The man who killed three people in a Church in Nice, France on 29th October was shouting Allahu Akbar (God is great) while attacking people with a knife. Many terrorists while executing their plan of violence to take revenge shout the phrase, Allahu Akbar. Naturally peace loving people are compelled to ask the question how the religions, which are expected to make people spiritual, altruistic and compassionate, become sources of hatred, revenge and violence? Why do people commit murder in the name of God and religion?
Close on the heels of the brutal killings in France, a terrorist attack took place in Vienna on November 2, in which 4 persons were killed and several others were seriously injured. According to the media reports, multiple shootings took place indicating that more than one person was involved in the attack.
The French people were shocked by the brutal killings by Islamic extremists twice in the month of October. On October 16, a school teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded by a suspected Islamist radical of Chechnya origin and the second killing took place on October 29. The reason for the killing of Samuel Paty was the supposed offence to Muslim religious sentiments because the teacher had shown his students in the class the controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed earlier published by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
The French president Emmanuel Macron condemned the murder and strongly defended free speech. He said, “We accept all differences in a spirit of peace. We will never accept hate speech and we defend reasonable debate. We will continue. We hold ourselves always on the side of human dignity and universal values.” After the second murder also the French president reiterated his commitment to protect freedom. “I consider it our duty to protect our freedoms and our rights”, he said in an interview with Qatar-based TV channel Al-Jazeera. “I can understand that people could be shocked by the caricatures but I will never accept that violence can be justified”, he added.
Instead of condemning the murder some leaders of Islamic countries made disgusting statements against France. Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed claimed Muslims had “a right to be angry and kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past”. The Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan called for a boycott of French goods. This was echoed in the protests against France in several Muslim countries. In India also some misguided Muslim leaders led protest rallies against the French President at different places.
It is heartening and encouraging to note that many Muslims intellectuals, writers and activists not only strongly condemned the murder but also criticized the Muslim leaders who justified the murder and protested against the stand of the French President. At a webinar of the Indian Muslims for Secular Democracy, convenor Javed Anand said, “We are here to condemn in unequivocal terms, no ifs and buts, not only the man responsible for this barbaric act but all those who had any role in the instigation of the crime as also all those who seek to justify it.” He also demanded “the abolishing of apostasy and banishing of blasphemy anywhere and everywhere across the world”. Activist Feroze Mithiborwala said, “It’s high time religious people realised one basic truth: every religious text and tradition is offensive, blasphemous and heretical to the followers of other sects and religions.”
The Indian government condemned not only the terrorist attacks but also deplored the personal attacks on the French President. A statement of the Foreign Ministry said, “the personal attacks in unacceptable language on President Emmanuel Macron are in violation of the most basic standards of international discourse." While expressing solidarity with France the BJP government at the Centre should have reminded itself that it often failed to take action on those who indulged in religion infused violence like lynching of innocent people by cow vigilantes and hate speech by its supporters. By not taking action against the hate mongers the government of India is indirectly encouraging religion based extremism.
Increasing violence in the name of religion should compel the genuine religious leaders to search for the reasons for using religion and God for committing violence. They should take a firm stand against any kind of religious violence. Pope Francis during his visit to UAE in 2019 condemned violence in the name of religion. "In the name of God the Creator, therefore, every form of violence must be condemned without hesitation, because we gravely profane God's name when we use it to justify hatred and violence against a brother or sister. No violence can be justified in the name of religion," Pope Francis said.
It is also observed that most of the people who are involved in religious extremism are young people. The one who beheaded Samuel Paty was only 18 years old. He was taking revenge against the teacher for offending his God by showing the controversial cartoon on Prophet Mohammad. According to Islamic law prevalent in some countries, the punishment for blasphemy is beheading. That could be the reason for the young man beheading the teacher instead of shooting him. Pope Francis in the encyclical, Fratelli Tutti states very boldly, “God, the almighty, has no need to be defended by anyone and does not want his name to be used to terrorize people”
Dr. Ram Puniyani in his article titled “Charlie Hebdo Cartoons and Blasphemy Laws in Contemporary Times” states that blasphemy law didn’t exist in Islam till two centuries after Prophet Mohammad. It came up during Abbasid rule, in the beginning of 9th Century. It was to strengthen the ruling dynasty’s hold on power. In recent times, dictators like Zia UL Haq of Pakistan used it to legitimize his regime under the garb of an ‘Islamic state’. This was an attempt by the military dictatorship to increase its hold over the society. Thus religious conservatism or fundamentalism was adopted by the dictators and political leaders to increase their hold on the people by pandering to their religious sentiments.
Religious fundamentalism is religion inspired political activism and it is generally opposed to liberalism, pluralism and freedom. This political activism often takes the form of violence. Cow vigilantism in India is an example for the violent form of religious fundamentalism. Hate speech against the minorities is another ex
Studies on religious fundamentalism indicate its gradual evolution. It starts with the premise “My religion is the only true religion or the best religion”. The second step is the belief that everything in my religion is perfect and sacrosanct and nobody should question it. The third step is the conviction that I am duty bound to protect it from any dilution or ridiculing or caricature either by the insiders or outsiders even at the cost of my death and the death of others. If anyone makes a negative comment on my religion I am offended and I will take revenge even by using violence and murder. The fourth step is very dangerous. At this stage ardent followers of a particular religion come to the conclusion that all should accept their religion and violence is used for this purpose. History is a witness to the violence unleashed by the followers of certain religions to convert people of other faiths.
The politicians, especially dictators and demagogues, make use of religious orthodoxy to enhance their hold on the people. They become promoters of religious fundamentalism by encouraging and abetting religious extremists.
Growth of religious fundamentalism is a reality and it has affected and infected almost all religions, including Christianity and it is being profusely used by many political leaders. It has become a great threat to peace and harmony in the society today. All people, especially the followers of Jesus who are called to be peacemakers, have a great responsibility to root out religious fanaticism. The first step in eradicating religious fundamentalism is to differentiate between the primary and secondary elements in religion and stick to the primary elements. The primary elements or the essentials are the core values taught by the religions. The secondary elements include beliefs, symbols, rituals, laws, prayers etc. Even the scriptures are only means to convey the core values. There are many versions of the same scripture considered as valid by different sects within the same religion. For example, there are more than 40 versions of the Bible in English language alone. There has to be flexibility with regard to the secondary elements in one’s religions. Obsession with the secondary elements can make a person a religious bigot.
The rituals of one religion could be offensive to the followers of other religions. For example, animal sacrifice is a sacred rite in Islam; but it is something abominable to the followers of Jainism, Buddhism and many Hindus. Many Hindus believe in rebirth and a person could be born as an animal or even an insect in the next birth, but this is unthinkable for a Christian or Muslim or Jew. Religious co-existence requires tolerance to a great extent of the so called offensive practices in the religions. This is part of respect for other faiths.
The third requirement or facilitating element is sensitivity to the practices and beliefs of people belonging to other religions. For example, I like eating beef and as a citizen of India I have the freedom to eat the kind of food I like. If I am living among the Hindus or Jains for whom eating beef is something abominable, I shall avoid eating beef taking into account their sensibilities. This will definitely contribute to better understanding harmony among the followers of different faiths.
The fourth facilitating element is mutual appreciation. As the core values of all faiths are more or less the same, there are many ennobling aspects in all religions. There has to be a desire to learn about other faiths and this will liberate one from prejudices and enable him/her to appreciate aspects that can strengthen his/her own faith. Using passages from different religious scriptures for meditation and prayer, celebrating festivals of different religions, exhibiting quotations from different scriptures in public institutions can be antidote to religious fanaticism.
The fifth element could be a firm commitment to promote peace. According to European Community, the global military expenditure stands around $ 1.7 Trillion annually since 2009. The top five military spenders in 2018 were the USA, China, Saudi Arabia, India and France which together account for 60% of global military spending. A better peaceful climate among the nations can drastically reduce military expenditure and funds thus saved could be used for the development of their people.
Taking inspiration from Pope Francis let the Catholic Church respond to religious fanaticism by committing itself to peace building through understanding and cooperation with other faiths. Let all the dioceses and the religious congregations in India make peace building as their topmost priority in all their apostolic activities. As a means for building fraternity Pope Francis in the encyclical Fratelli Tutti appeals to the religious leaders “to adopt a culture of dialogue as the path, mutual cooperation as the code of conduct; reciprocal understanding as the method and standard.”