Sheikh Mirza Yawar Baig | 24 April 2019
My mind is numb, my heart is heavy, the tears have dried,
Yet the day dawns and life must be lived,
Unanswered, unanswerable questions,
Actions, reactions, a vicious cycle that must be broken.
As I sit down to write this, my biggest struggle is with myself, ‘Should I write this or not? What use is it? Surely the next planner or executor of the next atrocity is hardly going to ask – Let me see what Yawar Baig has to say before I do this. So why write?’ It is easier to simply do nothing. Withdraw into my shell and hope that one day what happened in Sri Lanka yesterday, doesn’t happen to my own loved ones. How then did I break out of this stupor of grief? By reminding myself of one thing: Those who were killed in Sri Lanka were my dear ones, because anyone who is killed because of his/her religion, race or nationality is my dear one. So, I will speak. I will raise my voice. And I will do it, even if I am alone. Especially if I am alone.
In my view the real purpose behind these actions is not the elimination of any population. That in today’s world is literally impossible. The real purpose is to sow discord and hatred, so that we are all reduced to the same level as the perpetrators of these crimes. Then we become malleable and controllable and are controlled through fear. Fear of our own neighbors, brothers and sisters, fear of our own family members in the global family of humans. This is done by first focusing on the differences in our diversity and then teaching us that these differences are things to hate. That leads to the logical conclusion of hating the person and the entire group that he/she belongs to. It is an age-old tactic, the only thing remarkable about which is that it still works. This is what was used against the Jewish people for centuries in Europe and Russia which led to their ghettoizing and eventually to Hitler’s infamous Final Solution, which educated, moral and (presumably) kind people, watched in silence.
Today Muslims seem to be in that boat. It is salutary to note that Hitler’s gas chambers were built by highly educated engineers and scientists. So, for those who think that large scale violence amounting to genocide is something that is left to Attila the Hun, it may be shocking to see that education as we know it is not the solution to our problem. Because our problems are moral and ethical. Problems of our humanity. Not problems of not knowing enough math and science. There are lessons in history and one of the most powerful ones lies in the Jewish Holocaust. It is essential to learn the lessons because nations that don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it.
As I mentioned earlier, the main purpose of hate attacks is to cause chaos and disruption of society and turn one person against another. This creates a smoke screen which hides real issues. When people are immersed in grief and anger and are looking to hit back, they are not thinking clearly and all they need is a target. That is provided by implying that anyone from the community, religion, ethnicity, race or nationality of the criminal is like him and so can be made a victim in ‘retaliation’. That allows people to vent their anger on innocent people, creates an atmosphere of terror and buys time for those who want in reality to draw the curtains over their own faults and deficiencies i.e. the failure of leadership to solve people’s real problems of hunger, unemployment, lack of access to public health and education, lack of clean drinking water and housing. The issues vary from nation to nation, but it is always a mix of these. Don’t solve real problems, divert people’s attention to hating others, allow them to vent their anger on those who are helpless, and you buy some more time. Those who should really be held to account, voted out, removed from leadership and made to pay, are let off free to plan the next episode in this macabre horror drama called ‘Life in the Modern World’.
But all this will happen, only if we allow it to happen. That is the key and the reason we must ask ourselves, “Do I want this cycle to continue?”
Given that this is a no-brainer, what is the solution? Let me tell you about a unique experience I had just two days ago, on Saturday, April 20, 2019. I was invited to a Passover Seder dinner by some very dear Jewish friends. This was the first time that I was going to a Passover Seder and so I was very interested in what I would see and experience. To accommodate my inability to participate in a meal during which wine would be served, in a completely unprecedented and totally gracious gesture (very pleasant surprise for me), this family made the meal completely alcohol free and drank pomegranate juice instead of wine. This they did despite the fact that drinking four cups of wine is a part of the Passover Seder ritual. What amazed me even more was that the Rabbi who led the proceedings, also accepted this accommodation. Truly a most gracious gesture which left me feeling so very valued and appreciated.
The Passover Seder is about the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt, which is a story that as a Muslim, I grew up with. The story of Musa (Moses) and how he liberated the Jews from the slavery of Pharaoh, is familiar to every Muslim child. It is one of the major stories in the Qur’an as Musa (Moses) is one of the major prophets of Islam, believing in whom is a part of our creed. But what was new to me was the whole Seder meal and what is read during it. The overall theme of the readings was thankfulness. Thankfulness for all the bounties of God that He gave the Jews and of course all of us. What struck me the most was the song of fifteen stanzas each line of which ends with the word, Dayenu (meaning ‘it would have been enough’), but He gave more. This struck me because this is precisely the Muslim understanding of God (Allahﷻ) and His Grace, Mercy and Generosity, that He gives without counting. The overall and overwhelming sense that I came away with that night was that of belonging, not of difference. Strange thing perhaps to hear from a Muslim talking about a Jewish household and ceremony in today’s times. But that is how I felt, the warm glow of which remains with me.
Why is this important and why am I mentioning this here?
It is because in this lies the seed of the solution to hatred. Hatred comes from not knowing about each other, which leads to the situation among most people of being able to believe the worst about them. This is the way stereotypes are formed and strengthened until they become ‘THE TRUTH’, to be believed unquestioningly. On the other hand, when we take the time to learn about each other, we are often faced with some startling facts, which lead us to question our blind beliefs and stereotypes and hopefully allow us to change our stances. I recall my childhood where I grew up among Marwari Hindus as neighbours and went initially to a Christian (Anglican) Missionary school and began my day singing the Lord’s Prayer in the Chapel. I come from a family of practicing Muslims and so my own religion was always familiar. As a result of this eclectic upbringing, I didn’t convert to either Christianity or Hinduism but grew up learning a lot about both religions and communities, by living with them. We lived in each other’s homes, ate together (keeping to our own food laws strictly), celebrated each other’s festivals and didn’t feel that our own religion was threatened by this mutual understanding.I have written about this in detail in my book, ‘It’s my Life’ and so won’t repeat it here. Please read the book. You’ll enjoy it.
I am speaking of this here because the one big thing that happened thanks to this upbringing is that today, when someone tries to tell me about how bad and vicious Hinduism or Christianity are, I have the frame of reference of both from my own life experience against which to check what I am hearing. I reject these messages because I didn’t experience these religions or those who follow them, in that way at all. Ditto Judaism, from my experience which I described above. Therefore, the first and most important thing to do is to ensure that we get to know one another, personally, exponentially and closely.
I am therefore able to distinguish and differentiate between the action of someone who professes to belong to a particular religion but does things that are prohibited in that religion. That, in my opinion, places that individual, outside his religion. He is not a representative of his religion and his actions are the result of his rejecting his religion, not of practicing it. So, I reject that individual and his actions, not his religion.
In my view, in the case of those who are responsible for the mass murder in Sri Lanka that happened on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019; those people are criminals and must be treated as such. They must be caught and punished to the full extent of the law. On no account must we accept their professed logic of representing this or that religion and on that account buy into the negative, toxic philosophy of hating that religion or its adherents, who are our neighbors and family. We must do this because we must defeat this hate-filled thinking that is sought to be imposed on us. We can only do this if we reject it. Not if we buy into it.
I am reminded of a story I heard in 1997, about the man who used to stand before the White House every night holding a candle, in his struggle to have the UN sanctions against Iraq, lifted. One night, it was cold and wet and windy. But the man was there in his place, holding an umbrella and trying to protect his candle from the rain. The guard at the gate, who used to see him every day, came out to him and said, “Tell me why do you do this? Do you really think you can change them?”
The man replied, “I don’t do this to change them. I do it so that they won’t be able to change me.”
It is very important that we speak out. The time for silence is over. The time for action is here.
Mirza Yawar Baig is an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad and an Imam in Hyderabad, India.