It was the terrible and mindless violence in Paris on the night of the 13th November 2015 that incited us to devote the last number of this year to religious tolerance. A group of young people opened fire on unarmed civilians out on a Friday night. There is no need to recount the incident and what followed – the media all over the world have taken care of that. Suffice to say that divisiveness has again raised its ugly head in Europe. The backlash planned on the organization that claimed responsibility for the horror in Paris will result once again in the deaths of thousands of civilians and drive thousand others from their own countries, to be faced with ever hardening attitudes of different governments in Europe.

The reasons behind this state of affairs in the world today is long and complicated, arising out of tactical and strategic errors of a host of countries and different governments, their inability to understand and apprehend the real threats that can arise from fundamentalism and fanaticism. Religion has been used as a lethal weapon since a very long time now all over the world, since the beginning of written history – the battle of city states of Mesopotamia ending with the fall of Babylon may be the earliest example of a religious war. The Book of Joshua (2nd millennium BC) describes the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites. The Muslim conquests and the establishment of the Caliphate in the 7th century, the Christian Crusades (11th to 13th centuries) and Wars of Religion (16th and 17th centuries) are the classic examples. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria has largely been attributed to religious extremism. The ‘low intensity conflict’ involving India and Pakistan in Kashmir for the last five decades is also largely about religious issues.

Which brings us to the crux of the matter – how is it possible that religion remains such a potent ingredient for wars and conflicts even today? Derived from the Latin word ‘religio’, the etymological meaning of religion is ‘respect for what is sacred, reverence for the gods’, ‘obligation, the bond between man and the gods’. Given this definition, it is difficult to understand how religion can be used to propagate hate and destruction. Maybe the definition by Emile Durkheim sheds a better light: he defines religion as a ‘unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things’. By sacred things he meant things ‘set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community (…)’. Durkheim was talking about the Church, but his definition applies to all other religious institutions. What is sacred in one religion may not be in another. The beliefs and practices, including rites, rituals and creeds are often specific to each religion. It is unreasonable to expect universal acceptance of these different principles. Yet this is what is happening all over the world today – the refusal to accept the diversity and the desire to impose. The concept of ‘sacred’ is complex, and is deeply ingrained in human psyche from the day we are born, often translated into ‘pure’ and ‘impure’. The religious institutions and their servants – priests, imams, rabbis, and assorted religious leaders enforce and reinforce these notions continuously.

All major religions practiced in the world today are largely codified. Codes of conduct, of individual and collective behavior can be considered as the cornerstone of any religion. And these codes evolve with time, fitting into the contours of the society. The original religious texts, interpreted in the context of an evolving society, have little meaning today. Even the basic tenets of religions metamorphose in keeping with the social and societal mores. So it is wrong to cite these original texts to justify the nature and quality of any religion. Equally, the behavior of those who actively practice religions cannot be justified or condemned using the ancient texts. This applies to all fundamentalist groups of the theistic religions that preach and practice hatred and divisiveness.

A lot of debate is taking place in traditional and social media about the rise of religious fundamentalism all over the world. Explanations, justifications, condemnations, conspiracy theories are clogging the internet – the readers are left to separate the wheat from the chaff. Whatever the merits and demerits of the different viewpoints, one thing becomes clear. That each person looks at religion differently, using her own prism of culture and experience. It is a highly personal issue. So no amount of rationalization or theorizing is actually going to change anything. Unless we learn to accept instead of just ‘tolerating’ others.

We at Songsoptok are a bit disappointed by the lack of response to this issue. We had hoped for a lively participation by our readers and contributors. We had expected more people replying to our questionnaire that was published on our Facebook page for easy and immediate access. Which reinforces my belief that religion is not for public debate – each person need to find a solution and practice it in everyday life to prevent religious divisiveness.

Aparajita Sen


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