I thank the Community of Sant’Egiodio for inviting me to the 30th special international inter-faith meeting this year in the holy city of Assisi.
I begin by paying my most respectful tribute to St. Francis (1182-1226), one of the greatest saints in the history of humankind, whose name is inseparably linked to Assisi.
The title of this session is ‘Terrorism Denies God’. But how odd -- how utterly odd, incongruous and agonising -- it sounds even to utter the word ‘terrorism’ in the same breath as Assisi and St. Francis?
They are as antithetical to one another as darkness and light.
St. Francis was a Man of Peace. He was the Patron Saint of Ecology. Here is a story, which is well known, but it still bears narrating in the context of the topic of this session.
As we all know, St. Francis had great love for animals and the environment. The little story explains why he is often portrayed with a bird, typically in his hand.
One day, while Francis was travelling with some companions, they happened to be upon a place on the road where birds filled the trees on either side. Francis told his companions to “wait for me while I go to preach to my sisters, the birds”.
The birds surrounded him, intrigued by the power of his voice, and not one of them flew away. Such was the depth and intensity of love, of spiritual oneness, that St. Francis of Assisi had for all the non-human creatures in the world.
Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), another great Man of Peace, and an ardent admirer of St. Francis has written:
“St. Francis was a great Yogi in Europe. He used to wander in the forests among reptiles, etc., but they never harmed him. On the contrary, they were friends with him. Thousands of Jogis and fakirs live in the forests of India. They move fearlessly among tigers, wolves, snakes, etc., and one never hears of their coming to any harm on that account.
“I personally feel that when we rid ourselves of all enmity towards any living creatures, the latter also cease to regard us with hate. Compassion or love is man’s greatest excellence. Without this he cannot cultivate love of God. We come to realise in all the religions, more or less clearly, that compassion is the root of the higher life.”
Love of God and service of humanity and all non-human creatures are two sides of the same coin. The pre-requisite of service orientation is unwavering commitment to non-violence and peace.
The lives of St. Francis and all the other venerable saints belonging to all the religions, cultures and continents, continue to radiate peace even today because all of them accepted God unconditionally, and all of them personified the principle of service as duty.
And precisely because they accepted God unconditionally, they regarded violence of any kind towards anyone – including the dumb creatures of the non-human species – as an act of denial of God. Indeed, as an act of crime against God.
If the ennobling message of the likes of St. Francis of Assisi represents the lighthouse for humankind in its troubled voyage of life, terrorism represents man’s fall into the depths of darkness of dehumanisation and de-divinisation.
The actions of terrorists are guided by complete denial of God, and utmost contempt for God’s most special creation – human life. Terrorism snuffs out human life in savage, wanton and unrepentant ways.
Global terrorism today: A new phenomenon in human history
Ladies and gentlemen,
Acts of killing are not new in human history, nor wars, which entail wholesale killings. Terrorism is also not new. However, in our age, we are seeing the manifestations of terrorist violence in new ways – more dramatic, more deadly, and more global in scale than ever seen or imagined in the past.
So, airplanes carrying passengers become missiles to hit, and demolish, skyscrapers in the United States.
A cargo truck is used to mow down people assembled on a beach in France.
School children in Pakistan – nearly 150 of them -- are killed in a fusillade of gunfire.
A group of terrorists, disguised as fishermen, come sailing to a port city in India – my city Mumbai – from another port city in a neighbouring country and kill randomly.
In Bangladesh, they storm a café, segregate the hostages on the basis of their religions, and kill their targets in barbaric ways.
In Iraq and Indonesia, in Afghanistan and Australia, in Kenya and Kyrgyzstan, in Turkey and Nigeria, and in many other countries in the world, the spate of terrorist attacks in recent decades is unprecedented in human history.
Never in the past had terrorism manifested itself as war by other means simultaneously and in so many different geographies around the world. It is war by other means because it targets and kills non-combatants in a pre-planned and well-organised manner by believing, and often proclaiming, them to be the enemy.
Killing innocent people is not justified by any religion or spiritual tradition. But terrorism creates its own justification – often by claiming its murderous acts to be religiously inspired, sanctioned and even mandated. Hence, in many cases, terrorism calls and cloaks itself as Religious War.
In stunning perversion of all that religion stands for, terrorism defends itself in the name of defense of religion. It justifies killing as fulfilment of God’s commandment. It is, therefore, necessary to rip off this bizarre and cunning cloak of religious support and sanction for terrorism. This requires us to ask ourselves three questions.
First, is there a single religion that does not believe that all human beings are equal children of the same God?
Second, is there a single religion that distinguishes human beings on the basis of their faith as “Superior Us” and “inferior them”?
Third, is there a single religion that condones killing of innocent people belonging to any faith?
The answer to all three questions is an emphatic No.
The first question is answered compellingly by the Holy Bible, which says: “God created man in His own image.”
Upanishads, the holy scriptures of Hinduism, say: “The individual soul is nothing else in essence than the Universal Soul.”
The Holy Quran says: “On God’s own nature has been moulded man’s.”
The answer to the second question also can be found in the sacred religious texts.
“The roads men follow – they all lead to Me, at last.” Thus says Krishna in the Bhagawad Gita, a holy Hindu scripture.
This is echoed by the Holy Bible: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
This is further echoed by the Hadith, the sayings of Prophet Muhammad (570-632): “There are as many roads to God as souls on Earth.”
Shankaracharya (788-820), a revered exponent of Advaita philosophy or the Indian philosophy of Monism, has said: “The soul hath no caste, neither any creed; It is one with the Universal Life.”
Maulana Rumi (1207-1273), the wise Sufi, has made this teaching even more specific:
“Persian or Turk or Arab are not known,
Or Hindu, Christian, Muslim to the soul,
Wisdom and virtuous deed make the soul’s life,
Not racial names and not communal strife.”
Coming to the third question – does any religion support killing of innocent people? – let us turn to a few illustrative teachings.
In Buddhist texts Ahimsā (non-violence) is part of the Pañcasīla or the Five Precepts, the very first of which is to abstain from killing.
The vow of Ahimsā is given the highest importance among the Five Vows of Jainism. Indeed, Jainism takes the teaching of non-injury so seriously that it asks its adherents to tell each other:
If I have caused you offence in any way,
knowingly or unknowingly,
in thought, word, or deed,
then I ask for your forgiveness.
The following categorical injunction in the Holy Quran against killing of innocent persons is widely known:
“…if any one killed one person - unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land - it would be as if he killed the entire humanity: and if any one saved one life, it would be as if he saved the life of the entire humanity.”
The Islam of ISIS and al-Qaeda is perversion of Islam
In view of these – and countless other – references to the teachings of various religions, to say that “Terrorism Denies God” is to belabour the obvious.
The real question is: Why are so many terrorist acts still committed in the name of God? And how can this be stopped?
It should be noted here that terrorist acts are also sometimes perpetrated without perverted religious inspiration. Non-religious political ideologies, which believe in violence as a means to achieve their ends, often take to terrorism.
Whether the motivation is religious or non-religious, terrorism is always and invariably denial of God because God strictly forbids killing of innocent people.
It should also be noted that religiously inspired acts of terrorism also pursue a political cause. The cause could be establishment of the political rule or hegemony of one’s own religion – or of one’s own sect within a religion.
A clear case in point is the attempt by ISIS to establish or re-establish Caliphate all over the world – beginning with the Middle-East – and to wage ‘Jihad’ or a religious war for this purpose.
Such attempts by ISIS, Al-Qaeda and other Islamist organisations must be condemned and countered unambiguously by all – including by people who believe in Islam, in whose name the so-called “holy war” is being waged.
In countering and combating terrorism, it is especially necessary to deny the terrorists any theological or scriptural justification for their brutal acts.
This necessitates the followers of not only Islam but also every other religion to critically and introspectively review those textual or theological aspects of their respective religions which are being misinterpreted by extremists for their own divisive and violent political ends.
Such much-needed religious reform has become as much a mandatory religious duty today as prayer or service of the poor and the needy.
A religion that does not reform itself from time to time in the light of its own timeless fundamental principles, stagnates.
Indeed, many such reform attempts have taken place in all religions in the past to affirm the true meaning and purpose of religion to promote peace, harmony and universal brotherhood on Earth. These reform traditions need urgently to be revived, rejuventated and strengthened.
We should understand not only the fundamental teachings and reform traditions in our own religions but also those in other religions. This is necessary to rid ourselves of misunderstandings and prejudices about other religions, and to realise that the core teachings and purpose of all religions is equally noble – indeed, one and the same.
Misconceptions and prejudices in religious matters wreak havoc. They are the source of many problems and troubles in the world.
In particular, it must be affirmed again and again that terrorism must not be equated with or linked to any particular religion. This is especially necessary in the atmosphere of Islamophobia in many parts of the world.
There can be no peace without justice, no justice without peace
Ladies and gentlemen,
Our understanding of the phenomenon of terrorism would be woefully inadequate if we turned a blind eye to two other sources that sustain it -- one is persistence injustice in the world and the other is large-scale militaristic violence by one country against the other and sometimes within the same country.
These two factors have not only sustained terrorism, but terrorist organisations have also used these to seek legitimacy for their own inhuman and ungodly actions.
It also must be acknowledged that, whereas terrorism denies God and religion in its true sense, denial of justice is also tantamount to denial of God.
Justice for all, without any discrimination, is as much an integral prerequisite of God’s plan for human societies as are non-violence, love, compassion and mercy. Indeed, they are all inter-related and inter-dependent.
Mahatma Gandhi reminds us: “The first condition of nonviolence is justice all round in every department of life.”
Therefore, ensuring socio-economic justice, cultural justice, political justice, gender justice, ecological justice and basic human dignity for every community and every individual in the world must be regarded as one of the preconditions for eliminating terrorism.
The prevailing deep deprivations, inequities and unjust life conditions in the world, and also within our own respective countries, are an affront to humanity and constitute rejection of God.
The other factor sustaining terrorism in our world is the uncontrolled and competitive militarism among nation-states, with big, rich and powerful nations leading this dangerous trend. The sovereignty of weaker nations is often flagrantly violated – even by telling lies in the United Nations, as happened when the United States invaded Iraq.
The export of religious extremism by rich nations, which fuels terrorism in places near and far, is overlooked for reasons of geopolitical convenience.
The export of terrorism as state policy to incite separatism and militancy in the neighbourhood is also overlooked for reasons of geopolitical benefits.
In addition, the repression carried out by the state apparatus on one’s own citizens in the name of fighting terrorism also breeds terrorism.
Therefore, one of the biggest challenges peacelovers and peacemakers face is to create wider societal and global support for the need to make non-violence as the credo of nation-states and all their institutions of governance – both with regard to how nation-states conduct with one another, and also with regard to how they relate to their own citizens.
Nation-states, individual national societies, and the global community as a whole, have to reform their mindsets and practices about national security and internal security, and move steadily towards collective and cooperative security, and non-violent ways of resolution of conflicts, disputes and differences.
Reflecting on the experience of humanity since the origin of civilisation, all national, racial, religious and sub-religious communities must accept that even the struggle for justice has to be non-violent, since violent struggles for justice have invariably ended up creating new forms of injustice and new alibi for violence.
Thus, there can be no peace without justice and no justice without peace.
This is hardly surprising since both Peace – Non-violence is a better word for it -- and Justice are God’s immutable attributes. And God has created Man to make these godly attributes his own.
This suggests that humankind needs to make the transition from biological evolution to spiritual evolution.
Mahatma Gandhi tells us: “In our present state, we are partly men and partly beasts.”
Maharishi Aurobindo (1872-1950), a towering Indian philosopher in modern times, describes the path of this spiritual evolution in the following words in his book The Hour of God.
“Man is a transitional being. He is not final. The step from man to superman is the next approaching achievement in the earth evolution. It is inevitable because it is at once the intention of the inner spirit and the logic of nature's process.
“Barbarism is an intermediate sleep, not an original darkness” in human evolution. The cause of this “evolutionary sleep” is the imbalance in the progress of human life. “At present mankind is undergoing an evolutionary crisis in which is concealed a choice of its destiny; for a stage has been reached in which the human mind has achieved in certain directions enormous development while in others it stands arrested and bewildered and can no longer find a way.”
Aurobindo signals this new evolutionary journey and destiny of man in a marvellous sentence: “Man has been less than human today, but he can be more than human tomorrow”.
Just as St. Francis of Assisi was already More Than Human in the yester-millennium.