Tabish Khair in The Hindu
“Suit the action to the word, the word to the action,” says Hamlet in William Shakespeare’s play. Hamlet’s advice is given to actors rehearsing a play within the play, but it is advice all of us can take. Words not suited to action are considered empty or hollow. We do not trust people whose words have little or nothing to do with their actions.
And yet, as communities, we tend to fall into this trap. We repeat some words, almost as if they were mantras, blithely ignoring the fact that our actions often do not vindicate such words.
The two most common sets of words that I hear these days come from Hindus and Muslims, all of them well meaning. Hindus in India keep telling me that “Hinduism is an inclusive, tolerant religion” and Muslims all over the world keep telling me that “Islam is a religion of peace.” Now, no doubt, they are largely right. There is much in history to suggest that Hinduism is an inclusive and tolerant religion, and that Islam puts a lot of stress on peace: the basic greeting of Islam, salaam-alai-kum, means ‘peace be on you.’
And yet, if we stop with these words, we are either being wilfully blind or displaying a remarkable lack of awareness and self-criticism. Because, very often, these words are not redeemed by action. Anyone who reads the newspapers today can see that not all Hindus are inclusive and not all Muslims are peace-loving.
The religion of Rahul Gandhi
One cannot help noticing that if Hinduism was always inclusive and tolerant, then the recent controversy over Rahul Gandhi’s religious beliefs would not have occurred. One also cannot help noticing that if Islam was equated solely with peace, groups of Muslims would not be shooting at each other in almost every third Muslim country in the world.
Let’s face it: why should the fact of Rahul Gandhi’s religious beliefs — or, for that matter, Jawaharlal Nehru’s agnosticism — become a matter of discussion in an India full of inclusive and tolerant Hindus? Let alone the fact that the oldest community of Christians in India can be dated back to 2,000 years, a truly inclusive and tolerant Hindu would not expect other Indians to obtain a ‘Hindu’ religious certificate in order to run for office. Similarly, surely, such a Hindu would be able to accept not just Indian Muslims, who have contributed to India for about 1,500 years, but also monuments, such as the Taj Mahal, associated with the so-called Muslim period of India. I must say that I was surrounded by really tolerant and inclusive Hindus in the India in which I grew up, and I must add that their numbers seem to be greatly reduced today.
Violence instead of protest
Similarly, the Muslim claim that Islam is a religion of peace seems hollow not just when one looks at what some Muslims are doing to other Muslims, but also when one hears religious discourses about the supposed ‘moral victory’ of Islam over other faiths. I will not even talk of Islamist terrorism, mostly because it is often discussed in excess to its reality, but surely some other people would bring it up, and who can say that their fears are totally unjustified? Islam might be a religion of peace, but too many Muslims seem to take recourse to violence instead of peaceful and democratic modes of protest and action.
Once again, this is a tendency that has increased in Muslim communities — where there is increasing impatience with those Muslims who do not kowtow to fundamentalist prescriptions.
In such a context, when Hindus say that Hinduism is an inclusive and tolerant religion, and Muslims say that Islam is a religion of peace, there can be only two explanations. First, and positively, what they mean is that the essence of Hinduism is inclusive and the essence of Islam is peaceful, and hence intolerant Hindus or violent Muslims are going against the essence of their own religions. If this is the intention, the statements are at least partly justified.
But, often, this is not the intention. The intention is not to critique wrong tendencies within Hinduism or Islam but to dismiss criticisms — from within or outside. Often, Hindus who beat the drum of the inclusiveness of Hinduism do so in order to dismiss contrary evidence, and so do Muslims who beat the drum of the peacefulness of Islam. In such cases, what they utter are empty words. Or worse: inclusiveness becomes a weapon to exclude, peace becomes a justification of violence.
The statements “Hinduism is an inclusive, tolerant religion” and “Islam is a religion of peace” contain much truth — but this truth has to be regularly vindicated by action. There seems to be an increasing failure to do so on the part of many Hindus and Muslims. Each one of us has to face up to this failure. Every time we use such words, we need to ask ourselves: do we really mean it, and does the evidence around us sustain such claims? We have to ask ourselves: are we using these words as ideals or as excuses?
Because, finally, words only mean what we put into them — by our daily acts. And when we use words that are being emptied of meaning, we simultaneously hollow out the rich and wonderful realities of our world.