Showing posts with label Islam. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Islam. Show all posts

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Real India


“This is indeed India; the land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence, of genii and giants and Aladdin lamps, of tigers and elephants, the cobra and the jungle, the country of a thousand nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of tradition, whose yesterday’s bear date with the mouldering antiquities of the rest of the nations—the one sole country under the sun that is endowed with an imperishable interest for alien prince and alien peasant, for lettered and ignorant, wise and fool, rich and poor, bond and free, the one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for the shows of all the rest of the globe combined.”
Mark Twain

All my life I have believed in an India that increasingly exists only in my mind’s eye. Perhaps, this India of which I am so proud to be a citizen is merely an idea that has not yet been fully realized. Increasingly, it feels like this great vision of India rarely matches the reality that I see.

My India is rich with diversity, the birthplace of three of the world’s major religions (friend, guide and philosopher to the other three) and home to every religion practiced by man. In this India, it is our diversity, and not our divisions, that make us stronger, richer and more powerful. In my India, I am always proud to be Indian first; then Bengali, Tamilian, Gujarati, Malayali, Punjabi or Jain. 

In this India, I am also proud that India is still home to the second largest Muslim population in the world; in spite of the creation of two Muslim states on her borders. This is what makes the fabric of my India so rich and her cultural mosaic the envy of the civilized world. No other country in the world can claim to have this breadth of heritage and depth of diversity running through her veins.  

As long as each of us clings to being a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian or a Jain then we will remain only a very small and totally inconsequential part of this India.

In this India, Hinduism is not a religion, but a philosophy for a way of life. It is an accumulation of ideas, beliefs, traditions, philosophies and cultural practices that were collected and shaped over centuries. Unlike other religions, Hinduism cannot be neatly slotted into a specific belief system. 

It is a Dharma, or a set of philosophies that are meant to govern our personal beliefs and worldly actions. Interestingly, it is the only religion in the world that cannot be traced back to one single individual or book. And the only religion that does not require a person to “convert” or have a religious affiliation to it in order to receive its teachings. 

The word “Hindu” cannot be found in any of its scriptures. In fact, it was first used by invading Arabs to describe al-Hind, or the land of the people who live across the river Indus; and it was only toward the end of the 18th century that the European merchants and colonists referred collectively to the followers of Indian religions as Hindus (source: Wikipedia). 

Hinduism is considered the world’s oldest religion, pre-dating Judaism, Christianity and Islam by a few thousand years. If you look at its practices, unlike other religions, it does not tell you who to worship, what to eat, which day or how many times to pray, but instead offers things like Yoga, Ayurveda and Vastu. At its core it is about self-awareness and the idea of “live and let live;” with an underlying belief system based on truth, honesty, non-violence, cleanliness, austerity and perseverance. Perhaps, this is the reason it is often referred to as the “enlightened religion.” This is the true nature of the religion we today call Hinduism.

The Hinduism that is preached, practiced and used as a tool to create communal strife and manipulate the voting public today is barely recognizable, and not part of my India. It has been bastardized by Hindu fundamentalists and hijacked by self-appointed chieftains and politicians as a way to divide the country and buy votes. But it is too easy to blame just the power hungry; for individuals too it has deteriorated into regular offerings of millions of rupees in gold, silver and precious gems to their Gods – purely as a way to atone and wash away all the worldly sins they commit outside their temple walls. 

These offerings lie collecting dust in temple vaults while 830 million Indian’s live on less than Rs. 20 per day ($0.44c or UK 0.27 pence). A person going to the temple with bags full of gold or cash can pass a starving child on the way to their deity, and look the other way. However, he will have no qualms about handing over all his possessions to fat, corrupt temple officials as an offering to an inanimate block of stone. This is what we have reduced Hinduism to, a worthless transaction that does nothing to help us live better lives, become better human beings, help our fellow countrymen or even our own country.

In my India we celebrate and hold dear our heritage, not simply because it is thousands of years old, but because it is responsible for our wealth of diversity, today. Which other non-Muslim country in the world can claim to have so many different successful Muslim figures across every aspect of society, even though they are a minority in a country whose population is more than four-fifths Hindu? 

We have had three Muslim Presidents; the Khans still rule Bollywood and Azim Premji is one of the richest men in the world. We can also proudly lay claim to Javed Akhtar and A.R. Rehman and feel great pride in the fact that one of our most patriotic and well-known songs “Saare Jahan Se Achchha,” was a great collaboration. It was penned by Muhammed Iqbal, a Muslim, and the music was composed by Pandit Ravi Shankar, a Hindu. In fact, in this India we don’t just blindly recite the lyrics, we hold them dear.

“maz’hab nahīn sikhātā āpas men bayr rakhnā
hindi hai ham, vatan hai hindostān hamārā”

“Religion does not teach us to bear ill-will among us
We are Indians, India is our homeland”

We take their meaning to heart and reflect this in the way we live our lives. And we hang our heads in shame at the fact that we all stood idly by and watched one of our greatest national treasures, the late artist M. F. Hussain, die in a foreign land where he felt he needed to seek refuge (and accept citizenship) because thugs in saffron made sure he would never feel safe in his own home again. 

This even after the Supreme Court threw out all the completely frivolous lawsuits against his nude paintings of Indian Goddesses; refusing to initiate criminal proceedings against him for hurting Hindu sentiments. The court also called out the clear anti-Muslim motives behind these cases, by stating the fact that Hindu temples are filled with much more graphic depictions of nude Goddesses in pictures, paintings and sculptures, and it seems that this never hurt Hindu sentiments in a few thousand years.

This India is not about all hugging and getting along. I doubt man will ever be able to do that, but it is about accepting that we are not all the same; that we will never look, dress, think and pray alike, but that each of us has something to contribute and much more to learn. It is about recognizing that this learning is what makes us all stronger, richer, greater and more successful as a nation. 

It is only once we are all able to embrace this notion that we can stop our leaders from dividing us based on the inconsequential differences that exist between us. Until then, I will treasure this India in my mind’s eye.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Ground Zero Mosque: America, Land of the Free?

“I am a slow walker, but I never walk backwards.”
Abraham Lincoln

I am a New Yorker and my city was attacked on September 11, 2001. 
 
The day after 9/11 I was 2 blocks from Ground Zero from 9am to 9pm doing water runs for the firemen, policemen and other Emergency service men and women working to find survivors and removing bodies from Ground Zero. I ran up and down those streets all day long collecting and passing out bottles of water donated by companies, stores and ordinary people. 
 
I was not alone. There were many others like me who volunteered because they needed and wanted to do something to help their city in its darkest hour. I still remember the streets lined with people, Buddhists, women, Muslims, children, Jews, Christians, men, Hindus, all standing arm in arm and shoulder to shoulder and cheering every serviceman coming in and out of Ground Zero. 
 
They were all New Yorkers who were there to help in any way they could, or simply to provide moral support and show their solidarity. I remember thinking to myself that this is exactly why I always have been and always will be a proud New Yorker. 
 
This is also why I had never doubted that our city would not only survive this reprehensible attack but grow stronger from it. We would show the world that terrorists are and will remain nothing more than a repugnant, immoral and cowardly group of men who can never break our will, our spirit, our unity and our sense of human decency. Not with 9/11. Not ever.

It amazes me when politicians continually cite public opinion polls that say almost 70% of New Yorker's do not want the ‘mosque’ built near Ground Zero, as a great reason to stop the project from proceeding. If people always knew what they wanted and leaders always followed the will of the people or what people believed was possible, then women would still not have the right to vote in America, Black people would not be served in restaurants and India would probably still be under British Rule. 
 
The timing of this sudden hysteria is also very curious. This project has been openly discussed since a New York Times article disclosed the plans in great detail sometime late last year (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/09/nyregion/09mosque.html) and it was never raised as an issue by anybody for months after that. However, now that mid-term election fever has taken stride it has suddenly become a huge issue. I also wonder how many of that 70% of New Yorker’s are aware that the location in question already has a prayer hall, with Muslims coming there daily to pray. And that the so called “Ground Zero Mosque” is actually called Parc51 and is meant to be a non-descript building that serves as an inter-faith cultural center with a swimming pool, Performing Arts Theater, gymnasium, classes and yes the same prayer hall that exists today. 
 
The inspiration and model for the Islamic cultural center is the Jewish Community Center (JCC) on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. There will be no dome shaped mosque, or minarets with loud speakers, period. It is also worth noting that the site is two and a half blocks from the old World Trade Center location. One cannot even see Ground Zero from it.

That many families of victims of 9/11 are upset and angry is not surprising, given how deep and recent the wounds still are. Almost 3,000 innocent people were murdered that day. It was the first and only large scale attack on American soil, other than Pearl Harbor, and in many ways it shook the foundations of the safety people felt, and caused many American’s to lose their innocence. 
 
I did not lose a family member that day, but I did go to every Armory, morgue, and hospital and did spend hours calling victim help lines to search for a family friend’s son from India. He worked in Tower 1 and was missing. So while I cannot claim to understand the feeling of loss I do totally understand the intensity of their feelings, and the emotional frenzy this issue has stirred up among New Yorker's, by fringe groups on both sides. 
 
What we decide will be fundamental to what New York City stands for going forward and how we view ourselves and are viewed by the country and the world. It is important that we get this right, and there is a right answer. 
 
It is for this reason that we must all start by asking ourselves again who was attacked on that day. We will realise that it was all New Yorkers - Muslim, Jew, Christian, Hindu and every other religion represented by the 2,752 innocent people working in the two towers. 
 
It was democracy and freedom being attacked by a twisted ideology and by manipulated men filled with hatred for all human beings alike (I should state an equal number of victim’s families have come forward in support of the Cordoba Initiative and for building the Parc51 Cultural Center). 
 
The next question we should ask is what happened to the solidarity that we showed in the days after those cowardly terrorists attacked our city. And then the only question that remains is how we should proceed in order to do justice to the memory of the victims to ensure that their lives were not lost in vain – to see us all fight and become even more divisive and divided.

The Imam Rauf and his wife Daisy Khan have lived in this neighborhood for many years, and they too are New Yorker's. The Imam worked for the Bush administration, and now Obama's, as an American emissary to Muslim countries. His mission is to encourage them to pursue the same religious and personal freedoms that he is allowed in America. 
 
Imam Rauf travels the world telling all Muslims how great and wonderful it is to be American and being a Muslim in America. So instead of fighting them, let us pose a challenge to Imam Rauf and Daisy Khan to make their neighborhood Cultural Center a tribute to the progress we have made in a world where we are often divided by hate and misinformation. 
 
To do this we need to lift ourselves above the daily diatribes of politicians seeking another term, candidates seeking a cheap platform for the 2012 Presidential election, and self professed Pundits making a quick buck. 
 
We need to challenge our beliefs, dig deeper and get beyond the inflamed rhetoric of manic Muslim clerics, misguided liberal louts and conservative con men. We need to channel all this emotion, anger and feeling into demanding that the people behind Parc51 use this opportunity to make their Cultural Center the most open-minded, inviting, cross-cultural and all-religion-encompassing Islamic destination in the world; a testament to equality and religious freedom that exists in America, that the Imam travels the world touting.

I say we tell them, “Go ahead and build the Islamic Cultural Center but make damn sure that it represents our city, its uniqueness and its greatest strength – that we may be from different parts of the world and believe in different Gods, but each day that we live, work and walk in this city we are one. We are New Yorker's.” And by doing this we shall make it the greatest tribute we can pay to our fellow New Yorkers, who lost their lives on September 11th, 2001.