P InC 2006 RELIGION/MAN
Greetings to you all from Pamidi, a town of 40,000 in India. In 1997, when I started my politically incorrect year-end letters in response to the self-gratifying year-end letters that seem to have been all the rage, I was sure I would insult many. I have no doubt succeeded for I do not receive year-end letters anymore! I am glad though that I still have friends. I do not show it often enough. But I am glad. If you are offended by my email and wish to stop receiving it - let me know for I do not wish to offend you. If you wish to correct me do so - for I wish to learn.
It is a pleasant December evening and I am having a cup of coffee while sitting just outside my mother-in-law's house in Pamidi. The sky is a lovely blue, clear of clouds, with a half moon visible overhead in spite of the daylight. We have just come back from: a visit to the school that Nirmala does work with and which we are supporting in our own small way (her grand-uncle and aunt donated the house to the school many years ago - hence the connection); a visit to the government school just opposite the one mentioned; a walk through the scheduled caste/tribe section of the village and a walk through the Muslim section of the village. My heart is light, my mood calm and unusually reasonable. Everywhere we went I was struck first by the children - bright-eyed, shy but with a quick smile, curious, and alert; by how people make the most of they have; by how little they have; by how clean it all was; and by how perfectly ordinary it seemed for 5 brahmins to walk through those areas.
It occurred to me that had we not been informed as to which section we were in - we would not have known the difference. The mosque was not in the Muslim section, many of the women did not wear burqas, the kids did the same things.
And then I start to think. I sometimes wish I did not think for I always tend to start seeing the "other side" and my mood often darkens. I could not help recollecting a recent email exchange I had with a stranger. We are both part of a email circle that discusses many topics. Within that circle there are some that hold that Muslims are accountable for the troubles in the world. This particular stranger refused to see reason in our little email exchange. He did not offer any arguments. Only criticism and angry criticism at that. So I did the next best thing. I let him have the last word. This person would have benefitted by seeing how peacefully people can co-exist when left to do so in spite of their belonging to different religions or castes (though it would have been infinitely better if there had not been sections at all).
Thinking back to the stranger (who shall remain unnamed), he does not appear to be alone.
There seems to be a fear amongst an increasingly large number of people that Muslims exist only to exert their religion and religious ways on all non-Muslims. I myself subscribe to the view that there are indeed many Muslims who do just that - I would be foolish not to, for those same Muslims proclaim that very purpose. But there are also many right-wing groups in other religions who do the same. Their way is the only right way! So the Muslims are not alone.
"Ah, but the Muslims are militant and therein lies the difference" is the likely refrain. Yes, many are. But were Hindus not militant at the Babri masjid, or in Gujarat, or in Delhi after Indira Gandhi's assassination? Consider Australia which fought some 7 wars (give or take a few as I am no historian) even though their country was never invaded. Consider America, clearly influenced by the religious right wing (of the two I think Fox TV is the danger and not al-Jazeera!) and a President who claims that God (guess which one) speaks to him. Were they not predominantly Christian and militant? Does one think that they were really knights in shining armour riding in on their Humvees to combat despots and police the world? Knights perhaps who get into and out of beds with despots? Knights perhaps who meet at a round table to deny vehemently that 500,000 Iraqi's have been killed as a result of America's invasion when arguing that "only" 250,000 had died? Is there anyone who feels that Jews are not militant? That their military strength is only for peaceful purposes? Defense only? Tell the Palestinians in Palestine that. Try talking to the folks in Beirut too.
"Yes, but the actions of the non-Muslims were in reaction to the terrorism that the Muslims unleashed on the world and by the hatred spread by Osama bin Laden and his followers and the Taliban. Oh and don't forget the Iranians. See how they are de-stabilizing Lebanon." Pause then to think if those actions suddenly occurred to those hateful and spiteful people who murder in God's name or if they were provoked. Consider that 2 countries were created on the basis of religion. Pakistan and Israel. The first aided and abetted by the British. The second, established with the help of Britain and America (which then had a very poor record when it came to treating Jews) and established through militancy of the Jews and grown by settlements in lands acquired by wars.
"OK, but witness the joy expressed by some Arabs after 9/11. How can anyone celebrate death like that?" What then of the hatred they and other Muslims must have felt when they saw during the 1990 Iraq war, unexploded bombs - or pictures of bombs on U.S. planes - that had hateful and derogatory words painted on the bombs?
"But the Muslims will take over the world because their religion crosses boundaries. Muslims in one country will support those in another country". Is that wrong? Other religions do not? Even if they did support people of like religions in other countries it is nonsensical to believe that Muslims believe geographical boundaries to be meaningless simply because of their religion. If so why would they not cooperate when Israel was being formed? Why would Afghanistan have the problems that it has with Pakistan? Are most Indian muslims less patriotic than other Indians?
Do Muslims slight other religions or ignore slights on other religions while reacting to every slight on their own religion with violence. Yes, some do. Whipped up into a frenzy by a few. If India was run by the VHP I am sure we would be no different for we have thugs of our own who start violent demonstrations because of perceived slights on their own leaders or religions.
As I now write these words I am back in Hong Kong and it is January 6. Saddam Hussein has been executed and the world is not a safer place. The people who executed him shouted not for the remembrance of the thousands of innocents who died because of his acts but for a radical and militant Muslim cleric. That shook me and I knew with strong conviction that the endless cycle of violence would only continue.
It will only be too easy to blame Islam and Muslims for the violence we can expect. Muslims and Islam are/is neither the problem nor the solution. If Islam is viewed as the problem or the solution one need go no further than debating the types of questions I have asked above, of all the religions. Man is responsible. Not religion. The problems the world faces today will not be solved for a long time for they are made by Man and Man today is increasingly divided and ruled by pre-set notions. Should we therefore reconcile ourselves to a world divided by religion and be ruled by fear? Yes, sadly so.
Can we hope for a better future and do something about it? Yes. We can. In this day of YouTube what if we were to start broadcasting everyday examples of human kindness? For example, my dear friend's dad died last year. He was a religious brahmin and trustee of his local temple. Yet many Muslims lined up to give their blood in an attempt to save his life. Think about this for a minute. Any of you who have been close to religious violence should find it remarkable for 2 reasons. On the one side a pious Brahmin loved by many despite his religious orientation for he was measured not by his religion but by his goodness. On the other side ordinary Indians, Muslims among them, who recognized that goodness and gave their blood to keep it. There are many more examples but two excellent ones in recent times for they occurred on a grand scale were: the Tsunami relief effort and the way people of all walks rushed to help earthquake victims in Pakistan. If we could get a good virus going it will propagate. If we focus on how people of all walks can come together they will. It does not have to be organized - perhaps it is better if it is not organized.
Time magazine named "You" as the person of the year. Self-reflect. Know that one religion is not better or worse than another. Know that it is Man's weaknesses and interpretation of religion that causes the problems and not the religion itself. Know that people are not bad because they belong to a particular caste or religion. Know that there is a tremendous amount of mistrust and it will take time. Do not trust blindly or be naive. Do not be frightened to ask questions or discuss issues because someone is from a particular religion for it is important to understand. There will always be people who are too bound by their views that they will not see reason but they must become the minority. Do not let violence and murder go unpunished but do not condemn all by association. If your religion gives you strength use its strength but for good - remember that it is Man who wrote most of the holy books and it is Man who interprets their messages.
We are Man. You are Man. I am Man. We are "You". You are "You". I am "You". The future is in our hands. Collectively and individually.
May our grandchildren know peace and may they all remember us for allowing them to have it.
I wish you all success, joy, health, and material benefits to your hearts content. I also wish you peace.