Over the past several years, because of savage and violent acts by radical sects, the word Islam has become entwined with terrorism. This is tragic because it distorts religious beliefs and defames its practitioners.
More importantly, it creates great mistrust and a false divide with those of other faiths. In parts of the Western world, this divide is a chasm that will be difficult to overcome.
There are places where there is little hope at present for creating an atmosphere of communal peace and harmony. This need not be the case in India, however, because there is greater familiarity across religions and in the past many of our greatest leaders have stressed building community through collaboration and cooperation.
As an example, let me draw upon the teachings of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, founder of Aligarh Muslim University and Pandit Malaviya, founder of Banaras Hindu University. These men were visionaries who saw the world not though religious blinders but through an expansive view of what strong and inclusive faiths can do to unite rather than divide us.
Pandit Malaviya instructed us, “India is not a country of the Hindus only. It is a country of the Muslims, the Christians and the Parsees too. The country can gain strength and develop itself only when the people of India live in mutual good will and harmony.”
Sir Syed expressed a similar philosophy stating that the graduates of Aligarh University, “ we shall go forth through the length and breadth of the land to preach the gospel of free inquiry, of large hearted toleration, and of pure morality.”
While there was not a religious bond between Malaviya and Sir Syed, there was undoubtedly a spiritual one. Indeed, it might be said they were soul mates.
Taking a lesson from them, in order to create an atmosphere of communal peace and harmony, we need to discover our “spiritual common ground.”
That is because spirituality transcends religious, racial and regional boundaries. Spirit is the invisible force that brings us together regardless of our particular pre-dispositions.
In this regard, I am reminded of the words of President John F. Kennedy, who in speaking before the Protestant Council of New York City in November of 1963 – just weeks before his assassination – said, “The family of man is not limited to a single race or religion, to a single city, or country…the family of man is nearly 3 billion strong. Most of its members are not white and most of them are not Christian.”
President Kennedy went on to say, “The members of this family should be at peace with one another.”
President Kennedy’s admonition and the advice of Sir Syed and Pandit Malaviya provide the basis for working toward communal peace and harmony in India. We can do that not by looking to the heavens and to the gods whom we worship but by looking at the earth and the people and family that we are.
As that family, let us think and dedicate ourselves to creating a spiritual common ground. In my opinion, we can create that spiritual common ground through: a common communion, a common cause, and a common crusade.
The words “communion”, “cause” and “crusade” have strong religious overtones. I use those words here, however, in an ecumenical sense rather than a religious one.
- We need to make common communion by speaking together about how to forge stronger bonds among those of all persuasions;
- We need to establish a common cause by developing a plan of what can be done to strengthen those bonds that bind us as one family
- We need to join in a common crusade to work here in India to implement that plan and form a universal family
A common communion, a common cause, and a common crusade are abstract terms. They need to be made concrete and actionable in order to create an “atmosphere for communal peace and harmony” in India.
They need to be translated into a framework for change. There are many things that should and can be done in order to establish such a framework. Opinions will differ on what should be at the top of the list.
The ones that I consider most important as priorities and the preconditions for creating “communal peace and harmony” throughout India are: development of the spiritual common ground that I have been discussing; equal opportunity, the elimination of poverty as we know it today; and educational equity.
Let me amplify on each of those precondition areas
We need to work together to build a spiritual common ground. We should expand cross-cultural education, people to people, and inter-faith exchanges. Schools at all levels can and should play a vital role in diffusing tensions and helping our youth understand an evolving environment and the need for collaboration and cooperation.
We need to work together to find equal opportunities in jobs and advancement for all citizens of this country, regardless of their color, creed, caste, background, or beliefs. Discrimination can shatter people’s ambitions and dreams. There should be no discrimination or distinction between the various faiths. We would do well to remember no nation, no race, no religion and no culture has a monopoly on the values of freedom, justice and human dignity.
We need to work together to eliminate poverty in our country. Several reports that I have seen have deepened my understanding of how entrenched poverty in the Indian minority community has become. Poverty crushes hope. Poverty fuels a dangerous mix of desperation and frustration and results in an instability that erupts into community violence. There is no single magic solution to eliminating poverty, nor can we expect a single entity to shoulder the entire burden. However, if we come together as people of faith and one united family we can do so
We need to work together to eliminate disparities in education. The disparities today in this country are striking. Lack of access to education creates a vicious cycle that crushes a person’s hope for improvement. The greatest gift we can give is the gift of education. Education empowers the mind and uplifts the soul. Education enhances the dignity of a human being and increases his or her self-respect. Education is central to development and strengthens nations. It is a powerful equalizer opening doors to all to lift themselves out of poverty.
“We need to work together”. Who is we? In the broadest sense, we is all of us. Eventually, this must become a shared societal imperative.
More narrowly, the responsibility for initiating and shepherding the necessary changes to create an atmosphere of communal peace and harmony must fall to leaders from all fields – business, politics, religion, education, health care, to name a few.
There is much work to do. As noted, that work requires a common communion, a common cause and a common crusade.
That work must begin, however, by imagining an atmosphere of communal peace and harmony. Imagining will not make it so but not imagining will make it impossible.
Imagining and making it happen here in India will set the example for the world. Who knows what might come next?