7/7 and Beyond - a South Asian response to the London Bombings
A Call to Speak and Act for Peace
By Dr. Prem Sharma
Attempting to understand the tragedy
What motivated young men to destroy their own lives and the lives of hundreds of others killed, injured or bereaved?
It is tempting to say that terrorists have no religion and that these young men, like terrorists anywhere, did not reflect the values of their religion at all. A terrorist will always be defined as a terrorist wherever in the world he or she perpetrates that act of violent crime against innocent persons - whether in Kashmir, the Middle East, the United States, India, Pakistan, the United Kingdom or anywhere else.
However, it appears that these young men were motivated by the misguided teaching of people who distorted their own scriptures though over-literal interpretation, playing on the fears and insecurities of young people and pushing them from behind. They exploited their perception of injustice and oppression faced by Muslims around the world. Economic issues may also have been a factor.
This understanding may or may not be correct. Others are better placed to analyse their motivation. What is clear is that they felt completely alienated and isolated, not just from the wider society, but even from the majority of their own community. They could not communicate with their elders, and their elders could not communicate with them. They were not able to take the time to understand their struggles and the issues of identity and status they were facing.
Since 7/7 many have reflected on the situation of young Muslim men in Britain. I read the moving letter from Hassan (The Guardian, July 15), grieved at the action of the bombers, which brought so much pain and suffering, including to Muslims. He clearly disowns their actions and their attitudes. They have brought shame and reproach to their own people.
However, we can be encouraged that religious and community leaders of all creeds have spoken the message of peace and tolerance in response to these atrocities. The voice of the vast majority of the British Muslim community has been especially loud and positive with religious leaders stating, in no uncertain terms, their clear opposition to acts of violence by these misguided few.
How do we respond?
Let me make four comments:
a. These are issues for all of us, not just for one community. All of us are affected. And all of us have contributed (of course in different ways) to the situation we face in our country today, where different communities are cut off from each other. This was an extreme example, where a very small minority felt so alienated that their only option was desperate and violent action. The vast majority of us would never do anything like that. But we don’t do anything positive, either, to cross barriers and build relationships.
b. The silent majority in all our communities needs to speak out. If we are opposed to violence and want peace, we must be willing to speak out against those who turn to violence. A few years ago in India, a group called the Bajrang Dal were responsible for a series of violent actions. They claimed to be Hindus but their actions were evil. It was necessary to speak out and disown them as representing the majority of Hindus.
c. It would be a great step forward if the leaders of different religious groups could speak with one voice for the members of their groups.
Among the Ahmadiyyas, for example, the ruling of the leader is accepted by all the groups that make up the organisation, with those groups representing some 200 million Muslims world-wide. This model might need to be adapted. For instance, rather than a singular leader the associated groups would accept the ruling of a council. At the very least they would create a recognised forum in which the different constituent groups would meet and thrash out issues together. Currently this is not the case.
Whichever system is adopted the key is to have a proclamation on an issue that the civil society can rely upon. This may be an ideal beyond our reach. But what we can definitely expect and work towards is a transparent process, in which people can participate openly and differences are honestly faced.
Let me give some examples.
If “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” were to be practised literally by a Christian group using the word of the Bible as justification for their actions, one would expect a grouping of Christian leaders to speak with one voice to denounce those actions so that the civil society could in turn act against the perpetrators of those anti-social actions. This actually happened with apartheid. Some Christians supported it from the Bible, but others argued that it was against the true interpretation of the Bible. Long discussions, alongside social and political action, led to changed understanding even among those who had supported apartheid from the Bible.
Among Hindus, it would be good to have a single voice to bring together the different voices that are currently heard on issues relating to the Hindu community.
For Muslims a key issue in connection with our topic is the meaning of ‘jihad’. Some take this as literally a call to armed struggle and violence, while others insist that it is an inward, spiritual struggle.
We need to tackle issues like these, in our different communities, in ways that are open, seeking to be united on the basis of true interpretation of our scriptures and traditions.
d. We must join together across communities to work for peace and better relationships. We must initiate dialogue on a regular basis, not just at times of crisis. If we do not work together, those who advocate violence will take over.
How do we do this in practice?
I am looking forward to hearing from the teenagers at our conference. Their perspective and proposals will be very important for us to listen to.
In the meantime here are some practical proposals:
1. How many of us know people from different backgrounds to our own? (I mean know them well, as people we interact with and relate to, not just casually, for example in a shop). Probably most of us at this conference have such friends, perhaps many. But if we are really going to change the situation in our country, we need to challenge ourselves, and everybody else, to start at least one NEW relationship of this kind. There is a Mars bar advertisement these days: ‘Smile at someone NEW’.
Please do not think that this is a childish or simplistic suggestion. If everybody did this, what a difference it would make. And though it is simple, it will require hard work and determination to do it.
2. Can we form inter-community groups that will meet on a regular basis to discuss issues of common concern? Again, this is a very simple action that will require hard work to make it happen. Can you identify at least 3 other people of different religious or ethnic backgrounds in your place? Are you willing to approach them and set up a meeting? You could use the findings of this conference as a starting point. This would provide suitable discussion material for at least two or three sessions and by then you would have found other things to sustain your interaction.
Ashutosh Varshney, Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan, who has done a lot of work on urban situations of tension, points out the value of inter-community groups in helping to interpret and defuse critical events. He says there should be "more political or civic groups working to build these interactive forums… These are all small steps, but when put together, they end up producing large utility. We need to focus our attention on these instead of only debating the big ideas, which tend not to be easily realisable." (Times of India, March 11, 2002)
This conference should take definite action to form such groups to continue the discussion that we have begun here.
3. We have heard a lot of allegations about young people going to Pakistan for indoctrination, which may or may not be true. Right now our focus is on Pakistan because of the suffering of its people after the earthquake. Can we harness young people’s energy and their desire for justice by involving them in projects for long term development and rehabilitation? There will be months and years of work in Pakistan.
And what about Africa? At the time when the bombs went off in London, everybody’s attention was turned to Africa, with tremendous hope and goodwill for the ‘Make Poverty History’ campaign.
We need ways to enthuse and involve young people from all backgrounds, in projects that respond to injustice, inequality and suffering with practical help.
4. Let us call on the leaders of the major religious groups to share with us how they are working to create more transparent structures for discussion of key issues, though which they can communicate more effectively with each other and so to the wider society.
A call for peace
In closing I call on us all to reflect on the message of the Ahmadiyya doctrine: “Love for all, hate for none”.
Reject hate, reject violence, reject conflict. Instead let us work towards the brotherhood of all mankind. I have mentioned the Ahmadiyyas, but I could have taken the teaching of any major faith. Does it matter if we are Ahmadiyya, Sunni or Shia? Hindu, Christian or Jewish? Sikh or Buddhist? Above all we are brothers and sisters of the same human race. We should all be able to work together and live together in peace and harmony, respecting each others’ beliefs and communities.
The answers to the challenges we face are within each of us. We must, each of us, seek the path of peace and speak up for peace. One voice can go unheard. But a million voices, a billion voices speaking together the message of peace will make the difference. It is for the silent majority in the world who are peace loving and law abiding to speak out.
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