Islamic Perspectives

Religious Diversity and Tolerance in Islam-ii

Certain Muslim countries who swear by Qur'an as their constitution also flagrantly violate Qur'anic provisions. Qur'an gives certain ideals and values for governance, an idea of the desirable society. It says diversity is Allah's creation and must be respected and celebrated. And this diversity includes linguistic, racial and religious and human beings, whatever religion, race or linguistic group they belong to, must be accorded equal dignity and which means all of them should enjoy equal rights.

However, you will not find any Muslim country swearing by Qur'an as book of Allah implementing these ideals. You find discrimination on the basis of religion, even sects, language and ethnicity. You very much find discrimination for example in Saudi Arabia, against non-Arabs, against non-Wahabi Muslims and against other ethnic and racial groups. One finds discrimination in Iran against Sunni Muslims, against Arabs, against Bahais and against non-Persians.

In Pakistan one finds discrimination against certain linguistic groups like Baluchis and Sindhis. It is dominated by the Punjabi majority. Not only that, there is sectarian violence between Shi'ahs and Sunnis besides Christians and Hindus. It is Punjabi majority which rules the roost. One has yet to see any Muslim country which does not violate injunctions of the Qur'an while swearing in by it as one has yet to see any western democracy not violating injunctions of their own constitutions enshrining ideals and values of modern democracy.

As long as the goal remains power, this is bound to happen. Another bane of the situation is current rise in rightist forces which arouse emotions of people on the basis of religion, race and language. Again no country is an exception to it. Education system itself, which prepares children and students for future material of the society, is controlled by, in most, if not all cases, by rightist elements.

The Netherlands is also undergoing severe problem of anti-Muslim tirade. One politician made a film called Fitna and refused to take it back. Also, a Muslim fanatic murdered a film maker from the Netherlands who cast slur on Islam and this further led to anti-Islamic surge there. I met a professor of Islamic studies from Netherlands in Germany who spoke on Islam. The seminar was on progressive Islam.

I was stunned by his anti-Islamic outpouring. It was nothing short of hate-Islam speech. When we protested the organizers maintained that all views are allowed to be expressed from this forum. May be it was so. But what was worrying factor was that the person was teaching Islam in the Netherlands. If such Islam is taught in universities of a country what mindset would be generated? One shudders to think.

Media is no exception. While it must be made clear there are honorable exceptions and some newspapers and TV channels which are quite objective or tend to be so but then such papers and channels are, more often than not, popular. They are read or watched by serious kind of people. Popular media tend to be prejudiced. Also, media is often owned by certain interests and it is not committed to the cause of objective reporting.

And media plays most crucial role in democracy. I would say if media plays responsible role rising above all interests modern democracies would be far more conflict-free than they are today. And in answering the question raised above media provides one of the crucial factors. Despite all the laws made by the state, media behaves the way it wants to as various state organs fail to implement the laws.

It is true we cannot have ideal democracy as the German philosopher rightly points out ideal is not real and real is not ideal, still one has to try to come as close to ideal as possible. Even such efforts are lacking in modern democracies. Invariably it is powerful interests which determine the shape and direction of things and there is always tension between vested interests and the ideals and interests seem to win.

Of course if the conflict remains manageable it is one thing but disaster takes place when it goes beyond manageable proportions. The attack on 9/11 and subsequent attack on Afghanistan and Iraq took this conflict between Islam and the west beyond all imaginable proportions as here too very powerful interests were involved. However, it would be wrong to consider it a self fulfillment of Huntigntonian prediction of 'clash of civilization'. It was, instead, clash of political interests on both sides.

It is interesting to note that Huntington's book received such media attention in the west precisely because certain interests in the west wanted such book written to promote conflict. Of course things may not have gone as planned but to an extent those interests were served but at a great social cost. It greatly sharpened prejudices in the west against Islam. And this has been going on for quite some time now.

Since Muslims began to immigrate to the western countries in the post-colonial period the anti-Islam prejudices began to acquire sharper edge. The Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses in the eighties and the support it received in the west was also part of this process. The enthusiastic support was not for the sake of freedom of opinion. There was a purpose behind it. The Islamic revolution had occurred in Iran which was anti-west in its thrust and made Iranian oil beyond western powers.

Thus the west adopted anti-Iran posture and when Khomeini, for his own political compulsions, issued fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the swords were drawn on both sides and west lent unqualified support to Rushdie in the name of freedom and Muslims stood by Khomeini's fatwa. It was neither freedom nor Islam but who will dominate Iran and its oil, west or people and rulers of Iran.

All these developments through eighties culminated in 9/11 attacks and everything was complete for anti-Islamic prejudices in western countries and media. As far as Arab oil is concerned the clashes are likely to continue and will go through different phases. It reached its culmination during Bush's unqualified support to rightist policies and outright adventure in the West Asia.

However, since it crossed critical limits in conflict management Obama took over the reigns of administration. But it would indeed be too much to expect that Obama would resolve the conflict. But yes, certainly he may succeed in managing the conflict a shade better and he appears to be sincerely trying. He is far from free agent as many think. His hands are tied by so many uncontrollable factors.

Al-Qaeda and Taliban issue is not here to disappear in few years. Afghan people are fiercely independence-loving and even Muslim rulers like Moghuls failed to subdue them, much less totally aliens like Americans. American policy makers should study history of Afghan rebellion much more seriously than they have done. US jackboots cannot crush Afghans. Obama has to an extent realized this and though he is sending more forces but has also promised to withdraw by 2011.

Withdraw or not but certainly solution does not lay in trying to crush Afghans but to resolve it through dialogue and accommodation which again is not easy. US is also not in Afghanistan for just to wipe out Al-Qaeda and Taliban but to control rich gas and mineral resources in Central Asia. It did not invade Afghanistan for nothing. And as long as US wants to control rich resources of Central Asia it cannot find accommodation with Afghan Taliban and as long as Taliban issue continues anti-Islam prejudices will remain strong as ever.

It is also absolutely necessary to solve Palestinian problem if one desires peace in West Asia. While Afghan Taliban are more concerned about peace in their region but Al-Qaeda is more focused on West Asia and to solve both the problems sans US interests in both the regions is asking for, let us say, impossible. Should we despair then? Not really. But it is a challenge which few politicians can succeed in facing.

The Muslim countries too will have to seriously contemplate policy changes and have to make concerted efforts to project peaceful Islam on their part. They will have to fight powerful interests and confrontationists mindset on their part. The rulers in the west Asia have to go for modernization, changes in their education system and promoting spirit of understanding and dialogue with the other.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is wiser than his predecessors and following strategies to contain extremist elements in his own country. Like Obama's his hands are tied too. In Pakistan military establishment is too powerful to be contained easily and for quite sometime to come civilian rule will not be able to ascertain its independence and Pakistan is very crucial for peace in Afghan-Pakistan region.

Well, while working for greater understanding let us understand these challenges too.

Dr Engineer is director of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai (


This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 March 2010 on page no. 28

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