From the DNA on the 6th of February 2015
Each year, since 1953, on the first Thursday in February, the President of theUnited States of America takes part and leads the National Prayer Breakfast. It is an annual ritual attended by politicians, administrators, media, religious leaders, and other members of society. They wax eloquent about giving, sharing, tolerance and other lovely values that remain largely forgotten for the next 364 days. This year was no different. President Obama addressed the gathered crowd, and spoke about faith and values; and in particularabout
“the degree to which we’ve seen professions of faith used both as an instrument of great good, but also twisted and misused in the name of evil.”
President Obama, then went on to talk about how faith not only gives strength to achieve, but also to selflessly serve others. But, when one talks about the power of faith for ‘good work’, it is impossible to ignore the other, more warped, image of faith; where the distortion of faith leads to a almost nihilistic approach to the world. Faith imposed by the barrel of the gun. The President acknowledges this and says:
But we also see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge — or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon. From a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris, we have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, professed to stand up for Islam, but, in fact, are betraying it. We see ISIL, a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism — terrorizing religious minorities like the Yezidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.
We see sectarian war in Syria, the murder of Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, religious war in the Central African Republic, a rising tide of anti-Semitism and hate crimes in Europe, so often perpetrated in the name of religion.
One of the problems with seeing such large scale damage caused by bigots claiming to act in the name of religion is that, we see a religions through the distorted lens of the hater, not the loving lens of the devout. And, while religious bigotry is not a new thing, the pervasive nature of mass media ensures that we see only the bigoted part of religion in all its brutality, illogic and intolerance; and ignore the billions who follow religions in their true spirit. President Obama refers to this:
Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ. Michelle and I returned from India — an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity — but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs — acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation.
It is the last set of lines that has caused a furore in India. My issue with the statement is less what President Obama has said – he has the right to his opinions – and more an issue with the assertion about the Mahatma.
Gandhiji would not have been shocked by religious intolerance. He lived in a time that was far more brutal and intolerant than the world we inhabit today. He lived through the first world war, the independence movement, the second world war and the partition of India. He saw the aftermath of firing on peaceful worshippers in Jallianwalla; policemen being burnt alive at Chauri Chaura, the holocaust, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and brutal Hindu Muslim riots across India that scarred the psyche. The brutality and carnage that was on display during this period, has not been matched since. If you remember your history right, while the rest of India was celebrating Independence, Mahatma Gandhi was fasting to end riots in the name of religion.
(Watch this clip from the film Gandhi, featuring Ben Kingsley and Om Puri in a cinematic representation of the human tragedy of religious riots).
In each of our cultures, there have been great acts of courage, belief and faith. There have been people who have fought relentlessly to end the tyranny of men over other men (and women). In each of our cultures and nations, there have been those who have upheld these values, and there are those who choose, willfully, to restrict rights of others based on religion. I am sure that Thomas Jefferson would have been appalled at the hounding ofEdward Snowden. I am certain that Martin Luther King Jr. would have been saddened by the state of race relations in the USA, especially the impunity with which the police kill young, unarmed black men. Margret Sanger, the pioneer of birth control, would have been devastated at the fact that in 2015, women in parts of America have no control over their own body and male politicians choose whether women should have access to birth control (including abortion). Roosevelt, the father of the New Deal, that got the USA out of recession and back to work, would have probably joined the Occupy movement. I am not even sure what the founding fathers of the United States would have made of Gitmo. And, while these may seem like random sentences linked together to prove a point, they are not. These acts derive from the USA moving more and more towards religious conservatism, and nationalism that is derived from it. In many of these cases God, Nation, Patriotism are tied up in one tangled knot and is difficult to unravel. And these need to be separated, to make society a better place. And, this is the lesson India can learn from the USA – not to mix up our various identities by putting them in the blender to create a giant all encompassing identity.
Would Gandhi have been shocked by what is happening in India? I don’t think so. He would have been saddened. But rather than wasting time on emotions, what Gandhi would have done was what he always did; direct action, appealing to the conscience of the people to come together and defeat hatred. The reason he was successful was because he enabled people to become better/greater than what was expected of them. And, that is what makes the Gandhi experiment unique. Not that he was non-violent or practised ahimsa. What made Gandhi a Mahatma, is that he raised the consciousness of the nation towards that mode of conflict resolution. And, while riots are covered, and hatred is amplified, there are a lot more people working towards rebuilding the peace, healing the wounds, and rebuilding trust.
Do read the rest of the speech here, it is truly inspiring and helps all of us contemplate. If we get stuck on one line, we will miss the wood for the trees.