If I were a Muslim, I’d have blown my top. Naturally. Catholics can also go to the extreme such as what was reported recently about a Catholic school in Mindanao that discriminated against hijab-wearing students. I don’t understand the discrimination and this is because my childhood experience had been that of religious and cultural pluralism. And childhood experiences cling to you into adulthood.
I went to St. Angela’s Convent School in Seria, Brunei. Then, it was run by Franciscan Sister-Missionaries. But, students were of all religions – Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims, etc. There was no school rule or policy about non-Catholics enrollees having to convert first to Catholicism. Everyone, whatever her religion, whether in hijab or not, is welcomed and embraced into the school. Punk as popularized by Madonna and Culture Club was the fashion then and there is considerable allowance for students to wear some form of punk expression (as long as we didn’t take it to the extreme). The Sisters understand that young people need this expression as much as they need water and air. And we loved the Sisters for this (now, I know that this is called ‘open-mindedness’).
Mornings, before classes, students assemble on the court and all of us go through the rites. First, the Catholic prayer. Then the Muslim prayer. Then the other prayers. Each student, if she desires, actively prays with the other, even if it is not her religion’s prayer. In fact, I’ve memorized all the non-Catholic prayers. But more importantly for all of us there – students and teachers alike – we felt there is really one God, regardless of our Name for Him/Her, that we were connected, and truly sisters because we accept each other as he or she is, culture, religion, fashion sense, and all. There were no push-overs. And so for years, until my family’s return here, I had no concept of religious and cultural discrimination. It is such an irony and deeply saddening that I have to experience and see this on my home soil.
Now that I’m much older, I can conclude that the difference between my school experience in St. Angela’s and what I see in campuses here is largely a product of paradigm, of perspective, of mindset, and not religious differences per se. How you view something colors your attitude and behavior. If I, a Catholic, views another, a Muslim, as being on the wrong side of the fence, and tries to pull him or her over to my side of the fence with force, well, you can imagine the outcome.
Schools, as training grounds for the real world beyond, should create a model environment for young minds and hearts. The experiences young people take with them when they leave the schools will serve as their internal drivers in shaping realities, the world.