By Mirza A. Beg
29 March, 2006
societies feel besieged they find it comforting to cast a longing backward
glance where all sins are washed off in the pool of selective memory
and pretentious reading of history with rose colored glasses. It may
work as a survival mechanism for individuals, but when communities indulge
in it as a salve for the wounds purportedly by the hands of others,
while the worst ones being self inflicted, it is a recipe for continued
As individuals, most of us
would help any one in need, but as a part of a group we tend to think
in terms of us versus them and some times indulge in what we would condemn
in others. The cultural imprint over the religion is often a source
of contention and intolerance.
Religion affects us at three
intertwined levels that can not be completely separated. They are- personal,
social and political.
On the personal level, religion
answers to our most in-expressible sublime yearnings. It gives us hope
in the most hopeless circumstances; it gives us moorings and a strong
sense of morality.
On the social level, it usually
is a force for the good of the community, but starts becoming sectarian
when it adopts exclusivity.
Religion as a political tool
has brought untold suffering throughout the history. Early 20th Century
saw the rise of irreligious and eventually anti religious communism.
It brought even more suffering to the people it ruled that religions
could have. Most emerging societies thought that socialism would raise
them to modernity, without the infrastructure of democracy, it deteriorated
to draconian dictatorship. After the disillusionment and suppression
by the dictatorships masked as socialism, the religions have come back
to dominate the world political debate. It is also becoming clearer
that even more so than the past, religion is invariably misused in the
service of the State. With greater sophistication in propaganda, politics
becomes sectarian in the service of religion and religion in debased
in the service of power hungry politicians.
One of the great challenges
of modern times for all societies is how to balance personal freedom
and restrictive societal obligations.
It pits the demands of religion
as one interprets it, against the freedom of others to interpret it
slightly or drastically differently. For a civil society to function
effectively, we accept restrictive rules and regulations for the common
good. Yet, with time, many seemingly good laws designed to benefit the
status quo prove to be bad and restrictive, even retrogressive and draconian.
Often good laws degenerate into a bad caricature of the intended purpose.
A pluralistic, democratic system regularly reevaluates and better interprets
such laws, not because of external pressures but because of its experiences
as a corrective mechanism.
It is time to learn and adapt.
All new or foreign ideas are not necessarily good or bad. It is important
to consider them thoughtfully; avoiding the pit falls of colonialist
19th and 20th centuries. Adoption or rejection without thoughtful evaluation,
simply because they are from outside, Eastern or Western, is indicative
of a closed mind. The baser Western mores have already infiltrated most
societies; what is being resisted is the individual freedom and free
flow of knowledge to our detriment.
Achieving a great civilization
is always much more difficult than descending into chaos. Circling the
wagons and pining for a past viewed through rose-colored glasses is
not an option, if the society aspires to greatness. What was considered
acceptable in the past needs reexamination in light of the present needs
and knowledge. A healthy civil dialogue ushers a gradual acceptance
of the desirable.
Humans are wired for and
feel comfortable in “group think”. Let us assume that all
of us belong to the same race, religion and creed, and in a political
speech I say that, “We are the most compassionate, caring and
just society. We are the brightest and the most blessed. Our religion
is the light to the world, and it is our calling to bring the world
to sanity and grace to lead the world to a better tomorrow. I suspect
the audience would clap heartily in unison and my poll numbers would
go up. However if I change the pronoun ‘WE’ to ‘I’,
my poll numbers would tank and would be accused of being an insufferable
An overwhelming majority
of us were born in our religions and culture, and have made no effort
to even know the basics of another religion let alone try to understand
them. We tend to either evangelize or avoid talking of religions altogether.
When we consider and compare cultures and religions, it is our unconscious
effort to show the superiority of our beliefs. Often we tend to be self
delusional, and compare the best from our religion to the worst of the
Religious texts do not lend
themselves to easy piece meal interpretations. We quote part of the
religious text that suites our purpose. One can find thousands of such
examples without much effort.
It is important to remember,
if we indulge in lies for our religion or against other religions in
order to enhance our religion, obviously we are not fooling God. We
are simply injuring the thing we purport to love, our religion and our
9/11 has changed the perception
of methods of war. Up to the 20th century the instruments of mass destruction
were in the arsenal of the states. The biggest purveyors of terrorism
to gain advantage were also the states. Now with the proliferation of
information and retailing of weapons of mass destruction, individuals
have joined the fray on a world scale.
It is the duty of truly religious
people to raise their voices against the individual terrorism, but even
more so the state terrorism, because it is done in our name. Because
of the hold of religion on average populace, it becomes imperative to
not let our faith be enlisted by the state to harm others. When the
upholders of religion refuse to be a part of the solution, they become
a part of the problem by design or default.
The best we can do with our
limited knowledge and intellectual resources is to be honest with ourselves.
That is what our religion asks us to do. What do we believe and why?
Introspection – examining our own belief with an open mind and
to be a little more critical of ourselves before criticizing others
is the best way to build bridges It opens up the mind, not only we understand
others better and with more empathy, but we discover a more beautiful
and fulfilling dimension of our own religions that is uplifting, liberating
and peace loving.
Mirza A. Beg can be contacted at email@example.com