It started with cookies. Somtime in the 1980s, a European woman was going around a small neighbourhood in Jeddah giving out freshly baked cookies to her neighbours.
Some refused to open their door for her; others were suspicious of the cookies. They asked questions like: “Are they halal?” Others even said: “Do you even know what halal means?” A third group expressed delight and surprise at this hospitable gesture.
She had baked a variety of cookies, made with chocolate chips, ginger, dates or nuts, so there was something for everyone. That was the intention. Mind you, this was before the onset of the “chronic dieters” trend and so the cookies were devoured.
I used to be shy about these gestures. I was easily offended when someone exhibited intolerance towards these kind gestures. I still haven’t gone around and started conversations with neighbours through cookies.
I actually don’t know my neighbours with the exception of the one directly opposite me because her son has asked about my cats.
But this was the way of that lady to spread joy and create a web of understanding and friendship. It was her way of returning rudeness and suspicion with politeness and patience. That lady is my mother. Today, decades later, I see the effect of small gestures. Whenever I visit my mother, the children of the neighbours she once brought cookies to will also be visiting.
As we celebrated the International Day for Tolerance yesterday, it is important to remember that simple gestures do work in creating a more tolerant world.And while it has been 21 years of annual celebrations and awareness campaigns on this issue, we still struggle today with many facets of intolerance.
Discrimination and hate are not new, nor limited to any nation or culture. Whenever one is stressed or in trouble, there are tendencies for some to lash out using race, religion and other differences as a means of putting down the other. Making generalisations about any nation is wrong and causes further hate. There are incidents of abuse and mistreatment reported almost everywhere, and the latest political changes in the United States and Europe saw the rise of Islamophobia, anti-Arab and anti-migrant sentiment in general.
Inspired by Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election, some racist posters have appeared in Toronto saying: “Hey, white person,” and then invited readers to “join the alt-Right,” listing websites that promise to provide news from a “pro-European” perspective. That is why work by the UAE’s Ministry of Tolerance is phenomenal and critical. It is pushing forward tolerance when large parts of the world are regressing to intolerance, racism and fanaticism. It is preparing several local, regional and international initiatives to promote tolerance and coexistence and help make the region more secure.
“The Government is working heavily on ensuring that hatred, discrimination and extremism are fought locally, regionally and internationally,” said Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, Minister of State for Tolerance.
From laws to education programmes at schools and private homes, and the individual’s own attempts to better understand themselves, all these initiatives help make each of us a better and more tolerant person. I am not sure what texts extremists like ISIL are following, but I do know for sure that they are not following the words of Prophet Mohammed, who in his last sermon stressed the importance of tolerance in everyday life.
“All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action,” he said.
Now, regardless of whether one is a Muslim or not, it is whether or not we actually apply important values like this in our lives to make ours and other’s lives better.
On Twitter: @arabianmau