SONGSOPTOK: To what extent do you practice ‘religious tolerance’? Since when (how long ago)?

FAIYAZ AHMED: I have never been conscious of the fact that I practice ‘religious tolerance’. Religion has never been a defining factor in my life or my relationships – in love or war – as the religious affiliation of my friends or foe is a matter of little concern for me - like the colour of their skin or the shape of their nose. In fact ‘religious tolerance’ is a term I am not comfortable with because of its negative connotations. We accept what we like but tolerate what we don’t. Hence, one’s attitude should be one of acceptance of the plurality around us without being judgmental about it.  

SONGSOPTOK: Do you believe all religions are the same?

FAIYAZ AHMED:  All religions are the same and at the same time they are all different from one another. Every religion has two aspects – that which is preached and not practiced and that which is practiced but not preached. Once religion is shorn off its dogmatic elements, rites and rituals, a uniformity emerges that transcends the baser instincts of man – the religion of Spinoza or Marcus Aurelius for instance. This is the religion that we preach. The other and more common aspect of religion covers dogmas, rituals and prohibitions. It is this aspect that is usually exploited and abused to highlight and accentuate the differences between communities. It leads to social conflict and reveals the gross inhumanity of the human race. 

SONGSOPTOK:  In case you practice religion, do you consider all your religious beliefs to be true? What about those of others?

FAIYAZ AHMED:  Religious beliefs cannot always be identified with truth as truth is independent of belief. I know, for instance, that the earth revolves round the sun but this is not just a belief. It is a proven fact, independent of my prejudices and freely available for verification or falsification by anyone who cares to do so. On the other hand, when I say that Muhammad was the last prophet, or Jesus was born of a virgin, I enter the realm of faith and I must accept them as true if I am a Muslim or a Christian.  Hence, dogmas of a particular religion have to be accepted as ‘truths’ by its adherents though they may or may not be true.  

The problem arises when there is a conflict of beliefs - when Muslims and Jews declare pork to be unclean and not to be eaten and Hindus assert that beef should be avoided as the cow is holy - and each one is willing to kill or be killed for their beliefs. If we all realised that scriptural authorities are just a guideline and need not be taken literally a lot of untold miserly could be avoided.

SONGSOPTOK:  Do you believe that all faiths are equally beneficial and equally harmless to society?

FAIYAZ AHMED:  I believe that all faiths are equally harmful and whatever benefits that result from following them is restricted to the believer.

SONGSOPTOK:  Do you believe all religious groups are equally beneficial and equally harmless to their followers?

FAIYAZ AHMED:  I would say that all religious groups may be beneficial to their followers but they are definitely harmful to society as a whole. Furthermore, in view of the fact that all religions are split into many groups – often at war with one another – the benefits, if any, accrue only to a small minority.  Sometimes, even the benefit that followers of a particular faith may derive from following their religion may be doubtful. This happens when they are in a minority and the majority is determined to pursue its own ends and impose restrictions on the minorities.

SONGSOPTOK:  Should members of any given religious group refrain from criticizing religious practices of others?

FAIYAZ AHMED:  Any religious group being critical of another is simply a case of pot calling kettle black. Unfortunately, the faithful may rarely realise this. So while we may wax eloquent on the shortcomings of other religions we may be blissfully unware of the flaws that may exist in our own religion. As the gospel of St. Mathews (7-3) says, “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”

Often this blindness is quite deliberate. One of the fundamental cause of social disharmony is the mutual misunderstanding that prevails across the social spectrum. The common man is emotionally tied to the religion he/she was born in and would brook no criticism however well founded or valid. The so called men of faith have done everything to propagate hatred between communities and politicians have joined their rank in adding fuel to their fiery tirades. Unfortunately, inspite of all the scientific progress that we have made, civilization has yet to reach the level whence civil behavior towards our fellow-men becomes the norm.

SONGSOPTOK:  Do you usually refrain from talking about your beliefs to others? Should you be ignoring your own religious ideas?

FAIYAZ AHMED:  In Victorian England it was impolite to mention religion in polite society. Today religion has acquired the stigma of untouchability without the protection of reservation. So while religion is no longer a taboo subject it is rarely possible to discuss it without passion or prejudice. The result is that it often turns into a slinging match reminiscent of TV panel discussions between political parties. The deeper meaning of religion, its spiritual elements, its significance in our inner life and its message of universal humanism is completely lost in the Tower of Babel.

SONGSOPTOK: What are the different ways religious tolerance, including secularism, can help (or hurt) the demands of a complex world?

FAIYAZ AHMED:  One of the fundamental features of the modern world is that most of the youth today think very little about religion. This has two effects – one good and one bad. The good effect is that it turns them away from any form of bigotry unless special attention is paid to instill religious fervor in them. The bad effect is two-fold – it often turns them into staunch hedonist completely unaware of the deeper meaning of life or in the worst case they may fall into the trap of extremist elements and become the scourge of society.

As a result, some kind of moral instructions in the early stages of life is imperative if we are to avoid the dangers of both kind of extremism. When I was a student, our first period in school was devoted to ‘Moral Science’ which was essentially the inculcation of ethical values without the tag of religion. I am told that this kind of instruction is rarely given in schools anymore. An introduction of something along these lines may go a long way in making better citizens and better human beings.

SONGSOPTOK:  Should ‘religious tolerance’ be a part of the school curricula?

FAIYAZ AHMED:  Education, especially in early childhood, should be free of any religious instructions. Children should be taught the moral values of life without introducing the concept of sin or punishment. A rational approach – free of religious bias – is more likely to succeed than a life instilled with fear of hell fire. Parents have a strong role to play in this process. They should speak of all religions as dispassionately as possible without paying undue attention to the merits of their own faith. While in college, I remember once reading a book that was extremely critical of Islam. My father, who used to conduct a kind of periodical inspection of my study table, saw the book, leafed through it and remarked, ‘The kind of books you read….”. The incident left a deep impression on my mind, as there was no anger or regret in his tone, just an acceptance that I was matured enough to make my own mind.

SONGSOPTOK:  Religious acceptance and bigotry appear to be the two sides of a coin (unbiased). People are equally likely to choose one over the other. Do you agree with that observation? Please explain.

FAIYAZ AHMED:  I think it is perfectly possible to be a useful non-combative member of a society without introducing a religious element in our social interactions. It is not necessary to wear ones religion on ones sleeve. I may not like the idea of eating beef but it should not come in the way of building a healthy relationship with a beef-eater.  Just as we are willing to accept the foibles and eccentricities of our friends without any negative bias we should be willing to accept their eating habits or religious rites.

We sincerely thank you for your time and hope we shall have your continued support.
Subhodev Das

(Chief Advisor: Songsoptok)


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