Islamic Perspectives

Religious Diversity And Tolerance In Islam-i

Diversity and tolerance are considered very basis of modernity as one of the modernity's fundamental principles is individual and community rights and also, as modernity implies democratic rule, tolerance and right to pursue any ideology or religion assumes great importance. The western countries consider themselves as role models for democracy and freedom. Mr. Bush, after 9/11 attack often used to say why (read Muslims) are jealous of our democracy and freedom?

Most of us believe in this myth that west stands for freedom of conscience, democracy and liberty. And in theory it is quite correct. But is it so in practice? First of all let us ask one question: did they ever consider non-whites, non-Europeans as equal and entitled to equality and liberty? The history tells us no. The white superiority was always underlying assumption and the blacks (now known as African-American) were always discriminated against. Even Jews, until Second World War, did not enjoy equal rights. They were always discriminated against and forced to live in ghettoes, apart from what Nazis did with them.

Also, until Second World War when the Western world was mono-religious and mono-cultural its tolerance for non-western religions and cultures was never tested. It is only when economic migrations began from the erstwhile colonial countries that west began to experience what they now call multi-culturalism and western society became multi-religious and multi- cultural.

It was then that strains appeared and we saw number of cases of prejudice and discrimination against non-white, non-western people migrating to the west. The most recent case is of Switzerland voting to ban minarets for Muslim mosques. In the poll held 57 per cent Swiss people voted against allowing minarets to Muslim mosques. In Switzerland close to four million people are Muslims

It is heartening that the New York Times editorially condemned this proposed ban. It is worthwhile to quote excerpts from the editorial which was published on November 30, 2009, immediately after the referendum in Switzerland: "Disgraceful. That is the only way to describe the success of a right-wing initiative to ban the constitution of minarets in Switzerland, where 57 percent of voters cast ballots for a bigoted and mean-spirited measures."

Further the editorial says, "But the vote also carries a strong and urgent message for all Europe, and for all Western nations where Islamic minorities have been growing in numbers; and visibility, and where fear and resentment of Muslim immigrants and their religion have become increasingly strident and widespread. The warning signs have been there: the irrational fierceness of official French resistance to the shawls and burkhas worn by some Muslim women; the growing opposition in many European quarters to Turkish membership in the European Union."

The New York editorial is, indeed the voice of sanity in the growing intolerance in the Western world towards Muslims in particular and, non-western cultures and religions, in general. We would again like to reiterate here that in principle West does stand for equality, freedom of conscience and human rights which most of the Muslim countries have yet to learn. But, as we will show herein below that Islam also stands for tolerance and respect for other culture and faiths and believes diversity is creation of Allah but test really comes in practice.

It is also true that terrorist attacks in some countries, and especially after 9/11 have intensified hatred against Islam and Muslims but then in Switzerland, the Muslims have been peaceful and there have been no instances of such attacks and it appears quite irrational that people of Switzerland should display such intolerance towards their peaceful minority. However, the signs were in the air.

I had delivered a lecture on Islam and non-violence way back in 2004 in Zuric which was held in collaboration with the local church. When question answer session began the journalists present there said how Islam can ever be non-violent and peaceful. I said I have based my speech on the Qur'anic text and anyone can verify what I have said but the journalists did not seem to be convinced. They kept on arguing until the church official intervened. What these journalists must have been writing about Islam is obvious. In modern society media plays very important role.

This is further borne out by the TV debate between noted Swiss Muslim intellectual and my friend Tariq Ramadan and Oskar Freysinger on ban on minaret. It became evident from the debate that the real issue was not minaret, but Islam itself. Dr. Patrick Haenni, a researcher at Religiouscope, who believes that religion, not politics, was the core of the initiator's discourse through a perspective full of misconceptions and stereotypes.

The ban on burqa in France by the Government is another instance of this intolerance for non-western religions and cultures. This writer is no advocate of burqas covering entire body and face from head to toe but the question is not one should wear burqa or not, more fundamental question is of individual right and choice? Whatever reason for wearing burqa, personal conviction, social or peer pressures or identity issue, does one have right to wear or not? Should one ban it outright?

Here I would like to narrate an interesting experience. I was lecturing on secularism in the University of Bukhara and in the audience were mostly young women dressed in skirts as western women do. During the lecture two burqa clad women (wearing burqa from head to toe) entered and sat down. After my lecture was over some of those women stood up and agitatedly said sir, why should we not throw out these two women (wearing burqa)? I was shocked at the aggressive tone of these agitated women.

I enquired why do you want to throw them out? These women (all of them Muslim) said why are they wearing burqa and why do they cover themselves? I said I ask you one simple question: suppose all these women were clad in Burqa and two of you had come wearing skirts and with modern haircut and if they had asked why not throw these two skirt-wearing women out, what would have been your response?

I said throwing out or banning a practice is not the solution but to dialogue with each other and to understand each other. They then appreciated my viewpoint and sat down quietly and we continued our discussion. Thus to accept the other, as other is (not with prescriptions) is the essence of democracy. Prescription for the other violates the very spirit of others' rights and dignity which is the basis of modernity. Now it has been universally accepted that it is not only individual rights which are important but also group rights of minorities as well are equally important.

The west, whatever its principles and values, is yet to come to terms with non-western others. Also, it should not depend on the doctrine of reciprocation but group rights should be absolute. I remember in U. K. there was debate in eighties how Muslims treat Christian minorities in Muslim majority countries. Do they give them equal rights and freedom of religion? If not, why do they expect such rights in western countries?

This reciprocative approach contradicts the very spirit of democratic values and principles. These values and principles are absolute and no conditionalities could be prescribed. Of course there are complex reasons for the growing intolerance towards Muslim minorities in the western world. As everywhere the rightist forces thrive on hatred of the other and the ban on the minaret in Switzerland is also the result of rise of rightist politics. The Muslims in India too have experienced it when the BJP tried to come to power through hate politics of Ramjanambhoomi.

In France too, ban on hijab came under the regime of Sarkozy who is known rightist. Secondly, the rising number of immigrants also creates fear in the minds of original inhab -itants of the country and, in order to press the issue, these numbers are highly exaggerated. Muslims, both by way of migration and birth, are the fastest growing minority in  Europe. Thirdly, most of the Muslim migrants are non-whites, many of them blacks from African countries and here both religious as well as racial prejudice combine and intensify hatred and intolerance.

In France, for example, most of the Muslim migrants are from former French colonies and hence happen to be black. Discrimination against them and their marginalization totally alienates them and this alienation finds expression through complex ways - through aggressive behavior or overemphasis on their identities which in turn further intensifies their alienation.

And, if this is followed by economic crisis as Europe is undergoing these days, majority fear against the 'migrant other' becomes even more aggressive born out of fear and the rising tide of rightist forces in such circumstances further aggravates it. Also, the US policies in the Middle East have resulted in intensifying extremism in a section of youth in the Muslim countries resulting in terrorist attacks such as 9/11 which excites even more hatred against Muslims in the west.

What is the way out then? Where to stop this vicious circle of action and reaction? It is for sure that we cannot control all the factors. But it is also equally certain that we need a wise political leadership who is not after power but welfare of people. Democracy ideally speaking is for people's participation and for their well being. However, like other political systems, democracy too, has become means of grabbing power by certain groups and classes. Also, it tends to be majoritarian i. e. heavily tilted in favor of racial, religious or linguistic majority. There has been hardly any exception to it in the world.

To be continued in the next page

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-28 February 2010 on page no. 28

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