Islamic perspective
Dawoodi Bohras - Islamic perspective

Twenty First Century, religon and peace

The new millennium is about to dawn and it would be interesting to see how religion faces new challenges of the coming century. The World Conference for Religion and Peace (WCRP), an international organisation based in New York organised a four day international conference in Amman, Jordan from 25-29 November 1999 to define the role of religion in promoting peace in the world in the twenty first Century.

Some fifteen religions from 100 countries were represented in this exercise. Top religious leaders and heads of religious communities participated in the discussion. What was most interesting was that the Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders from the conflict-torn Bosnia and Kosovo were also present and they talked to each other face to face and vowed to promote peace in the region.

Raisul Ulama Mustafa Cervic, the chief Mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina made some interesting remarks. He pointed out that it is too dangerous to leave politics to politicians alone and similarly too hazardous to leave theology to theologians alone. It is, needless to say, professional politicians and theologians who are at the root of the problem. It is very true that politics or theology should not be left to professionals. People themselves have every right to be involved both in politics as well as in theology. It cannot be done over their heads. When left to only the professionals they ignore interests of the people and promote their own interests.

Another important question to be answered is, is religion alone responsible for the conflict in the world? Conflict in many parts of the world like Bosnia or Kosovo appear to be due to religion? Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan maintained that it is not religion but politics that is guilty. Hassan Talal said that "we believe in positive engagement as partners in a world which is becoming increasingly interconnected and interdependent, and where borders are becoming less meaningful, or even disintegrating." He also maintained that "We are moving toward a 'single world' with a single agenda. But we want all peoples and all cultures to contribute to the formulation of this agenda' so that it will reflect our mutual interests and concerns."

He also made a significant remark that "For a 'single world' with a single agenda formulated according to the value system of one culture 'to the exclusion of others' will be a world in which injustice and marginalisation will inevitably lead to conflict and, further, to war. However, a 'a single world' built upon ten thousand cultures, a world in which commonalties are the foundation and particularities are the cornerstones, will be characterised by co-operation. This is the only basis for common living and a joint effort necessary for the construction of a brighter future in which all individuals and all communities have the means to achieve their potential."

Holy peace not holy war

There is much truth in what Hassan bin Talal observed. The problem is precisely what he pointed out. The west has its own agenda and wants to impose it on the unwilling peoples of Asia and Africa. All those who participated in the conference felt that mutual respect for each others religious traditions and cultures is very necessary for peace. It is when the west determines the agenda for the whole world that Usama bin Laden are born who, in order to fight western hegemony, promote religious hatred and extremism. The likes of Usama use religious vocabulary that is as dangerous as armament. In a lighter vein Mustafa Cervic of Bosnia suggested that there should be disarmament of extremist vocabulary like 'holy war' and holy peace should take its place.

Rabbi David Rosen from Israel was of the opinion that though it is important that one should love ones neighbour but then this principle can be applied by some one negatively and say if my neighbour hates me I will also hate him. This will again promote conflict and bloodshed. So he felt it is essential to emphasise that regardless of how the other behaves and regardless of the pain of your own experience, one must not loose sight of the fact that every human being, regardless of race, colour, creed or sex, is of inestimable transcendent Divine value.

Accordingly, we must behave with respect for each person's life and dignity regardless of whether or not they behave correctly and regardless of one's own bitter experiences. But this is too moralistic to work successfully in the world of ordinary mortals. One wishes all human beings were like the ones Rabbi David Rosen suggests.

The Rabbi also said "The challenge of common living is precisely the ability to overcome our own sense of pain and alienation so that we may see the other as a child of God. He was right in pointing out that "an overwhelming number of the members of our religious communities are trapped in their own very real historic and even contemporary sense of victimhood. This is true in Northern Ireland, in the former Yugoslavia, in Sri Lanka, in the Middle East and throughout the world where territorial conflicts exist involving human identities, inextricably bound up with religious cultural factors. In all such contexts and beyond them, the various protagonists feel that they have been someone's victims and the they are not genuinely accepted and respected by the other."

Respect for others' dignity

This is, needless to say, heart of the matter. Unless we accept the other with all sense of his/her dignity there cannot be peace. Mutual acceptability and respect for others dignity is what is lacking and we often end up blaming the religion. Religion and religious values can only be a guide for us. What is important to bring revolution within us and develop a culture of respecting the other and accepting him/her as he/she is. It is sense of our superiority over the other that brings us in head on conflict with him. We think that the other threatens our existence, our domination and hence we seek to maintain our domination through assertion of our superiority which is often imaginary. It results in rejection of the other and hence conflicts.

Arch Bishop of Canterbury Carey posed a question, like Prince Hassan bin Talal, do religions cause conflict? But he also posed the question can religion resolve conflict? While the answer for former is in negative, the one for the later can be positive if religion is not made an instrument of promoting selfish interests. Though to promote selfish interests is quite contrary to the very spirit of religion this is what is sought to be done by human beings championing their own vested interests. Similarly the Grand Mufti of al-Azhar Sheikh Tantawi profusely quoted from the Qur'an and the Prophet's traditions to show that Islam means peace and there is no place for belligerence of any kind.

What role religion can play in the coming century? Will religion be sidelined in view of the breath taking technological progress or will it be a valuable resource for peace in the coming years or a source of conflict? These are the questions which have to be grappled with and one has to find answers to them. Religion is not a source of conflict but it can be a valuable resource for peace. Religious identities clash as these identities signify much more than mere religious beliefs.

A religious identity signifies, besides religious beliefs, cultural and territorial hegemony, a conflict with the other who competes for these cultural and territorial spaces. Also, religious identities are, more often than not, the signifiers of specificities that are sought to be contested by other cultural identities. The battles for political or cultural supremacy are fought through assertion of religious identities.

This possibility has tremendously increased in view of globalisation. Globalisation seeks to steamroll all other cultures and impose western secular and consumerist values over the people of Asia and Africa who not only are rich in their own traditional cultures but also are having a feeling of deprivation vis-a-vis the developed western world which has pushed them to the margin of existence.

Hope of meaningful coexistence

It is this marginalised sense of existence and acute sense of exploitation that fuels violent conflicts in the region. Unless this imbalance is corrected there cannot be hope of meaningful coexistence. One also has to bear in mind that today's world is basically pluralist in character. Rapid means of transportation cause mass migration both within and outside the country. Large number of people is migrating to other (western countries) for better prospects. The migrants either compete with the local people for jobs or become a source of cheap labour causing deep resentment among the natives. These battles are often fought under the garb of religious or cultural identities. Thus globalisation on one hand, and, mass migration on the other, is fuelling religious and cultural conflicts both in Asian and African countries as well as in western countries.

In coming days when we enter the 21st century this process will be intensified causing more religio-cultural conflicts. More the conflict greater the need for coexistence. However, coexistence will be difficult if there is no sincere attempt to build a just society. It is in this respect that religion can become an important resource for justice and peace. If religious values, rather than religious rituals, are asserted, there will be greater possibility of building a just and peaceful society. It must be noted that the core values of all religions are complimentary rather than contradictory. If Hinduism and Jainism stress non-violence Buddhism stresses compassion. If Christianity stresses love, Islam stresses justice and equality. These core values can become an important resource for a more meaningful and peaceful society.

But besides this there will be more important challenges facing the religion in coming days. These challenges are already surfacing. One of the greatest challenges is that of gender justice. There is not a single gender just society today neither in the 'advanced' western society nor in traditional Asian and African societies. Unfortunately the World Conference for Religion and Peace (WCRP) also did not address this question adequately. Though some people did refer to it was only in passing. The women in this conference did not even have important role to play. The question of gender justice will be most fundamental question in coming century and without addressing this question it will not be possible to build a just society, much less a peaceful one.