November  2001 

To my Muslim friends

Dialogue, not retaliation, is the answer


Television is often our window on the world, and these days TV has brought us hundreds of pictures from across the Muslim world — from Palestine and Egypt to Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia — of men in their thousands protesting against the American bombing of Afghanistan, and proclaiming that Osama bin Laden is their hero, their leader and their saviour and how willingly they would give their lives for him.

Leader? Hero? Saviour? A criminal who has masterminded the deaths of thousands and who gloats that there is even more death and destruction to come? A criminal who had arranged the cold-blooded murder of thousands of innocents in the WTC bombings, and other similar incidents in Tanzania and Lebanon? A criminal who has financed the enduring terrorism of thousands of Muslims in Kashmir, and who has funded the Taliban to destroy Afghanistan? And thousands of Muslims proclaim this man as their saviour?

Is there something distorted and misguided in the Muslim mind that so many should arise in support of him?

This is no defence for the bombing of Afghanistan. War is messy, violent and destructive. Thousands of innocent lives are lost. And if the Americans are responsible for this, let us also state candidly that the Afghans are equally responsible for holding their own people hostage, and for killing thousands of their own fellow Muslims in the internecine civil war which followed the Soviet withdrawal.

Thousands came out into the streets to protest against the Americans. I did not notice as many coming out to protest against the slaughter of innocent Muslim Kashmiris by Pakistani and Afghani terrorists. I did not notice as many applauding the Americans when their bombs stopped the “Christian” Serbians from slaughtering the Muslim Bosnians. Is there a double standard here?

There is. And this has to do with the medieval framework of the ‘Muslim mind’.

There is probably no uniform Muslim mentality. Nevertheless in the tense and war-torn atmosphere of today, the fundamentalist ulema have succeeded in creating an image of “Islam under threat”, which demands that Muslims everywhere must come to its defence. The average Muslim sees himself as belonging to the ummah (community) of believers to which he has obligations, and distanced from all “others” (kafirs) to whom he has no obligations whatever.

This not to say that the Muslim world is united, as is commonly believed. It is split geographically, religiously, socio–economically and along gender, as any other group. It appears to act in solidarity, but this solidarity is only in the united resolve to destroy. This is why all that Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda can promise is to destroy the West. He has no ability to build, to create, to bring prosperity and peace. This is also why the Taliban, which pretends to rule by the “pure” laws of the Quran has in fact not brought peace and stability to the Afghanistan it controls, but only savage oppression, violence against women and minorities, and a bankrupt economy.

This should answer anyone who happens to think that returning to “pure Islamic” teachings is a guarantee for happiness and prosperity. To be fair, even the Communists for all their organized violence and their concentration camps, were more beneficial to the common people.

To return to the Muslim mindset, I said it was “medieval”. It believes sincerely but erroneously that all Muslims everywhere belong to one spiritual and political realm, just as Christians in medieval Europe (the only comparable example) believed that all Christians owed a political loyalty to the Pope as their spiritual and temporal sovereign. That was “Christendom”, and as a reality it is obsolete. No Christian today believes in it anymore. Because, in the intervening years, the violence of the wars of religion, the persecutions of Christians by other Christians, the awareness of other religious traditions and other Scriptures, the impact of science, technology, commerce and ecology have wrought a sea change in the Christian mentality. Today modernity challenges each religious tradition with rationality, economic development, social equality and pluralism.

Today, the values of secularism (which most Muslims abhor) teach that this world has a value even though its values are not total and absolute. Total and absolute values belong only to God, whose will is ascertained through the primacy of one’s personal conscience. However , secular or “this worldly” values also teach us to respect the consciences of others, not to inflict violence on oneself (suicide, masquerading under the delusion of martyrdom), not to inflict violence on others through persecution, terrorism or war.

The Muslim world looks at the West as a homogeneous “Christian” world, which is actually a false perspective. The West is no longer inspired by “Christian” values, even if its tourist attractions relate to a Christian past. The West looks at the Islamic world as homogeneously barbaric, violent and hostile — and this, too, is false. Both sides traffic in stereotypes and delusions. When will each learn to jettison such erroneous thinking, and appreciate the plurality of community, class, ideology and national interest which exists in each bloc?
Only when responsible members from each community challenge their own brothers as well as encounter the “other” side in a spirit of dialogue.

Unless dialogue takes the place of confrontation, each side risks tearing the other apart, and destroying the entire world as we know it.

In this, both Christians and Muslims may have to learn from Hindus. Both Islam and Christianity have traditionally seen themselves as perfect and complete religions, and feel they have nothing to learn from anyone else. In fact others are “unbelievers” to whom they have no obligation, only the obligation to convert. This is the most important attitude which must change. If there is conversion, let it begin with oneself. In today’s world, dialogue means the obligation to listen with respect, even if one does not change one’s opinion. Dialogue implies an openness to change.

There are pressures on the Americans not to act hastily and to temper their desire for violent revenge. There are small but persistent peace movements in the West which run counter to the official policies of the governments. Is there openness to debate and discussion in Islam without the fear of turning violent, without the fear of being assassinated for one’s outspokenness? Islam is too great a religion to be held in bondage to a defective interpretation which originates in the hate–filled mind of a terrorist. n

(Myron J. Pereira is director, Xavier Institute of Communications, Mumbai).



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