You don’t know

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Religious and ethnic intolerance is what it is. It’s not racism, as we all belong to the same race. Yes. Intolerance to religious beliefs and other ethnicities exists in the 21st century. The question remains, why? What is the root cause of it? It comes down to the inability to accept the beliefs of others and the incomprehensible act of forcing other humans to either accept your views, otherwise be labeled an outcast, be shamed (directly or indirectly) or worse, die.

My brother and I grew up in one of those countries, Turkey. My brother was always the short fused, ‘react with actions’ type of person. I was always the diplomatic one that would come to the rescue of my brother with my smooth and soothing words. It wasn’t until recently that I started to think about some of those incidents. They were mainly about the differences with our religions. Why we don’t participate in certain religious traditions, why we wear a cross, why we say “Ma” as in mum instead of Anne (Turkish word for mum), why we were taken out of Islamic studies, why we go to a “church” etc. His primary school teacher did not like him. She shaved his head on a few occasions because she did not like him. Beat him (because it was allowed in Turkey), because she did not like him. She did not like him because she was intolerant toward Christians. My mother bribed the principal, because you could, so that my brother could be put into another class and so that we would be excused from Religious Islamic studies. It only took a bottle of whiskey to make that happen.

My father decided to leave Turkey to protect his family against that intolerance and to give his children a better, safer life. Migrating to Australia was, by far, the best decision he had made.

It’s two o’clock in the morning. I can’t sleep, as I have too many things on my mind. Mainly because of a segment I saw on TV. As I lie in bed thinking about it, my five-year-old son comes into our room, asking if he could get in our bed. As he lay next to me, I start thinking about the comfort and safety he must feel being next to his parents. And then I start to think about all the things I need to provide him; love, care, protection, comfort, a great life–things we take for granted because of the great country we live in.

Australian TV personality, Sonia Krueger’s fear is one that is emotionally charged, as it hit a nerve (as a mother) to see children dead due to a terrorist attack. This is not new! This has been going on for years! Over the last two years alone we have seen it in Mount Sinjar and Mosul. We saw it with refugees escaping Syria on boats; Alan Kurdi in September of last year; the attacks in Europe and the list goes on.

Another Australian TV personality, Waleed Aly, talks about fear of terrorism and at one stage labels it a “sickness”. The question is where does that fear stem from? What exactly are we afraid of? Who perpetrated it? It’s clearly not the boogeyman. You need to find the root cause in order to work on the cure. Why are people afraid, Waleed?

The Turkey I was born in was what is considered to be one of the most secular countries of the predominantly Muslim ones in that area. But religious and ethnic intolerance was evident there. Children picked on me for my religion. They made fun of me for not practicing certain religious traditions. Sure, children are innocent and sometimes don’t understand the implications of their words or actions, but they are learnt either from other children, or from home.

Sure most people that grew up in Muslim countries can testify that there were great times, mainly attributed to the leaders of the nations at the time, but all that can change at any moment. Iraq’s Saddam and Iran’s Shah are two examples; the fear of uncertainty, the fear of being discriminated against because you’re different, the fear of not being accepted, the fear of being imprisoned, the fear of being tortured. These are all real and stem from an intolerant society, or belief system.

I have many good friends that believe in different religions, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism and others. I chose these people as friends because they were nice, kind, caring, friendly and most of all tolerant of my views and beliefs, and I of theirs. We don’t force our views on each other. We don’t judge each other for our beliefs, and we accept each other for who we are, without feeling the need to convert each other. But this is in Australia.

I would urge a researcher to interview as many Christian immigrants that have come from a predominantly Muslim country and ask them what it was like to grow up in those countries. Dig deep into what intolerance they experienced from their childhood, or as adults. Ask them to think about any bullying they may have experienced or traditions they were forced to observe or participate in.

The recent uprising of religious and ethnic intolerance can be seen with politicians being elected into power, with the likes of Pauline Hanson (Australian Politician) and Donald Trump gaining popularity among the people. The ideals these politicians address is again based on religious and ethnic intolerance. They’re being a voice to those who are saying enough is enough. However, these politicians, and any others who speak of religion and or religious/ethnic intolerance, really have zero to no idea of what it is like to live and grow up in an intolerant country.
It is this religious and ethnic intolerance that caused the genocide in 1915-1919. Over three million Assyrians, also known as Chaldeans and Syriacs, Greeks, and Armenians were slaughtered by the Ottoman Empire (present day Turkey). The one thing they all had in common was their religion. What was their crime? It was the intolerant rulers that decided to ethnically cleanse, what in their minds, did not belong.

Out of his entire family, my grandfather was the sole survivor of that Genocide (commonly known as Seyfo or Sword among the Assyrian people) aside from a sister who was kidnapped, forcedly converted, and married off to an Imam. Seventeen members of his family were slaughtered. He was five years old at the time.

He was raised by another Assyrian family who found him lying on the floor, playing dead, among the dead. A child. Who was five years old. The same age as my son.

He grew up to be a very skilled stone mason and eventually married and had eight children, who now have 32 children of their own. His grandchildren. Those 32 grandchildren now have 36 children, and God willing, there are many more to come. Given time, one seed is all you need to grow a forest. His name was Yusuf and he lived a troubled life. In the end, he took his own life, as the weight of his children, who were his everything, leaving him post marriage by moving to other cities/countries, was too much to carry. I’m sure psychologists would have a really good analysis of the childhood trauma that led to his end. What is being done in the form of counselling to the children who are the victims of these atrocities today? What will their future be like?

Acceptance of who we are, tolerance of our beliefs, respect for one another, love for humanity and empathy; that is all that humans need. Not asking for much.

You don’t know what it’s like, unless you lived there. You really don’t.

So why am I writing this? To give you my balanced view. We are not enemies. We are fellow humans. My five year-old-son and my Muslim, Jew, Hindu or any other friends’ 5 year-old sons should never feel that they are different. They should feel love and respect for each other and that they can belong in any society, and not experience either what my brother went through in Istanbul or what my grandfather went through in 1915.

Nahir Bisso
Director, Australia
A Demand For Action