By James M Dorsey
a tough time for men and women of the cloth, at least those whose message is
one of peace, tolerance, mutual respect, equality and inter-faith dialogue.
the rise of populism, nationalism, protectionism, fear of the other,
anti-migrant and anti-foreigner sentiment, and hate speech is an erosion of the
norms of debate. Articulation of hate speech has become permissible, if not
racist and supremacist have risen in significance even in democratic societies
that project themselves as open, tolerant guarantors of equal rights
irrespective of nationality, ethnicity, religion, colour or sexuality.
Suppressing those voices through laws and bans drives hate speech and racism
underground, it doesn't erase or eradicate it. Countering it with a message of
tolerance and mutual respect won't erase it either, but can help shape an
environment in which those principles become dominant again.
face it, prejudice is a fact of life. Its inbred in whatever culture each of us
adheres to and whatever education at home and in schools that we have enjoyed,
irrespective of how conservative or liberal our family and societal backgrounds
other words, prejudice is not the issue, it is how we deal with it, how we
manage it. The problem arises when we lose our sense of relativity, when we
adopt an absolutist approach, the high way or no way.
quote Mahatma Gandhi, a deeply religious Hindu, who said in 1942: “I believe with my soul that the God of the
Qur'an is also the God of Gita and that we are all, no matter by what name
designated, children of the same God. My whole soul rebels against the idea
that Hinduism and Islam represent two antagonistic cultures…To ascent to such a
doctrine is for me a denial of God.”
battles in the late 1940s and 1950s over a proposed national ban in India on
the slaughter of cows, Gandhi declared himself a worshipper of cows whom he
regarded with the same veneration as he viewed his mother. Yet, Gandhi, went on
to say that “the Hindu religion prohibits cow slaughter for the Hindus, not for
the world. The religious prohibition comes from within. Any imposition from
without means compulsion. Such compulsion is repugnant to religion.”
visit in 1942 to a German camp populated by Indian prisoners of war captured
from the British during fighting in North Africa, Subhas Chandra Bose, a deeply
religious leader of the Indian independence movement, reportedly warned inmates
that “if you use religion to unite yourself today, you leave the door open for
someone to divide you later using the same sentiments.”
history validates Bose's warning, not only in India and Pakistan, but across
the globe expressed in Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and anti-Shiism, just to
name a few.
you represent faiths with multiple sects, legal schools and
interpretations—proof that your belief system in the narrow context of that
system is open to multiple interpretation. Some of those interpretations may be
intolerant, anti-pluralistic, supremacist. They too are a fact of life, like it
or not. Countering them depends on the social environment one creates, a sphere
within which men and women of the cloth have an important role to play as well.
It is also a function of the social and economic policies implemented by
the key is not suppression, what is suppressed doesn't go away, at best it goes
into hibernation, only to re-emerge at some point in the future. The key is
containment, communities and societies that make discriminatory, racist,
supremacist expressions socially taboo. That key is not enforcement by force of
law, but by social custom and an environment in which those expressions are
continuously challenged in public debate, social settings and individual
encounters. I am not talking about political correctness that stifles debate.
aside those whose beliefs are absolute and intolerant of any other view, a
majority of people gravitate towards the middle. It's what some call moral
shock or what former trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb dubbed black swans coupled
with economic, social and societal uncertainty and political manipulation that
drives people towards more literal, absolutist, intolerant beliefs.
last two decades have witnessed a renewed hardening of fault lines, not just
ones between strands of Islam and Christianity, but across the board. This
latest round started in 2001 with the moral shock of the September 11 attacks
in New York and Washington and subsequent attacks across Europe as well as in
Asia and Africa that continue until today. 9/11 was the death knell of multi-culturalism
and the cradle of the latest wave of Islamophobia and rising anti-Semitism.
economic financial crisis of 2008-09 with its decimating effect on the lower
and middle classes, the flourishing of jihadism, the impact of heinous attacks
close to home and the fear, a human being's most irrational emotion, that
generated the breeding ground for populism, nationalism, protectionism and the
return to primordial, absolutist beliefs propagated by multiple sources,
including men and women of the cloth.
sure, the groundwork for this pre-date 9/11, fuelled by some strands of
Christianity, massive Saudi funding across the globe of ultra-conservative
strains of Islam, and the use of religious intolerance by leaders and
governments because it served a political purpose.
illustrates what this can produce. The tolerant and live-let-live types live in
a bubble, primarily in Pakistan's three foremost cities, Karachi, Lahore and
Islamabad. The gravity of society has shifted towards intolerance,
anti-pluralism and supremacism. Ultra-conservatism has been woven into the
texture of segments of society and the culture of some institutions of the
state. It is a world in which absolute truth rules supreme, discrimination
based on an absolute truth is anchored into law, competence is determined not
exclusively on the basis of merit but on what faith one adheres to, democratic
freedoms are curtailed. Mob lynching becomes acceptable, violence against
minorities the norm, and anti-blasphemy the tool.
trend that is not unique to Pakistan and not unique to the Muslim world. It is
a trend that is nurtured by the rise of populism, nationalism, authoritarianism
and autocracy visible across Western societies, the Muslim world and Israel, in
other words irrespective of cultural-religious roots.
most, if not all of these countries, significant segments of the population
have no real stake in society. Intolerance, anti-pluralism, racism and
supremacism fuel the perception of disenfranchisement and marginalisation that
often produces a sense of not having anything to lose. It is some combination
of religious ultra-conservatism, exclusivist ethnic and nationalist sentiment,
and lack of a stake that creates breeding grounds for militancy and extremism.
women of the cloth working in Singapore are in many ways privileged. While
Singapore regulates hate speech or expressions it believes would undermine
harmony, it has been successful in ensuring that all segments of the population
have a stake in society—perhaps the most important factor in combatting
discrimination, racism and supremacism as well as militancy and extremism.
demonstrates messages of tolerance and inter-ethnic and inter-faith harmony can
and will be heard in a political and social environment that fosters mutual
respect and dialogue.
is however one caveat. Peace and harmony in society requires peace and harmony
at home. The divisions and animosity between different religions and
ethnicities at large are reflected in divisions and animosity within faith
mutual respect and dialogue starts in one's own community and its message is as
credible as one practices it without exception. That probably requires a
redefinition of the concept of absolute truth. That's a tough order, but no one
claims that ensuring that a peaceful and harmonious existence and future would
be easy. It also is a litmus test of one's sincerity.
Dr James M
Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies,
co-director of the University of Würzburg's Institute for Fan Culture, and
co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. He is the author of
The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, and a book with the same title,
among several others.