While in Patiala, I met Kazi Nurul Islam, the founder and head of the Department of Religions at the University of Dhaka. Prof. Islam actually has a Ph.D. in Hindu Philosophy, which he got from Benares Hindu University. His wife (whom I did not meet) also studied there, so they form a rather unique couple. The number of Bangladeshi Muslims with these kinds of credentials are very few. And, indeed, departments of comparative religion are a rarity anywhere in the Muslim world.
During the course of the three days, since we were both staying in the same university guest house, I had the occasion to talk several times with Prof. Islam; and as we have a good mutual friend, Prof. Joseph O'Connell, and as I speak a little Bengali, we were able to create a bit of common ground for discussion. Since I had been reading Taslima Nasreen's Lajja, I thought I would just discuss it with this uniquely liberal and doubtlessly sincere Muslim, and get his feedback.
The instant I mentioned Nasreen's name, however, Prof. Islam reacted viscerally. His first response was to condemn her morality. Though no specifics were mentioned, his primary reaction was to attack her personal character. When I objected that surely her personal morality had no bearing on the truth of her account itself, he said that these things had been taken out of context and he went on to defend Bangladesh's human rights record. But, I asked, did these things happen or not? Yes, but ever since Nasreen had written this book, she had brought disrepute on Bangladesh. The negative stories were circulating and the positive aspects of relations between religious groups in Bangladesh were never highlighted.
This was the essence of our conversation, which I did not pursue, as the issue had clearly touched a nerve and I did not wish to provoke him further. I was merely fact finding. But though it had been short, I found our talk very instructive.
Prof. Islam gave the inaugural address ("World Peace through Interreligious Dialogue"), a very pious talk in which he called for empathy and mutual understanding between religions. I will just quote his opening sentence:
Though all the religions of the world teach love, preach sympathy for others and encourage man to exercise utmost self-restraint and have most profoundly been a source of inspiration for the highest good of mankind, the world today is torn by conflicts, enmity and religious hatred. In this predicament, a lasting and peaceful society is impossible unless different faiths are understood in their proper perspectives.
He goes on to express pious hopes--the need for "warm hearts," changing from an "Age of Monologue to the Age of Dialogue" and so on. He there goes into a discussion of the meaning of "deep dialogue," for which he outlined seven elements:
- In dialogue one must be ready to learn from partners,
- Dialogue cannot be one-sided, it has to be both-sided,
- Participants must be true to the ideals of dialogue,
- Participants must come with an open mind,
- Dialogue must take place only between equals,
- Dialogue should take place only on the basis of mutual trust,
- Participants must be ready to be self-critical and accept genuine criticisms from others.
The paper was peppered with quotes from Ramakrishna, Max Muller, Raimundo Panikkar, and various other thinkers on interfaith dialogue. So what is there to complain about? Like so my other complaints, it was mostly about what was not said. And that is the problem of mutual trust.
So, entirely against my liberal inclinations, I have to admit that I have a big problem with Islam. In his introductory sentence, Prof. Islam said that "all religions teach love and peace," but my suspicion is that, in the case of Islam, this is just not true.
The situation in Bangladesh described by Nasreen is not atypical for Islam. If the population there is only 10% Hindu now, rather than 30% it was a century ago, it is the onus of the Muslim population to explain the exodus.
If anything, we should perhaps fault Nasreen for not presenting the plight of Hindu minorities there in the context of worldwide Islam. In fact, though the term is no longer used, the Hindus of Bangladesh are treated as dhimmis, and throughout Moslem history, the dhimmis in all Muslim-majority countries have been second-class citizens, subject to the whims of the majority, with no legal redress.
Kenneth Roberts's indictment of political Islam here resonates with Lajja most uncomfortably:
In some Islamic countries, particularly when the country felt powerful, it was more tolerant towards the dhimmis. A dhimmi could even rise to a decent level of power within government, but that could all vanish overnight. The treatment of the dhimmi was shown in Coptic Egypt. (the Copts were the original Egyptians.) A dhimmi could have his tongue removed if he spoke Coptic in front of an Islamic government official. The dhimmi was always persecuted and was never really an equal.When the Egyptian military tried to conquer the Byzantine Christians, but lost a battle, back in Egypt the Muslim rioted against the Christians. Christians would be killed because riots were one of the favorite ways to punish the dhimmi. When Smyrna--the last of the seven churches of Asia--was destroyed in 1922, it was not done with the military and bulldozers. No, rioting Muslims did it. Riots are a form of jihad. The dhimmi could always be persecuted, not only in the courts of law, but a riot could destroy an entire section of a city.
Since Hindus and Muslims both speak the same language in Bangladesh, the use of certain words, like pani instead of jala, or Muslim greetings instead of namaskar, etc., all become surrogates for this kind of differentiation. But what rang really true was the description of riots as a tool for persecution, which paralleled the situation in Bangadesh completely. Moreover, the humiliation of the kafir, the gradual, persistent grinding down of self-respect, until conversion becomes the only option--all these are vividly described by Nasreen.
Roberts shows that all these characteristics of the Bangladesh situation are not specific to it, but prevail and have prevailed in all Muslim-dominated countries throughout history, whether Egypt, Turkey or Pakistan, in which all traces of pre-Islamic cultures have for all intents and purposes been entirely wiped out. His point is this: that is exactly what Islam is about.
That was what Mohammad himself did. His dying words, "Let there not be a single Jew or Christian in Arabia." And his followers carried out his will. He himself massacred the Jews of Medina. Since Mohammad's personal example is the essence of Islam, it is hard to see that there is any other way of changing the Islamic mindset other than through a total transformation of the religion. But I have little hope of that.
My personal feelings about Islam were solidified in my university days when I did a little bit of research into the life of Mohammad and Islamic history. I too observed most of the things that Kenneth Roberts talks about, particularly the sharp difference between the Mohammad of Mecca and the one of Medina, and the difference between the Quranic passages coming from each of the two situations.
When Mohammad was banished from Mecca and came to Medina, he came face to face with a large and prosperous Jewish community. In Mecca, he had been promoting himself as a prophet in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, but the Jews in Medina would have none of it. They recognized that he had distorted the Biblical stories beyond recognition. Mohammad, before he realized that the only way to rid himself of the problem was to just wipe them out completely, first tried to establish his credentials by promoting a severe form of Talonic law that had long since softened in this Jewish outpost. Do you stone adulterers? Do you cut off the hands of thieves? If you don't follow the Mosaic law, then what kind of Jews are you? Look at me, I do all of that. If you do not recognize me as Allah's prophet, you shall be destroyed.
Islam has a great attachment to its Prophet, to its beginnings. There is no pristine Islam in which love and peace were taught. Roberts is quite right: the prophetic teachings of Mecca were one thing, but the political career of Mohammad in Medina is the real beginnings of Islam, and that is the same as the beginning of Jihad. Peace (dar al-islam) can only come when a country is 100% Muslim. Love is only for Muslim to Muslim. There is no equality of any kafir with a Muslim; the kafir is less than human. That is the teaching of Islam.
Thus when the Muslim president of the Indian National Congress said of Gandhi that no matter how saintly he was, he had to consider even the most immoral Muslim to be better than him, he was not saying anything other than what is the normal, traditional Islamic position. (Can't find the exact reference, sorry.)
In my own talk at Patiala, I talked about tamasic religion. There is no doubt in my mind that Islam is the most tamasic of the major religions on the earth today. It has a Sufi component that displays some of the characteristics of universalism and tolerance, but the dominant Islamic orthodoxy is one that is addicted to intolerance and feeds on the basest elements of the human psyche, and that attitude springs from the Prophet himself and nowhere else.
How Islam can be separated from the example of Mohammad is an uncrackable nut. You would have to separate Islam from all its foundations, and that is obviously not going to happen anytime soon. But when Christopher Hitchens says, "God is NOT great," if he means this God, we have to agree. The God of the tamasic man is, by definition, a false God.
During the meetings, I may have already mentioned, when Sufi scholar Sirajul Islam made some efforts to find possible lights of hope in the black firmament of Islamic intolerance (or as Kenneth Roberts puts it, when speaking of Andalus, "specks of gold, not a gold mine"), he was immediately challenged by the Sikhs present there. I thought that Siraj should be commended for making the effort, for the task is certainly daunting. But the task is doubly daunting for the fact that Muslims may use any conciliatory statements as bait in a bait-and-switch. They will never be able to be Muslims and repudiate the violence and intolerance of the Prophet himself. The duplicity of taqia, the right to dissimulate to further the cause of the faith, is the basis of mistrust.
So where does that leave the Gandhians, or those who believe, hopefully, that through goodness, love and patience, eventually even Muslims will accept a brotherhood of man, in all its variety, instead of an Islamic umma engulfing the globe?
It is said that the Muslims feel that history is on their side and so are patient, able to wait out the kafirs in their quest for world domination. I have to say, no, it is not: the only history that is on the side of ignorance is that of self-destruction. I stand by the Gandhian ideal. The Muslims are not the less human for their misguided doctrine of Jihad. Gandhi was right to say that we must constantly appeal to their better side, to the side that, despite all the indoctrination, knows that the goals of universal love, peace, empathy are what everyone really seeks.
To Prof. Islam, I can only say, may there be a thousand more like you. If you can make your fellows believe that their religion is one of love and peace, and act upon it, then you are truly a saint and a prophet.