Difference, exclusion and extremism

A GREAT BRITISH VIEW - Asif Ahmad - The Philippine Star

I have had the privilege of living in a multi-faith world. My mother was born a Hindu and married a Muslim. Nuns and Jesuit priests taught at two of my schools. My close family members are Christians and my longest lasting friends are from the Jewish community. I witnessed many Buddhist traditions in Japan and Thailand. Such exposures have not made me into an expert on religious affairs but they have given me firm faith in valuing difference and opportunities to celebrate many traditions. Every place of worship is spiritual and uplifting. The most recent was attending Mass in memory of Britain’s great friend, Ambassador Cesar Bautista.

Some people who claim to share the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and have a history and culture that is interdependent, have broken fundamental tenets of these faiths with untold violence, intolerance and bigotry. Conflict between Catholics and Protestants, Shias and Sunnis, Muslims and Jews, Buddhist and Muslims and endless other permutations have wrought havoc on the lives of individuals, communities and nations over centuries. Barbarism is not unique to our times. 

Religious scriptures are often taken as justification for committing atrocities. Taken out of context and without appreciation of the conditions that pertained at the time of the emergence of doctrine, text in the Torah, Bible or Koran can be taken in support of stoning people, taking slaves, and waging holy wars. Recently, in the USA, researchers read out passages telling the public that they were from the Koran and they reacted with some horror only to find that the quotes actually came from the Bible. Abuse of faith, not the intrinsic qualities of religion, are at the root of troubled world we live in. What we are witnessing is sectarian rivalry and local power plays dressed up as a clash between believers and heretics.

There is no ideal formulation that separates the Church and State. In Britain, the Queen is the head of the Anglicans but as a country, we have made space in our lives for people of different faiths and indeed those who choose not to be religious. Common values, a sense of belonging and civil behaviour are essential elements that bind a nation together. But we too are now dealing with extremism at the heart of Europe. Inclusion by the majority of minority communities, better knowledge, avoiding unthinking bias and prejudice are ingredients that lead to cohesive societies. Invocations that presume the existence of only one majority faith, send a signal of exclusion to others that they do not belong. 

Incomplete education and distorted history shape the minds of people at an early age. Very few I speak to here are aware of the role, India, Arabia and Mexico played in the culture and faith of Filipinos. The Philippines, like all other countries, is a sum of its influences, be it Sanskrit as a basis of old Tagalog script, tribal traditions evolving into the practice of Islam first and then Catholicism with a Latino flavour. Guro and asawa are words taken from India; palengke is Aztec; salamat and alam are from the Arabs.

 Social media today is a source of education too but in the wrong hands, it is a tool for disinformation and the spread of ignorance. Without challenge or a counter narrative, seeds of exclusion and indifference, will bear poisonous fruits of extremism. Courage is the antidote to fight assertions that weaken the rights of women, curtail freedom of expression and exploit difference. We have to recognise extremism for what it is. Kidnapping for ransom, forced underage marriage and taking innocent lives have no place in the practice of religion. Criminals cannot seek legitimacy through distortions of religion. We cannot afford to rely on others to speak up and act against extremists. Within our families, circle of friends, workmates and at community events, we have to be the front line of resistance.

 As we draw into the festive holidays, my wish is that each of us works harder to recognise what is common between us and celebrate all that make us better human beings. Our common quest is for a peaceful and prosperous world. We want to live in safety. We want good things for our children and a valued place in the community when we grow old.  We want to celebrate events together and commune in mutual support as members of society.  Our faiths have common ground too. Muslims and Christians accept Jesus as the Messiah. We share common guidance on behaviour, temperance and hygiene. The Holy Lands have meaning to people of many religions. Let us not fuel extremism by excluding people who may appear different, even unconsciously. People of true faith actually have very few real differences.

 Maligayang Pasko and a peaceful New Year to my dear readers.

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(Asif Ahmad is the British Ambassador)

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