Groundviews

How must we respond to religious extremism and incitement to violence?

Image from Ingulfed

Do not despair. It helps to try to understand the situation as it evolves, rather than crystallise your view of it in judgment.

If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.

Sun Tzu – The art of war (Chapter 3:18)

Those who incite hatred and violence, their supporters, victims, onlookers, observers, those who are dismayed by communal violence and those who secretly support it, those who want to stop it, criticize it and others who don’t care as much: they all act out of their innersprings of motivation and covert or overt desires. It is almost universally true that every individual is spurred to action by any their aspirations and desires, because we all need something to aspire to. Some aspire for material wealth, others desire power. Yet others may desire fame, skill, wisdom or enrichment through service. We are also contained by our fears. The less fearful we are, the deeper our capacity for tolerance and the broader our range of choices for action. If we are not driven by fear, we are also less likely to harm or hurt others and more likely to be more accommodating generous and calm. However, people’s actions and words are fundamentally informed by their beliefs – but they are also the least tangible or conspicuous and therefore the most puzzling factor to understand. Beliefs entail not only our religious and moral inclinations but the manifestation of each person’s self-identity. So we must pay attention to all these factors that influence individuals and groups – so that we can understand why people act and speak the way they do.

Also, keep in mind that the present is not an isolated moment. As much as what transpires in this moment is a product of history, it will also shape the future in ways that we may not be able to fully understand or anticipate. Moments of adversity demands that we all become keen and humble students of history. The very existence of people whose actions are so far removed that we utterly and completely fail to understand them point to deficiencies in our knowledge of the world and how it works – that it could produce members of the same species, civilization, culture and time that yet remain incomprehensible to one another. Not everything about our anthropology and history may be immediately knowable, but it helps to be chastised by an acknowledgement of our own fallibility and imperfect knowledge before seeking to critically engage with the fallibilities of another.

Document what you see, read and hear. Especially at times when we least know what’s going on. Keep as detailed a record of what people say and do, so that our future selves and future generations may have a more detailed account of history than we do now, to analyse the actions and inactions of individuals and groups – and their far-reaching and unpredictable implications.

Do not discard religion. Understand religion for what it is; especially in times darkened by hatred, violence and intolerance motivated by religious sentiments, it seems not only tempting, but quite reasonable to assume that religion is the problem. While such a conclusion may be justified in many ways, it is most unhelpful – because that makes us lose sight of the fact that – for better or for worse – religion is arguably the most powerful force for social transformation that humanity has ever known. Those who argue that technology has been a more powerful transformative force than religion, ignore the fact that technology only serves to facilitate and amplify social change, while religious beliefs -and in more recent times, political ideology- inspires social change and perpetuates social norms. The greater the sanctity that people attribute to their religious beliefs, rituals and priests; the greater their power to influence the way societies function and the decisions they make collectively. Because a community of people – or even an organised mob – can have far greater power over a multitude of unorganised individuals, religious beliefs and their induced fears and aspirations can easily be appropriated by individuals who desire to gain political power.

Most religious beliefs and even political ideologies are also rife with ideas and visions for peace, justice, equanimity, tolerance and love. So, rejection of religion as a force for evil rather than good – not only misses the point altogether, but more critically deprive those who hold that view of a potent tool that can also be a force for immense good and constructive visions of influencing progressive social change.

Speak out, engage in dialogue and publish. Use every opportunity to discuss and debate what’s taking place in society with friends, children, parents, relatives and – within reason – even with strangers. Do so at the well, on Facebook, in your blogs, in the mainstream and mass media. Talk to people who know people, make sure that those who are responsible for social leadership, security, peace and justice know you are watching them and keeping note of their action or inaction. Also, as importantly, listen. Engage equally with those who do not agree with you as much as those who do. Gain new perspectives by paying attention to what they have to say.

Do not be distracted or discouraged by those who call you “Facebook heroes”, “armchair critics” or hurl any number of derogative remarks at you instead of – or while – engaging with what you have to say. Those who criticise free expression and critical debate online and on social media, do so out of ignorance about how technology have transformed our world. Organising online petitions and voicing our opinions in social media can be as powerful as any rally or protest at a busy street junction. They reach a broader audience, can often engage otherwise apathetic or ill-informed people in vibrant social discussions (even if only to complain about those who speak out). Social media also expose people who fail to speak out; those who avoid expression of their views either because they believe they cannot make a difference or have doubts about the moral defensibility of what they have to say.

The world has moved on and the Internet has become a public place where we can engage in civic life and discharge some of our civic duties legitimately, effectively, and relatively safely to a broad audience; though perhaps one that is limited, not representative of society at large and too homogeneous to be of critical value. It is not only a viable alternative to street protest in some circumstances, but can be more effective and channel much broader participation of an audience that is not constrained by their geography or mobility.

Promote social integration. Intolerance and communal disharmony are results of isolation and lack of empathy. People who are fearful or uncomfortable with the diversity of beliefs, preferences of gender, language, ethnicity and culture are – more often than not – those who have grown up and lived in isolated homogeneous clans. It is difficult – though seemingly not impossible – to hate Muslims for being Muslims if you have close Muslim friends that your grew up, shared food and laughter, and played Cricket with. Unfortunately, ethnic and religious communities remain cloistered among their own in most rural areas all over the world – unlike in some big and cosmopolitan cities. That is still a generalisation and doesn’t always hold true. But it takes time for people and entire communities to mix and integrate – and will possibly require at least a few generational shifts in our political structure as well as religious and cultural attitudes to marriage for true integration of communities to happen at a significant scale.

But much can be done in the interim. If you are a senior manager or a leader of any capacity in any organisation, you can take tangible measures to promote diversity within your organisation and teams. In workplaces and clubs, in schools and sports teams, you can lead the way in eradicating unfair discrimination of people based on their background or identity. Expose organisations that do unfairly discriminate in their recruitment and in the course of doing business. Ministers who award government contracts unfairly to members of their own clans and consumers who discriminate where they shop based on the identity of the shop owner are just as culpable for propagating communal violence and perpetuating social inequality as much as any hatemonger or militant extremist.

Even as ordinary citizens, it is ingrained in our culture to share food with people from all communities, backgrounds and walks of life, to travel, to strike up conversations with strangers and to stand up in defiance of unjust authority. Inter-faith and community dialog doesn’t require extraordinary commitment or radical change – it is something we have experimented with for well over two thousand years. Even though our tainted history of seemingly perpetual violence bear testimony to the fact that we have often failed to live amicably for long periods of times, it is nevertheless as rich in cautionary lessons as it is with sobering examples of our recklessness and fallibility. Which leave one lesson above all for us to embrace…

Embrace non-violence. No matter how dire the situation, how imperilled our hopes and how threatened our very own existence; bear in mind that violence can only deepen our fears and hasten our destruction. Nothing more needs to be said about that.