Islamic Perspectives

Religion is a unifying force

Religion is a fundamental part of the human psyche and it has been a basic part of known human experience and existence for as long as we can look back into history. Traditionally, religion has been a unifying factor for groups and societies. This great adhesive force becomes a force of discord, disunity and conflict when used as a political ideology. Religion has also been a cause of conflict when used by a group or section of society or a state for internal hegemony or foreign  conquests and expansion.  Examples of flagrant misuse of religion are found in the Crusades in the past while we see this in Zionism in Palestine, Hindutva in India and Political Islam of the kind preached by the intolerant Tanzim Al-Jihad and Al-Qaeda organisations these days.

Human experience has taught us to respect others’ religion(s). Even in a country having only one religion, different interpretations of the faith, taking the shape of sects and schools of thought, are intolerant of others within the same religion. This intolerance at times degenerates into physical conflict. Roman Catholics were killing Orthodox Christians in Egypt at the time of the Islamic conquest. Crusaders killed Eastern Christians who did not share their dogmatic beliefs. There have been bloody Shia-Sunni conflicts which continue to this day in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In all societies, especially in multi-religious ones, it is incumbent upon the State and the citizens to respect all religions and refrain from interfering in their religious matters. Islam was the first to clearly accept people’s right to follow the religion of their choice. The Qur’an said, “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2: 190) and “to you your religion, to me mine” (109:6).

We are not concerned here about the anthropological, psychological or sociological research about the evolution and nature of religion. Suffice to say here that religion is a fact of our life, millions believe in it, and as such it is a potent force driving individual and societal behaviour for good as well as for bad.

Religion is a great social force if used for the good of society and nation and the world at large. But the same force becomes destructive if misused by bigots and intolerant rabble-rousing individuals and groups. It can easily arouse emotions of love or hate, construction or destruction, peace or war. All depends on its use or misuse at any point of time. On the popular level, adherence to religion has gained more currency all over the world in recent times as man-made theories failed us one after the other.

In the past, misuse of religion was limited to a region or a country but today with globalisation and instant electronic communication tools like the Internet and mobile phones, any misuse can become an international issue in no time. Very recently, we saw how the idiotic acts of a few individuals like the Danish cartoons or the sad burning of the Qur’an by a lunatic American “pastor” could inflame communities across continents leading to loss of life, property and goodwill.

I come from a country which has the largest concentration of religions some of which claim to be the oldest in the world, yet all have lived in peace and harmony for centuries. Islam, the religion of the rulers for around eight centuries had an unwritten détente with the dominant Hindu religious stream, Sanatan Dharma. This continued until after the Great Revolt of 1857 when the British colonial rulers introduced communal hatred for the first time, based on a policy of divide-and-rule, and started supporting both the Hindu and Muslim extremists.

There are, or were, no problems in my country between religious leaders and ordinary religious people now or in the past. The problem arises only when people who do not really believe in religion start exploiting it for political ends. We have the example of Mr Jinnah, who was not known for any affinity with Islam in his public or private life, yet he used Islam to advocate for Pakistan. In free India, we find a person like LK Advani, who does not believe in the Hindu religion [He is a Sikh according to his estranged daughter-in-law - see “Text of Gauri Advani’s application”, The Milli Gazette, 1 February 2002 - http://www.milligazette.com/Archives/01022002/0102200227.htm], yet he used Hindutva, or Political Hinduism, to the hilt to divide and polarise the country on a sharp communal line for political gains causing immense loss of life in the process as well as the demolition of the Babri Mosque in December 1992 which has done more than anything else to polarise India and alienate its Muslims.

I held an international interfaith conference at Delhi in February 2010. It was attended by Muslims and leaders of Indian religions like Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism. Non-Muslims welcomed the opportunity to sit together and discuss issues of common interest in order to spread peace, harmony and understanding. I found that only some Muslims had reservations about the conference. They could not understand how the only correct faith can sit and dialogue with faiths which are misguided and corrupted. Some, even among those who participated in the conference, said that it is an attempt to create a new religion by mixing teachings of various religions as the Mughal Emperor Akbar had unsuccessfully tried to do in the 16th century India. On the other hand, non-Muslim religious leaders immensely appreciated this opportunity to understand each other and arrive at common grounds, not by negating any religion but by stressing on common meeting points.

Religion is a very powerful unifying factor at par with nationalism in recent times. It can unify groups, tribes, people and whole countries. This powerful local and regional unifying culture should be globalised so that all citizens of the world learn to respect and honour other religions, where universal laws, at par with those applying to human, child and woman’s rights which protect all people across the world. A universal law like this should be enacted under the UN auspices making it mandatory on all states to punish its citizens who insult other religions in any way within or without their territories. This should include all forms of expression including the Internet, publishing, arts and cinema. We must respect freedom of speech and expression but this should not mean a licence to preach hatred and insult others.

In addition to laws, continuous interactions between community and interfaith groups and holding of dialogues between established religions on all levels of national and international communities should encourage us to find a “meeting point”, a universal agreement to respect and tolerate each other -- what the Holy Qur’an has described, while addressing “People of the Book,” as “kalimatin sawaa baynana wa baynakum” (a term common between us and you) (3:64).  The Qur’an also said, “If your Lord had so willed, He could have made Mankind one People,” (5:48, 11:118, 42:8)

Peace and reconciliation at the level of religious and community leaders will be more powerful than one between political leaders. This work should be institutionalised and we should have dialogue centres in all countries to facilitate this process locally and internationally. The mere act of meeting and knowing each other personally will go a long way to eliminate misconceptions which are usually based on fabrication and hearsay. We will discover that not every Muslim is a follower of Osama Ben Laden, and not every Christian is a member of Klu Klux Klan or an admirer of Pastor Terry Jones, that not every Hindu is moved by RSS’s ideology of hate and that not every Jew is a Zionist following Menachem Begin and Meir Kahana bent on expelling all Palestinians from their homeland.

After the collapse of Communism, we had only two unifying ideologies, viz., nationalism and religion. But soon a third force, Globalisation, emerged which is leading us fast to an era where many states will have soft borders and, as a result of such interactions on all levels, nationalism will lose much of its previous appeal. This is already seen in Europe, Gulf Cooperation Council countries and North America.

Under Globalisation, West is presenting Liberal Democracy as a substitute to religion and nationalism. But I believe this will never be a reality in vast areas of Asia and Africa where apart from a liberal and westernised elite, the overwhelming masses do not believe in liberal democracy as an alternative ideology unseating nationalism and religion. It is not thinkable, at least not at present, that nationalism and religion will give way to liberal democracy as the new universal ideology outside Western Europe and North America. Both religion and nationalism enjoy a rich and powerful influence based on history, geography, language and culture for vast areas across the world. This is the reason why we still see today groups which are fighting for a new state based on religion or narrow nationalism.

An idea was floated since the 1960s that religion has been relegated to the private sphere and that it will no longer dominate people, politics or states. This may be true to some extent with regard to Western societies. But, as regards the rest of the world, the last fifty years have belied this assumption and we can see today that even now many states officially or unofficially patronise and follow various religions and even promote it globally while they claim to be secular. Traditional and neo-conservative movements in the West are propelled by a certain reading of religion. The Arab Spring in the Arab World has a strong influence of Islam.

To conclude, religion remains a strong force in the contemporary world. It is our duty to make it a unifying force for the sake of common good, peace and progress instead of turning it into a dividing force causing hate and destruction.
(Written notes of the author’s talk at the Istanbul World Political Forum on 17 May 2012)

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 June 2012 on page no. 20

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