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Mosque and Quran, Faith and Multiculturalism: An Indian Perspective

Avinash Godbole was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • September 10, 2010

    In the week in which the United States will observe the 9th anniversary of 9/11, ridiculously unacceptable behaviour guided by the unreasonable attitude of a pastor is threatening to undo the progress achieved in promoting inter-community relations and in dealing with stereotyping and prejudice. It is promising to take the world several steps back and not towards any imagined post materialist utopia that was generated by the idea of end of history.

    A lot of research has been conducted on religious extremism since the end of the Cold War when extremist Islamic forces were identified as the principal threats to world peace. 9/11 gave new direction to this field of research. However, in a social setup where insider-outsider compartmentalisation is rigid, religious intolerance has become widespread. That is why the proposed act of Terry Jones of Gainesville, Florida could cause disproportionate strife.

    Terry Jones wants to burn copies of the Quran on the anniversary of 9/11 by which he believes that a strong message would be sent out to the elements supporting ultra radical Islam. Even if his intentions are noble, Terry Jones’ actions are counterproductive as burning a religious text to give a message to radicalism is an oxymoron. It does not prove the pastor any different from the perpetrators of 9/11. In fact, they are mirror images of each other and the act provides justification for equally radical elements elsewhere.

    The ultra radical imams have spoken against this proposed act. There have been protest marches to US embassies around the world. In addition, inter- religious violence is bound to take place if copies of the Quran are burnt on 9/11. Already, radical supporters of Terry Jones have vowed to ensure the act of burning, even carrying guns to support the act. Jones himself is reportedly carrying his licensed weapon around. Therefore, contempt and prejudice will again feed on these intransigent positions. Stereotypes about US society, already aplenty, will certainlyget fresh lease.

    Jones is the extreme manifestation of the radical voices that keep surfacing periodically. However, state structures have been weak in responding to them. The question that could be posed is why has the Government not contemplated arresting Jones on preventive grounds? Does the US need to introspect regarding reformulating its arguments on the balance between constitutional freedom and its limits? In the US, similar debates came to the forefront earlier on the subject of building a mosque on ground zero. However, in the absence of serious brainstorming to guide policy, radicalism seems to be monopolising the limelight and in turn undermining the leadership position of the US.

    Fareed Zakaria has argued elsewhere that the US can retain its global leadership only if it is able to come up with ideas that are guiding principles for the world. Due to the inability to find quick as well as sustainable solutions on issues like this, the US is unable to strengthen and defend the principles of its core idea, democracy, and thus its ability to come up with new and path breaking ideas appears to be seriouslyimpaired. Even in Europe, democratic states are taking steps that are challenging the multicultural character of their societies. Therefore, even democracies are dragging their feat when it comes to the question of religion, multiculturalism and democratic space. Regulations regarding minarets, veils and turbans are all examples of this form of uneasy relationship between the variables mentioned above.

    Does India have a role?

    Burning a religious text should never be a part of democratic right and should be restricted under the rules of a functioning democracy. However this point is largely absent from the US debate. India’s democratic practice has evolved around the uniquely developed principle of secularism that stipulates equidistance from religion and also allows certain religious rights as long as they do not harm other people’s religious rights. This is the core principle of Indian democracy. Principles like this have strengthened democracy within the framework of unity in diversity. This provides a safety valve and a cushion for debates on rights and religion. India has witnessed many instances of radical extremism but has come out stronger from each of those experiences.

    However, the Indian leadership is usually not vocal enough when it comes to promoting the utility of the Indian democratic model. It is in times like these that India must propose solutions that are peaceful and also extend democratic principles for global engagement. This could also help in democratisation of international relations and create a niche for an Indian perspective on contemporary international relations.