Monday, December 08, 2008

Terrorists DO have religions

I get irked when people say terrorists have no religion. In the aftermath of the recent terrorist attacks in Bombay, this is the statement I seem to hear/read the most. Everybody from Manmohan Singh to Aamir Khan to the general public seems to be endorsing this view. Now, if this is a knee-jerk reaction to avoid a communal scene in the wake of the attacks by laying the blame on the entire Muslim community, something bigots in our country love to do, I am with the intention, but against the reaction itself. The statement has recklessly deep and harmful implications.

Firstly, people that have no religion are the atheists, agnostics and the non-religious. The 'Istics', myself included. When you say terrorists have no religion, you directly put them in the same category as us. We are not the ones flying planes into buildings, bombing cities and gunning people down. We don't live a life fueled by dogmatic beliefs. Please don't put us together. What you say implies that you hold religion and the religious as infallible, untouchable, and if somebody engages in mindless carnage, they have got to be non-religious. Not true. Unacceptable.

Secondly, with a statement like that, you are overlooking the fact that there is a problem with religion. You are giving religion a free pass. Remember that religions were created by humans, and can only be as good as the people practicing them. Religion is not just scripture; it also includes the deeds people carry out in its name. Terrorists kill because they believe god instructs them to. They believe in a god and pray to him. They are religious. That is why we call them 'religious extremists'. Admit it. And deal with it accordingly. Don't exonerate religion from flaw. Unless we accept this, we won't get to the root of the problem. It will keep hitting us. Terrorists can have any religion. While the generic face of global terror today is the Islamic jehadist, there are terrorists from other religions too - There are Christian terrorists in Nagaland. The Bajrang Dal and the RSS are Hindu terrorists. Raj Thackeray and his MNS pinheads are Maharashtrian terrorists - regional terrorists! So you see, terrorists can belong to any religion or region.

Having said that, I next wish to directly address the role that religion plays in terror. And while I have just shown how terrorists can belong to any religion, and people that know me, know me to be as secular as one can get, I am sure that even the most devout of all Muslims reading this post, would regretfully agree that as far as terrorism goes, the most formidable problem facing the world today, and one that refuses to go away easily, is the terror caused by Islamic jehadists. Muslims in India, both civilians and religious preachers, have gone on record condemning the attacks, saying that Islam does not preach or permit the murder of innocents, and that the terrorists have misconstrued the Qur'an. Some have even pleaded with the terrorists in newspaper columns to stop calling themselves the representatives of the Muslim community, and that they are maligning Muslims all over the world by doing so. I believe all these sentiments are genuine. I believe that these people are honestly shocked that the terrorists should use Islam as an excuse for the cold blooded murder of innocents. They say and honestly believe that Islam is a religion of peace. Why all the carnage then? Why is Islamic terrorism threatening the world with mindless violence and destruction? The motive is political, I agree. But what makes certain Muslim youth so gullible to be brainwashed by these 'politickers' and fall for divisive politics, take to violence and declare war against 80% of humanity? If Islam preaches peace, how is it so easily used to cause the perpetrators of the terrorist acts to lose all empathy for human life?

Here is why: The Qur'an can be interpreted either way. Moderates would read certain verses and interpret them in way that would imply that Islam only teaches peace, love and tolerance. The extremists read the same verses and arrive at a completely different, diagonally opposite conclusion, one that implies that Islam calls for a war on all other religions, and righteous bloodshed for its cause. Why the two (or more) separate interpretations? Because Islam, like every other religion in the world, and the Qur'an, like every other religious text that exists, was written by men. Mortal, fallible men, and so, like every other religion and 'sacred text', it is ambiguous and open to interpretation. Moderates interpret it as preaching love and peace, because they WANT it to preach love and peace. They have a sense of distinguishing between right and wrong, and so if a particular verse seems to be endorsing violence, they either overlook it or interpret the same verse in a different context that makes it seem more valid. And this source of the ability to choose the right from the wrong, does not stem from religion itself, but from having lived in society and learned the importance of mutual altruism - that the only way to live in the world is to do to others what you would have them do to you, and not do what you yourself wouldn't like to be done to you. This is exactly what people of every religion do - pick and choose; sieve the 'right' from the 'wrong', overlook the 'wrong' or interpret it to imply something 'right'. But the ability to scan religion itself, to separate the right from the wrong, has its roots outside religion. So, the reason moderate Muslims are condemning the attacks in Bombay, is not because the Qur'an says so, but for the same reason that non-Muslims are doing the same - because it is so OBVIOUSLY WRONG. You don't need religion to tell you this. You don't need religion to instruct you to have love and respect for human life, and to not destroy it mercilessly. It however, took religion to brainwash a few young kids, who would perhaps have otherwise grown up to be good, law abiding citizens, before they could be given the chance to think for themselves and develop the discerning ability that I wrote about above, and to convert them into killing machines for god, with zero empathy for the gift of life.

Reminds me of a quote by Steven Weinberg, 1979 Noble Prize winner in Physics - "Even without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion." Certainly true in the case of the Bombay gunmen. And the case of the 19 well-to-do, educated youth that carried out the 9/11 attacks. And the perpetrators of the 2005 London bombings. And the Hindu fundamentalists that carried out violent attacks against Muslims in the 2002 post-Godhra carnage in Gujarat. The list is endless.

We need reason, not religion.