Rediscovering Pluralism in times of terror and wars

By Ali Imran

A rare event on Spain’s Islamic Legacy, hosted by Prof. Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University in Washington D.C. last week, provided an opportunity to reflect on the contrasting current and past interfaith scenarios.

The distinguished speaker was the Spanish Ambassador in charge of Casa Arabe in Spain Eduardo Busquets. His delineation of Spain’s policy on preservation of the unparalleled and tourist magnet architecture, coupled with expertly interspersed remarks by Dr. Ahmed, stimulated two major thoughts.

What is the relevance of pluralism that was the hallmark of history’s great periods of successful coexistence for today’s deeply strained time of terror and wars that follow epic stealth of the wealth of nations continuing in one form or the other?

What is it that distinguishes extraordinary art, architecture, poetry, calligraphy and literature from the ordinary?

Though not perfect, if viewed from today’s anachronistically applied standards, treatment of minorities, and coexistence of followers of three faiths Muslims, Christians and Jews in the Muslim Spain (712-1492) is often cited as a model in blossoming of creativity, particularly in the fields of literature and architecture.

The multicultural environment or “La Convivencia” or ‘coexistence’ as it is called, that prevailed at that time also provided many examples of fair political representation of all segments. A powerful Muslim ruler, the Amir, had a Jew as prime minister and a Catholic Church Bishop as foreign minister in his government – a much better treatment of minorities than some of the modern developed democracies that force minority communities to live in ghettos and impose restrictions on their dress codes.

“The key to that age was acceptance of the culture and religion of others. But, today minorities are subject to discrimination and oppression. So many Muslim minorities have become a target of the State. Unfortunately, the Muslims have forgotten the lessons of The Golden Age themselves and their record of dealing with minorities is not satisfactory,” says Dr. Ahmed, referring to Islam’s emphasis on values of tolerance and love from the time of the Holy Prophet Muhammad Peace Be Upon Him to several other eras.

As the Spanish ambassador took the audience through a slide tour of the masterpieces of architecture in Andalusia with Arabic language inscriptions artistically embellishing exteriors and interiors of the multi-pillared buildings, the thought that provoked questions was if, and to what extent, has the humanity sought inspiration from these achievements to co-exist relatively peacefully.

After all, as Winston Churchill, the wartime British prime minister once said “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us,” and many countries including Pakistan and India have beautifully built sacred places of many faiths.

In South Asia, the Mughal rule oversaw development of painting, arts, music, poetry and architecture and creation of monumental works like the Taj Mahal, Badshahi Mosque in Lahore and many breathtaking gardens including the Shalimar Garden.

Again not perfect, the period encouraged an unprecedented flowering of the culture, Urdu language and indeed a whole civilization in the subcontinent.

Here again, the Mughal rulers, particularly Emperor Akbar showed adroit statesmanship in having religious diversity in the royal courts, allowing a unique blend of Central Asian, Persian, Arabian and Indian cultures and encouraging flourishing of education and the arts like never before.

There are other examples elsewhere in the world, though at a much smaller scale, where diversity has helped civilizational advancement.

To a small degree the minorities have gotten representation in India, yet the shared past has not been able to prevent communal violence and the BJP leader Giriraj Singh‘s latest threat to the Muslim critics of party candidate Narendra Modi to accept him or migrate to Pakistan is an example of extremely dangerous parochialism.

At another level, the architectural achievements in Spain, India and Pakistan emanate a clear message: Alhambra in Granada, the Grand Mosque of Cordova, the Taj Mahal, Jamia Masid in Delhi, the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore and many more are not only works of glory but they also have profound symbolism for the contemporary world. It is inclusiveness of the diverse backgrounds that determines the ultimate image of an era.

These buildings also make a statement in contradicting the deviously propagated notions of clash of civilizations and negates such machinations that extreme elements in both Eastern and Western cultures employ to achieve their ends.

The Rev. Carol Flett, who heads the interfaith initiative at the National Cathedral and the Abrahamic Round Table, emphasized what is common between the Abrahamic faiths and importance of compassion.

Another takeaway I got from the opportunity was how faiths have been shaping the arts, architecture and confluence of cultures. Contrastingly, today the militants and extremist leaders in many Eastern and Western societies and countries misuse religions to advance their narrow-minded agendas.

Yet another message that I derived from the occasion is that it is the sublime architecture and art and high quality of literature that define and edify the character of a country, nation and civilization. Indeed, the achievements in these creative fields define their legacy, something they can build on for a successful future.

On the other hand, terrorist activities by the militants and powerful states’ unleashing terror and wars on weaker nations, and repression under autocratic rules as well as the continuing use of proxies by countries create the al-Qaeda mindset. These subversions set off a vicious cycle of action and reaction, violence and conflicts that undercut efforts towards interfaith harmony.

In the broader perspective, I was also reminded of the deeply divisive narratives at international levels that scuttle many well-intentioned efforts towards interfaith harmony.

Inwardly looking, I thought of Pakistan’s diverse heritage – the ancient land that boasts of exceptional heritage of the Indus civilization, Islam, rare Buddha statues and the birthplace of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah in his famous August 11, 1947 address to the Constituent Assembly clearly laid out his vision of a country that is respectful of all faiths and people are to be free to go to their temples, mosques and any other place of worship.

The Taliban bombing last year on a Peshawar church went not only against that ideal but it also further heightened the need to reclaim the spirit of the land that hosts sacred places of so many faiths. Violence against any minority anywhere is absolutely unjustified.

But make no mistake: grasping the beauty of multiculturalism, tolerance and diversity in the contemporary world cannot be done in isolation in any country of the world for mistreatment of or discrimination against minorities or desecration of sacred places in one country could easily resonate in other lands in the age of mass and social media.

Remember Florida Pastor Terry Jones desecration of the Holy Qur’an in the name of freedom of expression, though condemned by the top American leadership, resulted in fierce reaction in Afghanistan, claiming lives of the UN workers in Mazar-e-Sharif.

At the same time it is a fact that post-9/11, while the U.S. has gone to Afghanistan and Iraq wars with countless controversies like unbridled use of drones, the American society and Christian leaders have largely been more open to minorities within the United States, when compared with some other Western nations, where hate speech and Islamophobia are more prevalent. Take for example the practice when Muslims offer the Friday prayers in churches at several places in the United States where there are no mosques.

Any effort towards true interfaith harmony would demand that attacks against minorities in advanced democracies not be called isolated incidents and the states perpetrating violence against minorities and occupied people not be given immunity as has been the case with the decades-long India’s tyrannous rule in the Occupied Kashmir, the BJP’s 2002 genocide of Muslims in Gujarat under the now prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, the killing of Muslims in Myanmar and the unabated Israeli repression of Palestinians.

As told by many experts, it is chiefly discrimination, acts of selective application of universal rules and occupation of lands that militants, ultra-nationalists and warring leaders use as lightning rods to justify their unjustifiable aggression against innocent civilians.

Internationally, it is the political will that is required reinforce interfaith harmony drive.

As for the second thought on what distinguishes a great piece of art from the ordinary, the discussion on Spain at the American University inevitably turned to Allama Iqbal who wrote some great poems while visiting Spain in 1932.

I was privileged to attempt a description of some aspects of Iqbal’s poems to mostly a non-Urdu speaking gathering at the event.

In the poem, the Grand Mosque of Cordoba, Iqbal uses highly sophisticated literary language and imagery and after coursing through many aspects of philosophy of life and arts he concludes that it is the intensity of feeling in the heart, intuition, deep love and devotion that help fuse creativity and that it is the creative ability that distinguishes the extraordinary from the ordinary.

In one of his Persian poems, Iqbal warns against violation of humanity of people, stressing that humanism means love and respect for fellow human beings.

This piece first appeared in Pakistan Today on April 26, 2014

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Categories: Democracy, Globalization, Inter-faith, Opinion

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