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Celebrating Diversity in Unity
by Saleem Ahmed, PhD, Mar 9, 2006
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This speech, by Dr. Saleem Ahmed, was presented at the forum "On Being Different," held on March 9, 2006, at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii, Honolulu. It was organized under the University of Hawaii's Nisei Veterans Endowment Forum Series, under the theme of Universal Values for a Democratic Society.

DEAR CONTESTANTS, General Shinseki, Nisei Veterans Endowed Forum Series organizers, Deans, University of Hawaii Colleges of Arts and Sciences, and ladies and gentlemen,

I feel honored to address among the most creative minds among Hawaii's students - leaders of tomorrow. With zealots destroying us, we need your help in salvaging humanity from its path of self-destruction. This requires outside the box thinking.

In my brief remarks, I will share two examples of outside the box thinking, narrate how I was inspired me to write the books that Mr. Imai kindly mentioned, and share my thoughts on being different; on celebrating diversity in unity.

Let me begin by asking the attention-grabbing question that University of Hawaii Prof. Ramdas Lamb asks his 300 students on Day 1 of class:

Who all among us belong to a WRONG religion?

Interesting! We may have followers of 4-6 religions among us. None thinks we belong to a WRONG religion. If we belong to the RIGHT religion, do others belong to a wrong one? Or shall we think outside the box and suggest ALL belong to RIGHT religions, with unique landscapes and different paths to the same Goal.

Here is another interesting example of "outside the box thinking":

Robin Hood, once got caught. The king ordered his execution. On that fateful day, the poor villagers gathered in last homage. Desiring to win them over, the king said: "Robin. I'll give you a chance to freedom. I'll ask 3 questions. If you answer all correctly, within 10 seconds each, you will be freed. OK?" Robin agreed.

"First question. How many hours in a day? "Robin thought, is this a trick question? "24," he answered. The king said, "Right." The crowd cheered.

"Second question: How many minutes in an hour?" "Sixty," said Robin, happily The crowd roared approval.

"Third question: How many seconds in a year?" The crowd moaned, Robin groaned. Seconds ticked. Suspense rose. Robin's mind raced all over. With two seconds left, Robin said: "There are twelve seconds in a year."

The king laughed. "See! Your hero has gone bananas! "Tell us, Robin, how are there only twelve seconds in a year?"

"January second, February second, March second ....." .

Robin Hood escaped death because he thought outside the box. That is what WE need to eject our crazy world from self-destruction.

When I was 11 or 12, I went with my mother in Karachi, Pakistan, to a program honoring some writer. That journalist began his talk thus: "Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you all for NOT writing. Since you don't write, what I write, sells. Few are born writers. We all have unique ideas. Let us share these with others." Wasn't that powerful?

Let's fast-forward to the 1980s. How many play Scrabble? My wife and I love it. But she would beat me every time! How I wished I could win just once! Then, I got an idea: I memorized all two-letter words, such as AH, AM, and AX. There are 94. Some were new to me, such as JO, meaning sweetheart, and XU, Vietnamese currency. Then I asked, what letters can I add to front or back of these words to make three-letter words? For example, from AT, I can make 16 words, such as BAT and CAT. Again, I learned some priceless words, such as QAT, an evergreen shrub. It is among only 11 words in which Q is not followed by U. My three-letter word list exploded to 800 words. I memorized many.

Using this tool kit, my success was immediate. My wife and both daughters, then 16 and 11, were impressed. "How did you become Scrabble expert, dad?" asked Aisha, the elder. "Yes! Please show us how," begged Seema, the younger. I shared my word list. They were really impressed. Then, remembering the Karachi incident, I asked, half jokingly, "Shall we expand this into a book?" When they all said "Yes," our project was born.

We pored over the dictionary a 100,000 times, to find letters that can be added to the front or back of words to make new words. Not chasing deadlines, we worked leisurely. Five years later, our manuscript was completed and copyrighted. I wrote to 10 publishers, expecting a chorus of "Yes, we'll publish your book." No such luck. All declined. What a blow to our egos!

I wrote to another 10 publishers. Same response. Another 10, same result. From the 8th batch, we got a "yes." We floated on Cloud Nine! At last, our product, Scrabble Word Building Book was released. Fortuitously, our first copy arrived a day before Aisha's wedding. What a wonderful addition to her trousseau.

We all four are listed as co-authors. The dedication reads: Dedicated to both grannies, one in Honolulu the other in Pakistan, for their love and support as the project progressed; and to the small but powerful University Lab School for the fine training it provided our girls.

That was 1991. The book has sold a quarter million copies.

Imagine, what fantastic products YOU can create by thinking outside the box?

A different motivation propelled me to write on Islam. Being troubled by extremists tarnishing Islam, I spent a decade researching the Koran, Islam's holy book. When I discovered how different Islam was from extremist actions - and remembering the Karachi incident - I decided to write. Beyond Veil and Holy War was published four years ago. Since it angered some conservative Muslims, book sales increased. You know how we love controversies. The book was listed among non-fiction best-sellers in Hawaii.

But here is the most exciting and unexpected part. I uncovered some astonishing passages in the Koran. For example:

God sent messengers among all people with the command: "Serve God and shun evil"; God will reward those who believe in God and make no distinction between any of His messengers; God will reward those who believe in the Koran, and those who follow the Jewish scriptures, the Christians, and all others who believe in God and lead righteous lives.
 Muhammad clarified that God has sent 124,000 messengers, from the time of Adam. If God sent 124,000 messengers, why are only 24 named in the Koran? Then I realized that, if 100 messengers were named on one page, it would take 1,240 pages just to name all. Besides, with limited knowledge of world geography 1,400 years ago, it would have only confused people to learn of messengers in places they had not heard about - places we now call Africa, America, Asia, Australia, and Europe.

Who could be among God's unnamed messengers? Here is how one text describes God:

He is the Omniscient Lord. He is not born; He does not die. Smaller than the smallest, greater than the greatest, He dwells within the hearts of all. Though seated, He travels far; though seated, He moves all things. Formless is He, though inhabiting form. In the midst of the fleeting, he abides forever. He is all-pervading and supreme.
Where do we find this passage? In the Upanishads, Hindu sacred book. I then realized that the gods and goddesses of Hindus are actually multiple manifestation of the One Being. 

Another messenger expounded the Noble Eightfold Path needed to reach Nirvana: right speech, right action, right livelihood, right efforts, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
Who said this? Gautama Siddharta, whom we revere as the Enlightened Buddha.

This similarity in the Eternal Being's description excited me. I concluded these holy men - Buddha, Confucius, Lao Zi, and others - were messengers of the same Eternal Being, just as Abraham, Jesus, and Muhammad. Recently, I uncovered a similar message in the teachings of White Buffalo Calf Woman, of North America's Lakota religion. She is our first female messenger. Many other unsung heros and heroines around the world need similar recognition.

Shouldn't we therefore include among God's messengers unnamed sages of the Polynesians and other indigenous peoples the world over - among highlanders and lowlanders; among eskimoes and pygmies; and among forest dwellers and desert wanderers? Since the earliest messengers lived in pre-literate times, their "message" would be in stories, chants, and dances.

I shared my thoughts with some like-minded people from other faiths. They all agreed. This propelled me, just before my Islam book went to the press, to add another chapter introducing the All Believers' Network - Belnet for short. Our message:

Let all peace-loving people proclaim we are all creatures of the same Ultimate Reality, a Reality which, while called by different names in different religions, conveys the same message of righteousness, peace, and love through all Prophets. Thus, rather than creating divisions among us based on our respective messengers, let us unite on the basis of their common Message.

And while we may all have a "favorite" Prophet, let us respect equally all Prophets. Each Prophet offered something unique. For example, from Abraham we learn of One God; from Moses, Ten Commandments; from Jesus, love; from Buddha, forgiveness; from Lao Zi (founder of Daoism), living in harmony with nature; from Hinduism's unnamed founder, God's multiple manifestations; from Mahavira (messenger of Jainism), path for purification of the soul; from Zoroaster (founder of Zoroastrianism), God's Spiritual Light; and from Muhammad, universality of God's Message. Therefore, let us not get stymied by narrow-minded rules which divide us, but embrace the underlying broad principles which unite us. We cannot undo past injustices, but can help prevent new ones.

I am happy to report that Belnet's board of directors includes people from the following faiths: Baha'i, Buddhism, Christianity, Hawaiian Spirituality, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Sikhism, Subud, Sufism, Unitarian Universalism, and Zoroastrianism. We are seeking board members from other faiths as well.

In July 2004, I presented the Belnet concept at the Council for a World Parliament of Religions, which met in Barcelona, Spain, and attended by 9,000 people from 72 religions. The 200+ participants in the symposium where I shared my remarks were astonished and concluded that only in Hawaii could such a broad-minded movement have started. A German priest admitted that Protestants and Catholics in his village were at loggerheads. Similar antagonism prevailed in many other places, involving Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, and others.

Think of this, ladies and gentlemen: In Hawaii, we often forget the tremendous spirituality that embraces us all and draws us into the O'hana of love and understanding. Thus, Belnet aspires to help promote Hawaii as the World's Inter-Faith Harmony Capital. Help us get there.

A recent development was our symposium "Moving from Exclusion to Inclusion in My Faith," held on Labor Day last year. While we normally consider OUR religion as perfect and find faults elsewhere, our speakers underscored passages in their sacred texts which build barriers against other faiths, discussed possible historical reasons for such passages, and suggested corrective steps. We saw other faiths in new light; we saw the rich diversity reinforcing our shared commonality.

And so, ladies and gentlemen - especially dear students - let us shake the world out of its vicious cycle of hate and revenge; of zealots living in impervious silos; of devotees adopting "holier than thou" paradigms. Let us envision global futures in which our posterity can live in a safe world. Let us become spokespersons for the unborn. No problem was solved by zealots, but by thinking people. Indeed, the pen is mightier than the sword.

I thank you for being such a wonderful audience. I also thank Mr. and Mrs. Ichiyama - Connie and Ed - for sharing with me their personal reflections of World War II and introducing me to the contributions of the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Military Intelligence Service, and the 1399th Engineering Construction Battalion - all men with Japanese Eyes and American Hearts.

Here is a final story:
A person had the following conversation with God:
Person: Dear God, how much is a million years for you?
God:  Like a second of human life.  
Person: And how much is million dollars for you?
God:  Like a penny.
Person: Dear God, can I have a penny?
God:  Wait a second.
We do not have the leisure of waiting for that one eternal second. Let us take the bull by the horn and celebrate the diversity in our unity. Aloha.

ABOUT THE SPEAKER: Dr. Saleem Ahmed has three homes: his birthplace, India; his adolescence and initial career place, Pakistan; and his later life place, Hawaii. His diverse books reflect his varied interests: A desire to top his wife led to the Scrabble Word-Building Book; seeking alternatives to dangerous pesticides led to the  Handbook of Plants With Pest-Control Properties; and distancing Islam from questionable Muslim act led to Beyond Veil and Holy War: Islamic Teachings and Muslim Practices with Biblical Comparisons. His second book on Islam, Koranic Verses on War and Peace and Their Implications, is being reviewed.

Saleem obtained his MS degree in Geology from the University of Karachi in '61, and Ph.D. in Soil Science from the U. of Hawaii in '65. He then taught at the U. of Karachi and worked with Pakistan's fertilizer sector, contributing to Pakistan's Green Revolution. His next 22 years were with the East-West Center, where he directed the Botanical Pest Control Project and introduced to Hawaii South Asia's neem tree, renowned for its pharmaceutical and pest-control properties. Saleem now has a "re-incarnated career" as financial planner, and also teaches Islam and financial planning under the University of Hawaii's Outreach College. To improve his analytical skills, Saleem is also back on UH campus as a "re-incarnated student" in Political Science.

Saleem's broad outlook inspired him to conceive of Milun: Association for Promoting South Asian Culture, which builds bridges between people from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and the All Believers' Network, which seeks common ground among religions.

Saleem is married to the former Carol Matsumoto from the Big Island. Their elder daughter's husband comes from Catholic background and the younger's, from Protestant background. With his own Muslim background and wife's Christian/Buddhist background, they have an All Believers Network within their family. They now also have a 3-year old grandson.  

URL: http://www.wnrf.org/cms/diversity_unity.shtml

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