Bridging the Muslim/non-Muslim divide will take talent, courage, imagination and sensitivity on the part of a great many on both sides of the divide, and it will take the Almighty’s blessings.
The anti-Islamic film Fitna by the Dutch right wing parliamentarian Geert Wilders is stirring concern and unrest, but also mobilizing many to build bridges, in many countries. This commentary is taken from a speech by Rajmohan Gandhi to the Oxford Union Society in 2005 – but what he has to say about relations between the Muslim and the non-Muslim worlds has remained highly relevant to today's situation. Today, in our era of an apparent clash of civilizations, many in the democracies see the populations of Muslim lands as flawed, even while good relations are maintained in many cases with rulers of Muslim lands, who are viewed as people with whom business can be done. Elected leaders in the West don’t directly equate terrorism with Islam. But many influential people in the USA and Europe do, including prominent figures in some churches, well-regarded intellectuals, popular writers, and personalities often called to appear on TV and radio. As a result a growing number of people in the West are convinced that the problem in the world is Islam – that terrorism and Islam are strongly and uniquely inter-related. Such thinking in parts of the West has its counterpart in much of the Islamic world, which has seen persistent negative propaganda about Christians and the crusades, Jews and Zionism, and Americans and Europeans. The result is people-to-people distrust, and the possibility of people-to-people enmity. The hostilities of 1914-19 and 1939-45 were called world wars, but any Islam versus the Rest war today would be a world war in a more comprehensive sense. And it will be a people-against-people, civilian-against-civilian, war. When I hear the argument about the flawed nature of Islam, I recall the faces and the lives of Muslims I have known, I recall images of Muslims kneeling in prayer, or raising their arms in supplication to God, or carrying their dead or wounded on cold earthquake-hit slopes, and ask myself if I could truly believe that the Islam so practised was particularly and peculiarly flawed. Well, I cannot so believe. Muslim maidens laugh, and Muslim children also play, and all Muslims, Sunni or Shia, are grateful for primordial human joys. They hate terrorism as much as anybody else in the world, and perhaps even more, for more Muslims have been killed in terrorist acts than non-Muslims. In Rwanda in 1994, some massacres actually took place in churches. Did that make the Rwanda killings a Christian crime? When, in the 1970s, Buddhist Cambodia was the venue for the killing fields, did the killing reflect an innate Buddhist flaw? When, a couple of years ago, almost all members of the royal family of the Hindu kingdom of Nepal were shot dead, and later, a large number of peasants and security men were killed in shootings, was some Hindu teaching to blame? Indeed, were the two Great Wars of the 20th century a result of Christianity? That religion is an element in the complex stories of modern violence is only too true; but we should be careful before saying with finality that more than injured nationalism, more than despair, more than shattered dignity, more than shame, more than fear, it is religion in general and one religion in particular that fills a heart with hate and with the resolve to destroy others and oneself. Today many in different parts of the world accept that while all others are innocent unless proved guilty, a Muslim is guilty unless he or she demonstrates innocence. Much of the world has taken a significant U turn in its ethics. Governments, immigration officers, policemen, agents at check-in counters, landlords, newspaper reporters, taxi-drivers, and employers now make at least a mental note, if they do not offer a visible or audible expression, when they find that the person they are dealing with is a Muslim. Bridging the Muslim/non-Muslim divide will take talent, courage, imagination, and sensitivity on the part of a great many on both sides of the divide, and it will take the Almighty’s blessings. I am not presenting this divide as the sole issue before the world. I feel also, among other things, for Africa and Africans, and am shaken by the prospect of that continent losing chunks of its population to Aids and other deadly diseases. What I do know is that great questions summon the world’s best young minds. I also know that engaging with these questions, and seeking to bridge the divide or meet the needs spoken of, is a career option. A decision to seek one’s deepest or highest calling – to do God’s will rather than one’s own – is a career option. It is a commitment that can be woven into other career options.