By Ameer Ali –
Who were the bigots who broke Buddha statues in Mawanella and in other places? There are only two possible answers to this question. Either, they were a bunch of urban hoodlums seeking sadistic pleasure from destroying religious icons, or handpicked hirelings obliging their paymaster(s), who have sinister motives. Let the authorities sort out the right answer. However, behind all condemnations of this dastardly act and resolve to repair the damage lies a greater and fundamental issue that needs addressing. Authorities can catch and punish A, B and C for committing this despicable, but there is nothing to prevent X, Y and Z emerging from dark corners at another time and from another place to repeat the same. The question is, what sort of a mindset that is driving these larrikins to do what they did and behave to create inter-religious convulsion?
To start with, the hands that did the damage in Mawanella are the same hands that destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, Yezidis places of worship in shrinking ISIS Caliphate, Coptic churches in Egypt, Shia shrines in Iraq and Pakistan, Babri Masjid in India and mosques in Myanmar and Sarajevo and so on. Such evil hands are there in every religion and every culture. No religion is free of a bloody past. What is common in all these destructions however, is the mindset that directs these hands and governs their actions, and which refuses to accept that truth has multiple avenues for realisation and that no single avenue has a monopoly over it.
Such a mindset, described as mytho-historical by the great Algerian scholar Mohammed Arkoun, and which has now frozen into the ruling orthodoxy, has a long history in the world of Islam. It was born and nurtured in response to another mindset that believed in multiple routes to reach the ultimate Reality. The latter was one grounded in human reason and critical thinking but moulded by mystical spirituality. It was that mindset which produced the glorious civilization of Islam in 9th and 10th centuries with its ‘cosmopolitan worldliness’, and passed its legacy on to European Enlightenment, centuries later. It was that mindset that produced the convivencia in Muslim Spain where mosques, churches and synagogues with their respective worshipers intermingled and cross fertilized to produce an ‘ornament of the world’, as captioned by Maria Rosa Menocal. Lately, it was the same mindset that also governed the Moghul Empire under Akbar whose durbar was an assembly of poets, scholars, jurists and other super stars from Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Christians, Jews and Muslims. Wasn’t it Emperor Akbar who gifted land to build the Golden Sikh temple in Amritsar, and was it not a Muslim Pir of Lahore who laid the foundation for that temple in 1589?
What this rationalist-humanist-mystical mindset gave to the world and humanity at large was love, tolerance, peace and a cosmopolitan outlook. That mindset condemned religious fanaticism, sectarianism and inter-religious wars. Let me provide just three gems from an ocean of pearls produced by this mindset. The first comes from Abu al-Ala’ al-Ma’arri (973-1057), the Syrian born blind poet and greatest moralist of all time, who sums up his thought on clerical scholasticism in the following quatrain:
Hanifs are tumbling, Christians all astray,
Jews wildered, Magians far on error’s way,
We mortals are composed of two great schools:
Enlightened knaves or else religious fools.
Here is the second gem from the greatest Muslim mystic and Andalusian scholar Muhammad ibn Arabi (1165-1240) whose love of all faiths was boundless:
A garden among the flames
My heart can take on any form,
A meadow for gazelles
A cloister for monks,
For the idols, sacred ground,
Ka’ba for the circling pilgrim
The tables for the Torah
The scrolls of the Quran.
I profess the religion of love;
Wherever its caravan turns along the way,
That is the belief,
The faith I keep.
The third is a story from another master, Farid-ud-Din Attar (1145-1221) from Nishapur in today’s Iran. This is from his mystical tale, The Conference of Birds (as translated by Fatemeh Keshavarz, in Jasmine and Stars, 2007):
“One night Gabriel was near God’s chamber. The archangel heard the Lord responding to someone “yes, yes”. “I wonder who is calling Him,” Gabriel thought. He paid a quick visit to the earth and inspected the lands and the seas but could not find anyone calling unto God. As he returned to God’s abode, the Almighty was still responding to the anonymous caller. Gabriel decided he had not looked carefully enough. He turned around and made yet another effort to find the worshiper whose prayers were heard by God. He looked in all the usual places of worship around the world one more time. Since the second search was equally unsuccessful, Gabriel went to God and asked if the Lord would kindly provide directions to the pious individual’s whereabouts. God told him to go to a certain obscure temple in Anatolia and look inside. Gabriel did so, and sure enough found a man prostrating himself in front of an idol. He was praying on an object he had carved with his own hands. The angel rushed back to God and said, “I don’t understand. This man is not praying to You! He is talking to his idol. Why are you answering him?” God’s reply to Gabriel is not an answer but a lesson. He said, “Just because this man does not know the right way to me, it does not mean that I – who know better – should not find my way to him.” Every bigot should memorise this story.
With the rise of orthodoxy after the 12th century that rationalist-humanist-mystic mindset, which was a fountain of love, tolerance and rational thought met with condemnation, branded as heresy and was suppressed with political backing. It marked a counter revolution in Islam. Since then, religious orthodoxy of different shades of conservatism began its unchallenged supremacy over the minds and acts of Muslims, and claimed monopoly over truth. This is the mytho-historic mindset referred to earlier. It is this mindset that is creating havoc among communities that live in plural polities. And, it is this mindset that is also being manipulated by hungry power seekers. When such mindsets prevail in other religions also we have the classic recipe for a clash of fundamentalisms. How do we avoid this clash is the greatest challenge humanity faces today. Sri Lanka, given its current political climate, cannot be an exception.
The nation and its governors should move beyond post-act condemnation and look for measures of prevention. There need to be short and long run measures in this regard. In the short run, communities can be vigilant, identify individuals or groups that are prone to create religious disturbance and inform the authorities promptly. Law of the land must be enforced with full force on such elements without fear or favour. However, there is a need for long term measures to create inter-religious understanding and inter-faith tolerance. In this regard education in schools and religious institutions must be the primary focus of government authorities. In imparting religious knowledge to youngsters, the attitude of “ours is the best and all others are false”, must be avoided. The idea is to develop a mindset that believes that all religions lead to the same destination and that the ultimate Reality will be the final judge. Respect for each other’s religion and participating in each other’s religious festivals and functions are sure ways of promoting a healthy and robust social pluralism in Sri Lanka. Let our pundits, pastors, prelates and priests ponder over these suggestions.