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Martin: Respecting Different Traditions

12/22/09 5:55PM By Mike Martin
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(HOST) Commentator Mike Martin thinks that the best way to celebrate the holidays is to practice religious tolerance and respect cultural differences.

(MARTIN) On a recent trip to Senegal, my family and I were taking a taxi from the airport when we came upon a huge traffic jam. The cause of the problem was that three men were trying - in the middle of the freeway - to wrestle a ram into the trunk of their car. Then we noticed that there were sheep in other cars, and in truck beds, and even on top of buses. Our driver explained to us that it was for la Tabaski, the Senegalese celebration of the Muslim holy day Eid al-Adha, when each family, no matter how poor, slaughters a lamb to honor Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son to God. La Tabaski is probably Senegal’s biggest holiday, and, like many of ours, it’s a time to get together with family and give thanks. And since Senegal is predominantly Muslim, it was normal that the roads were packed with everyone out doing some last-minute holiday shopping.

Despite a long tradition of tolerance and openness, Islam is often portrayed in the West as strict and intolerant, but this is not how it’s practiced in Senegal. Senegalese women, who are renowned for their beauty, move about freely wearing colorful kaftans, not burkas. 

Senegalese hospitality is a source of national pride, and non-Muslims are welcomed with a warm handshake and greeted with Salam Aleykhoum, or "Peace be with you."  

Muslims and Christians share mixed cemeteries and sometimes holy days too: a Catholic Senegalese friend told me he celebrates la Tabaski with Muslim friends who, in turn, share Easter dinner with him.

It could be part of their tradition of hospitality they call la Terenga, but for the Senegalese religious expression is open and tolerant.

Of course, this tolerance is only natural since Muslims, Jews, and Christians all consider themselves children of Abraham. However, the shared history of these religions has often been one of bloody conflict and religious persecution. Even today, the Palestinians turn increasingly to Islamic extremism in their struggle with Israel, and Islamophobia has been pervasive in the U.S. since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Here in the U.S., even candy canes have been the source of bitter debates over religious symbols, and holiday celebrations have been purged from our public schools and government offices. Instead of openly celebrating all religious traditions, we Americans seem to either secularize them or drive them from the public domain.

For a country that supposedly prides itself on its diversity and freedom of religion, this doesn’t make sense.  It’s a shame that how we say "Happy Holidays" drives us apart instead of bringing us together. And it’s too bad that in so much of the world Abraham’s descendants only celebrate within their separate communities.

Personally, I prefer the way they celebrate holidays in Senegal: openly, joyously, and with respect for each other’s traditions and beliefs. It shouldn’t be that hard to do, and we could start just by wishing each other well.

You know... Salam Aleykhoum. Shalom Aleichem. Peace.

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