A person may have multiple identities—he or she may be known by different traits. Just look at me. I am a person with more than one identity. I am a South Asian, I am a Bangali, I belong to a certain age-group, I am a man, I am a father of two daughters, I am a professional and so on.
These multiple identities of mine have many dimensions. The fact is, the more I expand my identity-sphere, the diversity of my traits would undoubtedly be enhanced. This is true of the identity of any human being. Thus, if we accept the diversity of identities in a society, and be respectful of it, the diversity itself becomes the strength of the society. At the same time, if we agree on the freedom of any human being to choose his or her identities to define themselves, we can build a society with peaceful co-existence. For example, if we accept the fact that the choice of a person’s religion or citizenship is a personal choice, the probability of violence and conflict would be minimal.
Quite often, people choose one particular aspect of their multiple identities as their unique identity and try to define themselves by it. That is fine as long as they are respectful of the chosen identities of others. But the problem starts when some of us do not stop there. We start to claim that the identity we have chosen to define us is the best on earth—in fact the supreme one. And those, who are either not part of that identity or do not conform to that, are inferior to us and thus, are not acceptable to us. Under such circumstances, division, hatred, conflict and violence are inevitable. The case of white supremacists is a classic example of what social damage the notion and perception of supremacy with regard to identity can do.
The above picture becomes more prominent with regard to religious identity. The faith of a human being is very much based on that person’s personal belief and feeling. If we accept that and remain respectful and tolerant of the religious faith of others at personal, communal and societal level, peaceful coexistence in any society is possible. In fact, such was the historical tradition of various societies for ages. For generations, people of different faiths have lived side by side in friendship and fellowship. They have kept their own religion in their personal life, practiced it, but at the same time have remained respectful of other religious beliefs and the freedom to practise them. In fact, such a respectful co-existence has resulted in two positive outcomes.
First, as people of different faiths have lived in an environment of brotherhood and camaraderie, every group has always joined and enjoyed the religious celebrations of others. For example, in our childhood, we joined the Puja celebrations of our Hindu friends, and similarly, they also enjoyed our Eid celebrations. That did not mean that we were converted and there was no outcry that religion had been in danger. On the contrary, respect for other faiths has taught us to be tolerant in every sphere of life.
Second, through such friendly interactions among people of different faiths, a unified culture has developed in our everyday living. Thus, irrespective of religious faith, all farmers sing the same hymn while they plant rice. Boatmen of all religious faiths utter “Badar, Badar” while they set off for a journey. Everyone, whether Hindu or Muslim, who enters the Sundarbans to cut wood or collect honey, worships Bonbibi before entering the forest. In our society, historically, there have been similar culture, outlook and values in everyday living, dress, and food of different religious groups. Does it mean that there has not been any difference? Definitely, there was. But such differences did not destroy the broader similarities of life and living in the society.
Unfortunately, over time, such religious tolerance and respect have vanished in different societies and religious fanaticism, disrespect and intolerance have replaced them. But a question lingers on. In life, there are divisions on many fronts, but such divisions do not end up in fanatic intolerant violence. I have not heard that even with their differences, people who appreciate classical music have engaged in a conflict with the followers of pop music. Or the vegetarians of the world want to eliminate the non-vegetarians. Therefore, the question is how come, when it comes to religion, differences end up in a fanatic, disrespectful and intolerant environment?
Various explanations can be put forward, no doubt, but one may be quite convincing. For example, with regard to the vegetarian and non-vegetarian issue, based on arguments, judgments, data and information, a meaningful debate can emerge without taking an extreme position. In that debate, neither the vegetarians nor the non-vegetarians identify their food habit as their only and unique identity, not to speak of its supremacy. As a result, peaceful co-existence is possible.
On the other hand, when it comes to religious beliefs, unlike the vegetarian and non-vegetarian issue, scope for arguments and debates is minimal. In that context, a number of people assume their religious faith as their only, unique and supreme identity and push away all other identities of theirs to the periphery. In that process, they take an extreme position with respect to the supremacy and purity of their own religion. As a result, their flexibility, respect, and tolerance of other religious beliefs and identities virtually evaporate and in that vacuum an environment for fanaticism, conflict and violence is born.
As this is true in the case of an individual, it is also relevant to a society and to a state. Thus, if a group of people in a society defines their identity only in terms of their religious faith, believes in the supremacy of their religion and from that extreme position demeans the followers of other religions, conflicts are inevitable. When people take moral teachings from religions, a peaceful coexistence in a society does not face any danger. But when in an effort to establish the supremacy of faith, religion is being used; conflict and violence are most likely to happen. And conflicts and violence lead the way to terrorism.
Terrorism is intended mainly to spread fear. From the hatred towards others, the desire to eliminate people and the intention to prove supremacy of something, an atmosphere of fear is created. Hatred towards some specific groups results in hateful writings on the walls, slurs on the streets and various obstacles against them in their everyday life. As a part of the efforts to eliminate some groups, houses, localities and human lives are destroyed. In order to prove the supremacy of a religion, the houses of worships of other faiths, their sculptures and artworks are attacked. Needless to say, muscle power and weapons are the main instruments in the process.
Three issues must be borne in mind. First, things that the terrorists want to establish are not based on logic. They lack objective thinking, proper judgments are absent there, and they are driven by some kind of a distorted fanaticism. Under such circumstances, there is naturally no alternative to muscle power, weapons and terror. Terrorism is pursued because of disrespect for human lives, intolerance and a lack of stronger logic based on arguments and facts. In the ultimate analysis, as the reasons behind terrorism do not pass the test of objectivity, the terrorists also stand on thin logical grounds.
Second, religious fanaticism acts as a major driving force behind terrorism. Thus it is rather incorrect to say, “terrorism has nothing to do with religion”. Many terrorist acts are executed in the name of religion and religious fanaticism has given rise to terrorism. We have observed the role that religious fanaticism has played over time in initiating and nurturing communal riots in many places.
Third, terrorism may create a wide sense of fear among common people about some specific groups or institutions. Sometimes we try to convince others that there is no basis for such fear. The fact is that fear is not borne out of nowhere and no fear is nebulous. We are afraid of the dark, as we do not see in the dark and as a result, we become unsure of our surroundings and positions. When we are in the air, we become nervous, as we are cut off from the ground.
If we want to avoid the conflict and terrorism that arise because of taking extreme positions on religious identity, three things need to be ensured. One, we need to go back to the basics. “Humanity first and first we are humans” should be our motto, from which we can say that humanity is the common minimum denominator of all humans. Two, if we agree on “humanity first”, it becomes easy to be respectful to the other religious beliefs, to accept diversity, and to be tolerant. Three, if we keep our own faith in our personal spheres, we can be faithful not only to our religion, but can also be secular. If we follow these three routes, it may be possible to overcome the ills of divisions and conflicts and a peaceful coexistence by all may not remain a dream, but may become a reality.
Selim Jahan is Director, Human Development Report Office, UNDP.