EDITORIAL: Is this the age of intolerance?
There has been some criticism of President Asif Ali Zardari's expensive visit
to the United States to attend a UN "inter-faith dialogue" with 17 other heads
of state, including the president of Israel. This was expected after he took a
planeload of party leaders to Saudi Arabia earlier on a visit that was meant to
get money for a country fast moving towards insolvency. However, the current
visit must be looked through a different prism, though in the realm of
perceptions it is a bit difficult to ask the people to understand subtleties.
The current dialogue in which the Muslim side is headed informally by the Saudi
King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz is diplomatically significant. Saudi Arabia is a
special friend of Pakistan which cannot be snubbed by a gesture of
"non-involvement", especially at a time when Islamabad needs Riyadh even more.
Nor is the dialogue meant for the world clergy because the deliberations
impinge on the conduct of states rather than on the deadlocked minutiae of
faith wherein, unfortunately, lies most of the mischief. King Abdullah has
initiated the discussion with the remark that "justice and tolerance are the
key Islamic values". In his view, and rightly, religions should not be used as
"instruments to cause misery". The King went on: "Terrorism and criminality are
the enemies of every religion and every civilisation". He described the crisis
today as "absence of the principle of tolerance".
Although the UN Secretary-General Mr Ban Ki-Moon balanced the scale by making
reference to anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in his statement, the truth is that
intolerance is not only an inter-faith problem but, in the case of Muslims, an
intra-faith scourge too. The conference includes "open access" Western states
that boast secular values that prevent them from judging their citizens on the
basis if religion. Their presence is justified because they have Muslim
populations that face Islamophobia by their own social scientists. The Muslim
states represented in the conference suffer from the scourge of Muslim
intolerance of other Muslims.
We wonder if discussing the basics of faith will be any use between two
disparate groups of states. The war of religions is ancient and has a gory
jurisprudence. Any going back to the origins tends to revive "memories" that
may go beyond what is recorded in history. Clerical inter-faith discussions
have made shipwreck in the past because of a "revivalist" recapture of "pure"
faith in Muslim societies and its export to the western states through
expatriate workers. Religion in the West as the "other" is too greatly
"reinterpreted" over time to even understand the new intensity of Islam.
King Abdullah's reference to "justice" could be taken as the Islamic world's
reference to the unjust international order in which the Muslims feel they
suffer at the hands of the West. This point is important because it links with
most research in social sciences that belies that religion causes conflict per
se. There is a context here too and religion comes in handy in the process of
"othering". In this context, "intolerance" can also refer to the draconian
anti-terror laws that the Western states have brought in against their
But there is internal damage caused by this external confrontation. The biggest
crises unfolding today are taking place inside Islam. The war in Iraq is not
only "American aggression" but also a very bloody confrontation between the two
great sects, the Shia and the Sunni. In the neighbourhood, the Lebanese Muslims
may be satisfied with the way they have taken on Israel with the help of Iran,
but their internecine politics clearly foreshadows a much bigger war with no
quarters given. The truth is that the entire Middle East and the Gulf are in
the grip of a new wave of sectarian intolerance backed by their patron states.
In Sudan, the ethnic majority is killing a minority in what the world is now
describing as genocide and the non-Muslim world cannot persuade the Muslims of
Sudan to stop killing and raping their fellow-Muslims. In Somalia, a dozen
Muslim tribes have fought among themselves and reduced the state to a wasteland
from where agents of terror are targeting the world civilisation. The civil war
in Afghanistan under the Taliban rule has left behind scars that will take a
long time going away. The ethnic divide there is filled with blood from
massacres that the world simply cannot understand. And now, after spilling into
Pakistan, this rage has brought the state close to disintegration.
The Muslim is increasingly alienated from his state. This alienation is
spearheaded by those who claim to uphold and interpret Islam. There are two
sources of this negation of the Muslim state: the concept of jihad as war
delinked from the authority of the state; and the concept of right and wrong
under sharia outside the ambit of the sovereignty of the modern state.
Therefore much can be achieved if the inter-faith dialogue focuses not only on
the inter-faith causes of conflict but also on the internal plight of the
Islamic world under growing intolerance, extremism and violence. *