omnia Marzouk, a consultant paediatrician in Liverpool, visited India, she discovered another side to her history.

I am an Egyptian born in Spain who did my medical training in Australia and now work in Liverpool. I am a practising Muslim and I am proud of my Muslim, Egyptian and Arab cultural heritage; but I have also been greatly enriched by living in the Western Christian world.

When I was at school in Australia, I was struggling with my identity: the Western stereotype of the Arab Muslim world as uncultured, uneducated, terrorist, polygamist with oppressed women did not match up to any of my extended circle of family and friends. I was also struggling with the question of whether faith was relevant to the realities of life in the 20th century--and if it was, how to live it. At that point I was invited to a youth camp where I met Christians who had a real faith that affected their day-to-day lives. Their quality of life and care for people of all backgrounds challenged me to turn to the roots of my faith.

Islam means to submit yourself to God. It meant a call to live a life based on moral standards of honesty, purity, selflessness and love, and trying to seek God's direction in everything I did--my studies, my work, where I lived, how I lived, what I did with money. It has been an incredible adventure. Surrounded by a Western society that seems to have marginalized faith and to be driven by secular material concerns, it has been challenging to aim to live up to the highest ideals of my faith.

As I searched for my personal contribution I felt called to bridge the gulf of misunderstanding between Islam and people of other faith traditions; a calling to create a society in which our diversity--whether racial, cultural or religious--becomes our greatest asset.

This calling started in a Methodist College in Sydney (where I was the only teetotaller) and has continued in many parts of the world. It has led me to work with Christians, Hindus and Jews to build bridges of trust and understanding.

One of the advantages of working in the National Health Service is that you work with all sorts of people: Ghanaian Methodists, Irish Catholics, South African Jews, British Buddhists and Hindus. Despite my 'funny sounding name', as one professor put it in an interview, I have faced little in the way of discrimination compared to some of my colleagues. What I do face constantly is an extremely negative picture of the Muslim and Arab world. It was with much sadness that I read recently that the Runnymede Trust Commission found that these negative attitudes were becoming more entrenched. The first step in overcoming these stereotypes involves a decision to make friends across the cultural, racial and religious divides.

Within a caring friendship you are free enough to ask questions about another person's life and background. This means that those on both sides begin to blow out of their minds stereotypes that have accumulated over the course of a lifetime. I now have colleagues and friends who decide to give up something during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. Then we all have a special meal together at the end of the month to celebrate the feast.

But friendship in itself is not enough. You need to go further and begin to see history through others' eyes. This will often mean realizing the legacy that history has left in the lives of people around us.

This was brought home to me when I travelled around India with a group of Christian and Hindu friends during the Gulf War. I was full of strong feelings about the injustice of the war, the West's portrayal of Arabs and Islam, and a resurgence of antagonism towards Muslims. I was confronted with the fact that when the Muslim moguls invaded India they left in their wake a heritage of wrong deeds and hurts that continue to inflame the divisions and conflicts in India today. I was also made aware that some of my Christian companions had been deeply hurt by their encounters with the Muslim world.

Suddenly I saw that there was another side to the coin; that there were times in history when 'my group' was the one inflicting pain on others. 'My group' was not blameless. How much I was hurt and how I felt were no longer the essential questions. Rather, was I prepared to live differently enough to bring healing and reconciliation? I realized that I had to be free of the anger, resentment and fears to be able to contribute to new understanding between our differing communities. This was something that I had to pray for--and was given.

I also had to accept the legacy of history, and hope that a sincerely expressed apology for that past could be a step towards reconciliation. Luckily, I was given the chance to apologize to Hindus and Christians in our group who had been hurt by their encounters with Islam. This built trust between us and helped create a climate of trust between the Hindu and Muslim communities we visited during our travels.

As we approach the third millennium we need to have a global view of how we would like the future to be. How can we turn the tide of intolerance, exclusiveness and violence that have been a feature of this millennium? We are faced with a new imperative--to bring about true reconciliation between people and communities that are divided.

Reconciliation is not an end in itself. It is a means to a more important end. Through true reconciliation, people of all faith traditions working together will become a force that can make a difference. In the world context there is so much that we can tackle together: poverty, the environment, the rich-poor gap. On the home front, we could start by making sure that in the next decades Britain becomes a true home for all who live within its shores and where no one feels marginalized or excluded.

This article is based on a talk that Dr Marzouk gave as part of a series of daily Lenten lectures at Liverpool Parish Church.

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