I am an avid user of Twitter. A few weeks ago, I tweeted the following reflection:
“I've felt His presence at SistineChapel, UmayyadMosque in Damascus, the Guru's abode in Amritsar, on Kedarnath's snowy peaks...He's the Same.”
I could have as well added other holy places around the world where I have had the same uplifting experience of the sarva-vyaapi (omnipresent) nature of God ─ the ancient little temple of Lord Rama on the banks of River Krishna in my native village in the Indian state of Karnataka; the small Gurdwara in a little lane near my house in Mumbai which feeds the poor each day (I live in a neighbourhood populated largely by people who were rendered aliens in their own homeland in what became Pakistan in 1947 and were forced to migrate in the wake of the horrendous Partition riots that killed over a million people ─ Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims ─in the name of religion); at Raj Ghat on the banks of River Yamuna in Delhi where Mahatma Gandhi, the greatest apostle of peace and religious harmony in modern times, was cremated, having fallen to the bullets of a Hindu fanatic (Gandhi adapted and popularised a hymn which says: Ishwar Allah TeroNaam, SabkoSanmati De Bhagwaan – God, Thou who art the same whatever be Thy names; kindly give wisdom to all); the old and breathtakingly beautiful churches, with their colourful onion domes, in the towns across Russia which I visited when it was still governed by the godless communist party; the hundreds of Buddhist caves in Luoyang province in China, where I was startled to see a high-ranking Chinese diplomat, obviously a communist party member, offering prayers in a most pious way and who, when asked, said, “Buddhism is an inseparable part of China; my 90-year-old mother has created a small shrine inside our home in Shanghai”; and, in Umayyad Mosque itself, which was built on John the Baptist’s basilica and where a small Christian shrine is still preserved…
One could add more places, but it’s unnecessary. There is no point in belabouring the truth that God is One, He is everywhere, He is the same for all faith communities in the world, and He is the protector of, and merciful to, every living being on this planet. When this is so self-evident, why do some (not all) people divide themselvesin the name of God? In other words, why do they claim “God is on our side”, asserting thereby that God is partisan? Worse still, why do they, not infrequently and sometimes in horrendous ways, shed blood in defence of‘their’ God?
Blood shed in the name of religion
We are having this International Meeting for Peace here in Rome in the midst of some horrific acts of violence in the name of God in recent weeks. In Baghdad, over 60 mourners at a cemetery of Shia Muslims were blown up by suicide bombers; they were the latest entry to the large number ─ over 1000 since August this year ─ of people who have perished in terrorist violence in Iraq. In Kenya, more than 70 people were killed when terrorists belonging to Al-Shabab, a militia fighting for the establishment of an Islamist state in neighbouring Somalia, stormed a shopping mall in Nairobi.Even as the gun battle between the attackers and security forces was going on there, news came from Peshawar in Pakistan that suicide bombers killed over 80 Christians at a historic church in the city. The incident evoked such outrage that a Muslim writer, writing on the website Let Us Build Pakistan, thundered: "How dare you brandish human flesh with demonic beliefs and call it religion?" (http://lubpak.com/archives/284061). "Either the terrorists are defeated or #Pakistan will be lost forever," opined an editorial in the Karachi-based newspaper Dawn, which was founded by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. According to one estimate, terrorist acts have claimed nearly 40,000 people, most of them Muslims, in Pakistan since 2001.
It distresses me to say that India ─ a land which, for the longest period in human history, has been more multi-religious than any other country in the world ─is also a witness to a lot of crimes in the name of religion. Last month, over 50 people died in Hindu-Muslim clashes in a town not far from Delhi. Since 1988, nearly 20,000 people have died in terrorist attacks, and about 10,000 have lost their lives in sectarian violence, in various parts of India. Particularly shameful have been the incidents of large-scale targeted violence, such as the carnage in Delhi in November 1984 when nearly 3,000 innocent Sikhs were killed in the aftermath of the assassination of India’s then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, by two of her Sikh bodyguards; and the riots that rocked Gujarat in early 2002, when several hundred innocent people, mostly Muslims, were butchered, in retaliation of the torching of a train killing seventy Hindu devotees.
More recently, violence has erupted between Buddhists and Muslims in India’s neighbourhood─Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
Again, one can add many more facts and figures about religious or religion-inspired violence in different parts of the contemporary world. The compendium would in fact become mammoth if it also included such informationpertaining to the medieval and ancient periods. But there is no point in belabouring the truth that in all periods of history religion has been misused to shed human blood. Often, religion is a cover rather than the cause in such instances of violence. Political, national and racial conflicts have frequently been given a religious colour to suit the ends of the parties involved. What isincontrovertible, however, is that the perpetrators of such violence believe that “God is on our side” and never on “other’s side”. They believe, and they try vigorously to make their followers and co-religionists believe that their own religion (as they interpret it) is right and the religion of their “enemy” is wrong.
Why ─ and how ─ religion is misused to commit acts of violence
An objective examination of why religion is vulnerable to be misused in this way would reveal that, for many people in the world, religious identity is the strongest among the multiple identities that all of us have. A person’s citizenship, political affiliation, economic status, etc. may change, but rarely their religious beliefs. Religious beliefs are deep-rooted and, unlike other beliefs and understandings, passed on from generation to generation. What imparts uncommon strength and longevity to them is the fact that the beliefs addressevery human being’s basic questions about “Who am I?”, “What is the purpose of my existence?”,“Where do I belong in this big world and universe?”, “What or Who is God?” Reason does not provide all the answers to these questions, but faith-based explanations give much-needed meaning, comfort and reassurance that sustain human existence.
However, religious identity is not purely a personal matter. Bonds of solidarity link the person to others with the same identity.Communal solidarity has many positive aspects to it. It offers a social support system beyond one’s immediate family. It becomes a vehicle for the transmission of many life-nurturing traditions and value-systems, both within the community and also inter-generationally.
But faith-based communal solidarity also has two negative possibilities. Firstly, it brings into play a certain group-mind that creates a sense of “us” and “them”. Those who do not profess and practice our religion, who do not share our identity, are judged with a different yardstick by us. And if we are not enlightened enough to know that differences need not be a cause of discord, and that diversity of religious identities is a natural ─ indeed, God-desired ─ characteristic of human societies, we are likely to develop prejudices and ill-will towards others who do not belong to our community. Such prejudices and ill-will are compounded by our ignorance about the beliefs and traditions of other communities. After all, the more we know about the “other”, the more certainly we will conclude that differences are of an external nature and that, internally, all of us share the same human bond and hence our most fundamental identity is that we all belong to a Global Human Community. The seers of ancient India proclaimed this truth in the Vedic maxim ─VasudhaivaKutumbakam, which means “The entire world is One Family”.
In the absence of this understanding, our ignorance, prejudices and ill-will become the ammunition for conflict and violence. Let us not think only those with swords and guns and bombs in their hands, or those who actually hatch the conspiracy to kill, are guilty of committing acts of religious violence. Crimes of this kind are first committed in the group-mind ─ which means that even those who do not actually participate in religion-inspired violence contribute to its perpetration with their bigoted feelings and thoughts which spread in the group-mind.These bigoted feelings and thoughts are manipulated and inflamed by evil forces that plot and execute violent crimes in the name of religion.
The second way in which the group-mind becomes vulnerable to acting as a cause and context of communal conflict is that it is a repository of the accumulated memory of real, imagined, selective and distorted narratives of the events from history. This explains why different people have their own different ideas about injustice that “our community” suffered in the past at the hands of the “other” community. If such collective memory of the real or imagined wrongs suffered in the past is not reconciled to allow for a better future for both “us” and “them”, the chain of retribution can never end; and what’s more it can be easily manipulated by the merchants of death masquerading as guardians of religions. They propound extremist ideologies that grossly misinterpret scriptural canons to widen and deepen the divide between “us” and “them”, thus seeking justification and support from their own community for their acts of terrorism and violence against other communities.
Intra-faith violence─ sub-dividing “our” God
Interpretation or deliberate misinterpretation of one’s own religion to suit one’s ends ─ and hence to justify the recourse to violence in the name of God who is on “our side ─becomes a necessity even when, and especially when, the “other” is within one’s own broad religious or theological fold.
How else can one explain the tension, hostility and violence that sometimes mars the relations among Jews, Christians and Muslims, all of whom are considered “People of the Book” or as people belonging to a common Abrahamic tradition?
Also, how else can one explain the sectarian violence in several Muslim countries? The Sunni-Shia conflict is almost as old as Islam itself. In Pakistan, the ascendancy of extremist Islamist ideologies, which are backed and indeed exported by certain organisations outside its territory, has seen systematic targeting of Sufi shrines. Mosques and religious establishments of Ahmadiyya community, which are regarded as heretic and non-Muslim, have especially faced the brunt of Islamist bigotry.
Bahá'ísface persecution in all Islamic countries. Although Bahá'ís themselves regard theirs to be an independent faith, many Muslim leaders view it as apostasy from Islam. They have faced severest persecutionin Iran, a country which also, many centuries ago, expelled a faith that had originated in its own soil ─ Zoroastrianism ─because the torch-bearers of the incoming faith, Islam, regarded it idolatrous. The followers of Zoroastrianism, who migrated to India to seek shelter, are now reduced to the status of the tiniest religious minority in the world.
Within Hinduism, the misuse of religion for practicing social exclusion and discrimination, sometimes resulting in violence, stems out of prejudices rooted in the caste system. The heinous observance of “untouchability” by the so-called upper castes towards certain “lower” castes has largely come to an end in India. Nevertheless, notions of caste superiority and inferiority have not disappeared. This is because people belonging to the so-called upper castes are conditioned to believe that social inequalities are God-ordained.
Thus, in all forms of intra-faith conflict we see that an “other” is sought to be created within the community of “us”. The group-mind of a religious community is further fragmented and, to facilitate this, “Our God” is sub-divided in such a way as to claim that the true God ─ whatever that means! ─ is “on our side”.
Why peacemakers should ─ and how they can ─ use the ‘God on Our Side’ belief for their mission
But can the “God on Our Side” argument be snatched out of the hands of terrorists and other killers in the name of religion, and used by peacemakers for their noble mission?Certainly it can. Indeed, it must. For there is no greater and truer principle than “God on Our Side” to help us promote universal love and build a non-violent world.
This statement originates from the belief deeply cherished by all genuine peacemakers in the world that ─and here I recall what I mentioned at the beginning of this paper ─ God is the same everywhere and He is the same for all human beings and all other creatures. God is the Creator, Sustainer and Governor of this entire universe and all that it contains. And since everything and all human beings and all communities are His creation, how can God ever countenance any act of some people to use His name to justify killing other people?
It must be emphasised here that there is no religion which does not claim that God is the Creator of our world, of the vast universe of which it is a part, and also of the unseen and unknown reality beyond the known and imagined universe.This is the true foundation and fundamental principle of all religions. Hence, any act to create enmity among human beings and to commit acts of violence out of such enmity is a crime in the eyes of God and a violation of the basic principle of every religion in the world.
The meaning of this self-evident and simple religious truth is just this: God is on the side of Peacemakers; He is not, and can never be, on the side of terrorists and other perpetrators of violence. This truth is so self-evident and simple that its very telling seems so embarrassingly unnecessary. Yet, in the violence-scarred world that we are living in, this truth needs telling and re-telling; and, above all, this truth needs to be acted upon. Our belief has to be action-oriented.
How can we peacemakers use the ‘God on Our Side’ truth to overpower those who are misusing it?
One of the greatest Indians in modern times to declare this truth to the world was Swami Vivekananda, a young Hindu monk who uttered the following inspiring words at the inaugural session of the first-ever Parliament of World Religions in Chicago on 11 September 1893.
“Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilizations and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.”
In the annals of human history, Swami Vivekananda’s 9/11 speech gives the clearest and the most prescient call for the rejection of the ideology of extremism which inspired the barbaric 9/11 terror attacks in 2001.He further reinforced this message in his address on the concluding day (27 September 1893) of the Parliament of World Religions.
“If the Parliament of Religions has shown anything to the world, it is this: It has proved to the world that holiness, purity and charity are not the exclusive possessions of any church in the world, and that every system has produced men and women of the most exalted character. In the face of this evidence, if anybody dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and the destruction of the others, I pity him from the bottom of my heart, and point out to him that upon the banner of every religion will soon be written in spite of resistance: ‘Help and not Fight,’ ‘Assimilation and not Destruction,’ ‘Harmony and Peace and not Dissension.’”
Swami Vivekananda’s speech is one of the finest expositions of the wise thought and prayer in the Rig Veda: “Let noble thoughts come to us from all sides.”
Coincidentally, the year 2013 marks the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda, about whom the renowned Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore said: “If you want to understand India, study Vivekananda.” The global community engaged in inter-faith dialogue will find in Vivekananda a teacher whose philosophy can guideour conflict-ridden world along the path towards a new epoch of conflict-resolution and concord-creation.
An important territory for conflict-resolution and concord-creation in today’s world is the candid and constructive dialogue both within the Muslim community and between Muslim and non-Muslim faith communities. Here we cannot afford to ignore some of the factors in modern-day global politics that have engendered strong anti-West, especially anti-USA, feelings among many Muslims around the world. Washington’s so-called ‘war on terror’, under which military invasions and attacks were carried out leading to the killing of tens of thousands of innocent people in Iraq, Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan, has provided a pretext for Islamist groups to launch terror attacks. Of course, we cannot also ignore the fact that such terror groups have perpetrated ghastly crimes even where there is no America policy at play. A prime example is the long series of terrorist attacks, fueled by religious extremism, targetted at India; such unprovoked attacks against innocent people leads to the urge for retaliation.
What this points out to is a pressing taskbefore the inter-faith dialogue community today to widely broadcast the essential teachings of one faith to educate the people belonging both to that faith community and also to other communities. For example, the widespread misconception among non-Muslims that Islam condones or commands violence against those who do not believe in it needs to be removed by invoking the teachings of the Holy Quran and its enlightened and authoritative exponents.
In recent years, one of the most influential Muslim voices to denounce violence in the name of Islam is that of Dr. Tariq-ul-Qadri, an eminent Pakistan-born Islamic scholar. In an exhaustively researched 475-page FATWA on Terrorism and Suicide Bombings he published in 2010, Dr. Qadri writes: “Protection of the life, honour and property of non-Muslim citizens living in any Islamic state or any non-Muslim country is a binding duty upon the Muslims in general and the Islamic state in particular.” He buttresses this view by invoking a clear injunction in the Holy Quran:
“Whoever kills a human being for other than manslaughter or [as a prescribed punishment for spreading] for disorder in the land, it is as if he has killed all of humanity, and whosoever saves the life of one, it shall be as if he has saved the life of all mankind.”
Dr. Qadri further avers: “Terrorism and violence cannot be considered to be permissible in Islam on the basis of any excuse…Any good intention or any mistake of foreign policy of any country or any pretext cannot legalise the act of terrorism.”
In his Foreword to DrTahir-ul-Qadri’s, Prof. John L. Esposito, Georgetown University writes: “(This) distinctive and voluminous fatwa is a categorical and unequivocal rejection of all acts of illegitimate violence, terrorism and every act of suicide bombing against all human beings, Muslim or non-Muslim.”
Like Dr. Qadri’s, there are numerous Muslim votaries of peace around the world. Making their views and voices widely known is the duty of all those who want Islam to be understood in its true light.
In this context, the dialogue between Judaism, Christianity and Islam is a crucial component in the global agenda for peace because it can reaffirm the Oneness of God and the kinship of the Abrahamic faiths as an integral part of the larger kinship of all the faith communities in the world. The positive position of the Catholic Church on this issue is stated in the comprehensive compendium titled Interreligious Dialogue – The Official Teaching of the Catholic Church from the Second Vatican Council to John Paul II (1963-2005). In this, I was happy to see the following excerpt in the message of Pope John Paul II to the Participants in the Symposium on ‘Holiness in Christianity and Islam’ in Rome on May 9, 1985:
“As I have said in other meetings with Muslims, your God and ours is one and the same, and we are brothers and sisters in the faith of Abraham. All true holiness comes from God, who is called ‘The Holy One’ in the sacred books of the Jews, Christians and Muslims.”
I mentioned at the beginning of this paper that one of the places that makes me strongly feel the presence of God is Raj Ghat in New Delhi, which memorialises the spot where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated. It is appropriate that I conclude this paper by recalling the views of this greatest apostle of peace in modern times on the oneness of God, the oneness of humankind, and the fundamental oneness of all faiths.
Gandhi’s greatest contribution to the peace movement in the world is that he firmly anchored it in the essential harmony in the teachings of all faiths and, with supreme courage, embodied that harmony in his own personality and political practice. In doing so, he introduced an important innovation: he equated God with Truth (Satya) and Nonviolence (Ahimsa). He wrote:
“Ahimsa is my God, and Truth is my God. When I look for Ahimsa, Truth says, ‘Find it through me.’ When I look for Truth, Ahimsa says, ‘Find it out through me.”’
Therefore, all those of us who believe that “God is on OUR side” ─ ‘OUR’ connoting here the entire mankind, undivided by any other identity and unpolluted by any trace of bigotry ─ should realise that God can be on ‘OUR’ side only if we are on the side of Truth and Nonviolence. To the extent that peacemakers around the world are able to act on the basis of this realisation, to that extent we will be able to stop the misuse of “Our God” and “Our Religion” for shedding human blood.