Learn to be peaceful

Grand Ayatollah Syed Reza Hosseini Nassab

By Narayani Ganesh/ Speaking Tree

The Toronto-based Shia leader, the Grand Ayatollah Syed Reza Hosseini Nassab was in Seoul in September 2016 participating in a conference for world peace. He spoke with Narayani Ganesh on the spectre of terrorism and the best way to make sure it does not raise its ugly head, ever

Q: You speak a great deal about how important it is to ensure basic education to all to create a society free of violence. However, all terrorists are not uneducated; in fact some of them are highly accomplished, academically. How would you explain this?

A: Education is not only about academics; it is also about preparing children to be peaceful rather than violent. I asked the Canadian prime minister, ‘How is this country so peaceful, what do you (your government) do that encourages people to be peace-loving? How do people of so many different nationalities live together so peacefully here?’ And he told me,‘ When immigrants come to our country, we forget about the elders; we do not pay so much attention to the older people. We simply focus on the children and try to raise them with Canadian values.

“What are the ways by which this is done,’ I asked him and he said there were three very important aspects to engendering a peaceful society. First, he said, teachers play a crucial role in a child’s life, so teachers are encouraged to pass several tests before they are qualified to teach. They in turn instruct children, after having become fully equipped to teach the right values along with imparting routine academic knowledge. Importantly, teachers are paid very good salaries.

Secondly, the system of education in Canada is very different from that in other countries. There are three levels of school education — elementary, secondary and higher secondary. The first level, the elementary stage, it is all fun; there is no pressure on children so they grow to love school and love getting educated. Middle school turns a bit more serious and of course, the higher secondary is serious as they have to prepare for entry to university .And at university, the first year is the hardest. Thirdly, children, from the early stages, are taken routinely to visit different places of worship — temples, churches, mosques and so on. This is compulsory. So from an early age, their mind is clear and they are comfortable with all religions and their philosophies. This practice started some 50 years ago.

Q: You have been living in Canada for 26 years now and before that you were in Germany for two years. You are able to practise your faith more freely outside of your birth country, Iran?

A: Canada is a peace-loving nation. There is a symbol displayed at Parliament House, depicting fire and water. This is to show peaceful coexistence. Jews and Muslims here live peacefully, side by side. There is no conflict. This is because of the mentality of people here, as they have been taught the right values right from elementary school. And what you learn at school stays with you.

Q: Why do we tend to hyphenate Islam with terrorism?

A: Each and every religion has a minority who are extremists.Rather,their interpretation of religion is extremist. In Judaism, for example, 99 per cent of the people are peaceful but there is a minority that loves violence.So, too, in Islam.We call Sunni extremists as Salafi or we call their system Wahabiism — so they are not really Sunni.Why, even among Shias we have extremists and they inflict violence … this is all about a minority in every religion that is extremist.( That does not mean you brand a religion as being terrorist).

Q: As a practising Muslim yourself, what do you think needs to be done to overcome terror and establish peace?

A: The most important step,I would say, is to impart correct education to all. Islam, as you might know, is a religion of peace and mercy.The public needs to be made aware of this fact so that there is no ingrained prejudice against Muslims or against Islam. See,in France, 70 per cent of prisoners are Muslim even though only ten percent of the population is Muslim. France is under great pressure.They don’t allow wearing of hijab in public, for instance, so all these problems are there. So when youth get angry and are without direction, they end up joining some extremist group.

Q: You are actively associated with the World Alliance of Religions for Peace (WARP) that is advocating for legislation to be adopted by the UN to declare peace and cessation of war. Do you think peace can be achieved through legislation?

A: I am here in Seoul at the 2nd Annual Commemoration of WARP Summit because it is important to discuss how the global society could possibly spread ‘a culture of peace’, emphasised in Article 10 of the Declaration of Peace and Cessation of War (DPCW) that was proclaimed in March 2016 by HWPL (Heavenly Culture, World Peace, Restoration of Light) an NGO chaired by Man Hee Li and working in partnership with the International Peace Youth Group (IPYG) and International Women’s Peace Group (IWPG), all headquartered in Seoul, Korea. As I said, creating public awareness of the need to inculcate a peaceful outlook right from childhood is very important if we aim for cessation of all wars. Let’s work toward that goal. What better way than to get religious leaders from all faiths on board for this kind of peace talk?