Religious intolerance

By Saad Hafiz:

Religion should provide
social control, cohesion, and purpose for people, as well as another means of communication and gathering for individuals to interact and reaffirm social norms. Historically, a turn to a religion based upon love was a great moral revolution and made possible a genuine humanisation of human life. The premise is that all humans are equally creations of God; all fall equally within His providential reach; all have an intrinsic importance and value; and all will be judged by God alone. Yet events themselves show that religion can play a highly negative role, aggravating schism, justifying hate, even fostering deadly intolerance. In many regions, adherents of all the world’s major faiths commit indiscriminate acts of violence on the grounds of protecting their religious identity and serving the cause of God. “Violence does not build up the kingdom of God, the kingdom of humanity. On the contrary, it is a favourite instrument of the Antichrist, however idealistic its religious motivation may be. It serves, not humanity, but inhumanity. The cruel consequences of religiously motivated violence are only too evident to us all,” wrote Pope Benedict.

Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka sees intolerance as at the root of the dissension in the world. On one level, he says, spiritual practices can enrich humankind. But religious fundamentalism is the greatest threat to peace and democracy in the world today. And all the major religions are guilty of contributing to the problem. “Judaism, Christianity and Islam are completely soaked in intolerance. There is no reason at all why a religion cannot just expose and disseminate its own believed virtues, and not at the expense of denigrating the belief systems of others. Conversion “by example is absolutely legitimate; it’s a mark of culture and civilisation”, Soyinka said. “But there isn’t much of that.”

In the wake of the latest escalation in religious violence, politicians, media, and religious leaders try to assure us that religion is not to blame for extremist terror campaigns and the ethnic and communal conflicts that increasingly threaten world peace. However, to this day, nearly all religions supply the kindling that fuels wars and acts of persecution, sparks torture and murder, and inflames ethnic hatred. Murder and terror do not figure in the teachings of the monotheist world religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Yet time and again, their fanatical followers embark on bloody rampages, their rage fired up by zealous priests and religious scholars. Religious fanaticism has existed in all ages and all religions. It is the sinister side of faith, and its explanation remains elusive. Such extremism — which is usually unleashed in spasms of violence against dissenters — can even be found in the so-called ‘gentle’ faiths like Hinduism and Buddhism. In some countries, legal discrimination against religious minorities and the failure of government to address religious persecution effectively enables atrocities against those who are vulnerable. Governments seldom bring charges against those responsible for such violence and discrimination.

It is clear that unless the extremist mindset changes the world will never eliminate the threat of faith-inspired terror. Societies have to resist violent uprisings carried out in God’s name. At stake is not simply the credibility of religion but the welfare of humanity. Government and societies must explore the complex roots of religious-inspired violence, the historic ambivalence of religious traditions toward violence, and the urgent steps that must be taken next. Religious leaders of all faiths must begin to defend proactively and vigorously the rights of others to believe and to act differently. The world needs to reject both sectarian conflict and commit itself instead to an authentic pluralism. Genuine pluralism fosters a culture that honours rather than isolates and disparages religious difference. It affirms the right of others to believe and practise their faith, not only in their private lives but also in the public square, while expecting them to allow still others to do the same.

In reality, a separation of religion and state is essential for religious diversity and peaceful coexistence to prosper. Most importantly, granting of equal rights and justice for all citizens regardless of gender, race, religion, and affiliations will ensure pluralism in predominantly faith-based societies. It has to be understood that no ideology can please the majority of people, and under democracy, political movements with common interests are forced to compromise with each other in order to gain a share of political power. The laws they pass may not please everyone, but they usually keep enough people happy to keep the majority coalition in power. A way forward is to emulate the success of the western world in developing and perfecting social structures. In a number of western countries social relations are sufficiently humanised to ensure a high standard of life as well as social justice, and a genuine humanisation of life seems quite possible there. The secular programmes of emancipation such as democracy and liberalism have played a positive role.  The process of secularisation of cultural life does not mean that humanity is going to turn away from God, but that faith becomes a private affair.

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