Friends Beyond Faith launches fasting challenge
Jasmine Suleik is just being herself and for that she has been a target for intolerant people all her life.
Walking down the street sometime in March, Suleik, a 22-year-old student at Cebu Institute of Medicine, encountered a group of teens who, upon seeing her wearing a hijab (veil), chanted: “Kill her! Kill her!”
Even events earlier this year involving Muslims have been causes of pain for her, as they have been for many in the local Muslim community: the Mamasapano clash, atrocities attributed to the Islamic State jihadist group in the Middle East, the extremist attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, and the shooting of Muslims at Chapel Hill in North Carolina.
“Personally, I received death threats about it, harsh comments from people, especially on social media. Every time something bad happens in Mindanao, they tend to generalize that just because you are a Muslim, people think you are Mindanao and that you are related to the people who are in the news,” said Suleik, who lives in Maharlika Village, Taguig City, but is studying in Cebu.
“Why is it that events are only highlighted when there are killings, when something negative is happening? Why are positive news about interfaith groups not in the headlines?” she said.
To correct misconception
In the hope of offering a peaceful antidote to the discrimination Muslims like her experience and to correct misconceptions about different faiths, Suleik thought of taking advantage of the very same tool that has, unfortunately, bred such hate: social media.
As an offshoot of her participation in the Young Southeast Asian Muslims Forum in Singapore in April, an event organized by the United States-led Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (Yseali), Suleik and like-minded friends established Friends Beyond Faith (FBF).
The initiative aims to provide a platform for people of different faiths to gather online and in interfaith camps to learn about each other’s religions, fostering greater understanding and tolerance.
“She thought of a project that would bridge this gap, that would build understanding and tolerance between different religions. And that’s the output—Friends Beyond Faith,” said Cotabato City native Al-Bari Macalawan, 24, among the FBF pioneers.
At the core of the campaign is a fasting challenge, which the founders thought was timely as Muslims like themselves marked the holy month of Ramadan.
FBF’s #fastingchallenge is aimed at encouraging people of other faiths to try a daylong fast, refraining from eating and drinking anything from sunrise to sundown, as Muslims do during Ramadan.
“We thought that fasting is actually common ground among all religions. Hindus, Buddhists, Christians would fast, and it is even a way of sending a message, sometimes a political message,” said Macalawan, who also took part in Yseali’s United for Peace Forum.
“Mahatma Gandhi fasted to oppose the British regime, even Ninoy Aquino Jr. fasted against (the late strongman Ferdinand) Marcos. So we thought why not deliver a message together that when we fast, we actually campaign for solidarity and tolerance?” he said in an interview with the Inquirer.
Suleik said most people had experienced fasting—for medical checkups for instance—and so it was an ordinary experience.
“Speaking as someone from the medical field, everyone fasts, like for a medical procedure. It’s really a part of our lives, we just don’t notice that we are doing it. That’s why we thought of it as a common ground. People just don’t notice that they’ve done it before,” she said.
The fasting challenge began on June 18, a day after the start of Ramadan, and ended yesterday, a day after the end of the Islamic holy month.
“We actually had a series of consultations before doing this. We had to ask if we won’t offend anyone, if we won’t be desecrating Ramadan. And we said that this is all for interfaith understanding,” Suleik said.
The group also received funding from the US Embassy in Manila, getting “a very small” part of the $10,000 grant given to the United for Peace Forum for youth peace initiatives.
The FBF page, rendered in colorful graphics by another core FBF organizer, Singapore-based Josef Sueno, quickly drew “likes,” now numbering nearly 3,500.
Young people from different countries were drawn to the group’s goal of propagating “the beauty of culture by highlighting positive interfaith friendships” among the youth of the world.
Foreigners and celebrities
To date, 250 people have signed up for the fasting challenge, where participants are encouraged to dare two friends to take on the same daylong abstinence from food and liquids.
Participants include people from Belgium, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and Filipinos overseas.
The fasting campaign has also drawn celebrities, including Jasmine Curtis-Smith, Kylie Padilla and Dingdong Dantes, organizers said.
“It’s a movement beyond the Philippines,” said Macalawan, who works for a government agency in Manila.
“It’s actually not packaged for Muslims, they should not fast for #fastingchallenge because they are already doing that religiously for the month. But it’s a good time, it’s Ramadan, everyone is fasting. It’s also an intercultural experience. We’re doing it under the rules of the Islamic faith, not eating and drinking from sunrise to sundown,” he said.
“Survivors” of the fast were encouraged to share on the FBF site their reflections on the experience.
Those who were unable to sustain the daylong fast were prodded to share a meal with a street child, or to donate to FBF’s fund for street children and victims of conflict in Mindanao.
FBF also held peace camps in Cebu City, Sarangani province and in Manila, drawing 68 participants, including students and young professionals from across the country, to daylong workshops on interfaith understanding.
The participants were either invited or selected from online applicants, Macalawan said.
“The objective of the camp is sharing about your religion. We made it an avenue for asking questions about Muslims, about Christians. It’s really just sharing, you’re not trying to prove anything,” Suleik said.
“We did that in a friendly way, we began with a lot of team-building activities in the morning,” Macalawan said.
The camps bonded participants so well that some sent feedback that “they did not want to leave the venue,” Macalawan said.
They also invited the FBF organizers to hold similar interfaith workshops in their schools.
FBF has also received messages from young people in Japan and the United States, who wanted to volunteer for the project “because they believe this kind of interfaith activity is the way to further understanding,” he said.
For other feasts
The group aims to make the pilot initiative just the first in a series. Among the prospects is holding fasting challenges timed with feasts in other religions.
“We are in search of different religious groups that could take the lead of the FBF, because we want them to introduce this campaign. Like if it’s Lent or Christmas, if they can do something similar,” Macalawan said.
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