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Rectify religious distortions

In Europe today, Muslim youth are rioting in the wake of an incident in Paris in which the police could hardly be faulted for their conduct: Three youth, asked to show their identity papers by the police, fled and jumped a wall surrounding a high voltage electric transformer, and were electrocuted - two died and the third was seriously injured.

Protests began in Paris shortly thereafter, with hundreds of young Muslims, overwhelmingly drawn from immigrant communities from France's erstwhile colonies in North Africa, taking to the streets, destroying public and private property, and engaging in violent confrontations with the Police. The rioting and arson spread rapidly to other French cities, and then, to towns in Germany and Belgium.

Immediately, the Islamist apologetics commenced, vigorously supported by liberal sympathisers. The riots were unhesitatingly attributed to discrimination against the Muslim minorities in France (and more generally in Europe), and the failure of French (European) society to adequately 'integrate' this particular minority within the larger community.

It is useful to recall, however, that several European communities have spoken of integration in the past, but their proposals were attacked by precisely these constituencies - the Islamists and their liberal sympathisers - on the grounds that this was an assault on the unique identities of the minorities and a violation of their 'rights'. Recollect, in France itself, the shrill protests when the display of any prominent religious symbols was banned in educational and other public institutions.

The regulation was interpreted as a particular attack on the hijab, the wearing of veils by Muslim women and girls, but actually imposed non-discriminatory restrictions on people of all Faiths, including the majority Christian community, and did cause offense to certain other minorities as well, including the minuscule population of Sikhs. The truth is whenever assimilation is advocated in times of peace, there is a virulent backlash against such advocacy on the grounds that this constitutes an assault on the identity and practices of other Faiths, particularly Islam; but whenever there is violence by minorities, this is blamed on the failure to assimilate these communities. It is important, now, to determine whether assimilation is, in fact, a good thing; or are we to divide our world into religious ghettoes?

The question and crisis is not unique to France or contemporary Europe. The same pattern of arguments, the same muddle-headedness, afflicts the 'intellectuals', 'liberals' and 'secularists' of India as well - which is quite unsurprising, since there is little original thinking in this country today, and most of their ideas are picked up out of some foreign newspaper, magazine or tome. Thus, over a decade and a half of Islamist terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir - explicitly engineered and supported by Pakistan - is blamed on the failure to 'assimilate' the Kashmiri Muslim into the 'national mainstream', and to discriminatory policies that resulted in 'poverty' and 'unemployment' in the State - and the fact that Jammu and Kashmir was far from the poorest region in the country has had no bearing on these arguments.

Nor did the fact that much of the failure of assimilation was the result of special constitutional, political and administrative provisions that were intended to protect the 'unique identity and status' of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. The same pattern of discourse applied to Punjab through the 1980s and early 1990s, when the Khalistani terrorism - again backed by Pakistan - was attributed to supposed 'discrimination' against a community that was unique in the extraordinary honour and prominence that had been conferred upon it, in its exceptional achievements, and in its comparative wealth within the Indian context. None of this, however, deterred extremists of the Faith from claiming discrimination and 'injustice'; nor did it ever cause their liberal and 'secular' apologists to review the manifest absurdity of their positions.

What has secularism really come to stand for today? Throughout a long career with the Indian Police and thereafter, I have always considered the protection of minorities, no matter who or where they happen to be, the prime concern of law enforcement agencies. But it is my equally firm conviction that you cannot tailor policies and development to suit the needs of any one caste or community. It is all or nothing, and attempts to selectively target particular communities for benefits or concessions have not only failed - and will continue to fail - but have consistently proven counter-productive.

Further, it is now imperative that we clearly recognise the enormous harm that organised religions have inflicted on humanity through history, and abandon the enterprise of looking for justifications or refutations for the excesses of extremists and zealots in the religious texts of these various Faiths. It matters little what the 'real teachings' of a particular Faith are - these will always be subject to conflicting interpretations and can lend themselves to any ideological position. Recall that, for centuries, the Christian world engaged in cruel wars of aggression - the crusades - and in the most extraordinary tortures and excesses - the inquisition - in the name of a man who spoke of non-violence and exhorted his followers to 'turn the other cheek'. There can be no reasoning with the extremist mindset. It is, moreover, a fact that some religious texts and doctrines have more of 'hatred content' than others, and their followers unabashedly proclaim and propagate such content, feeding the fires of communal violence and terror.

That is why it becomes so necessary for each community to directly confront and challenge its lunatic fringe. Every institution, however large or small, however tightly or loosely organised, must accept responsibility for its aberrant members - and organised Faiths cannot evade or deny this responsibility. If we see ourselves as members of a community, we accept responsibility for the actions of other members - and where these actions are odious and unacceptable, it is incumbent upon us to explicitly distance these actions and their perpetrators from the larger community. As a police officer, it was my duty to fight the terrorists in Punjab; but prior to that, as a Sikh, it was my greater duty to repudiate and speak out against the gross distortion of the Faith that had spawned the terror.

And yet, there were large numbers of 'moderate Sikhs' who certainly chose silence in the wake of some of the worst terrorist atrocities, and at least some of whom vicariously celebrated these pitiless 'victories' of terrorism. And this is true of large sections of the Muslim community across the world today, as it reserves its condemnation of terrorist actions, or qualifies criticism with elaborate apologetics about 'root causes' and conspiracy theories that discover in everything the alleged and unique targeting of members of their Faith. Crucially, so much of this apologia, and the critique of the injustices of liberal democracies, comes from countries and communities that deny any right whatsoever to their own minorities - if any have, in fact, survived - and even to the larger mass of their own citizens.

It is time that the apologists for those engaged in these hideous crimes were unconditionally rejected. Of course, there is discrimination and injustice in the liberal democracies of the world - but these offer greater scope for redress and opportunities for advancement to their citizens, including their minorities, than any other societies, and, indeed, than has been available at any other point in history. It should be possible for communities within liberal democratic societies to settle their grievances and dissensions without recourse to arms, murder, terrorism and communal rioting. It is crucial, if we are to overcome the widening sphere of communal polarisation, extremism, violence and terror, to recognise and correct the distortions and abuses that increasingly masquerade under the garb of 'religious freedom', 'minority rights' and 'secularism'.

(Published in The Pioneer, November 15, 2005)





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