By Truva Diyel, New Age Islam
17 December 2016
Some weeks ago, I got an email message from an acquaintance, a member of a fundamentalist Christian group. You know the sort I mean: the sort who think that only Christians, and that too only those who follow the particular brand of Christianity that the group espouses, will go to Heaven, and that the rest of humankind—which means literally billions of people (including fellow Christians who don’t subscribe to their version of Christianity)—might be hurled into Hell. In her message, this woman complained about Muslim intolerance of people of other faiths. This was, of course, ironic, given her own exclusivist and supremacist religious beliefs.
Although I do not identify with any one particular religion, as conventionally understood, and nor do I consider myself a member of just one particular religious community, I am passionate about promoting understanding and harmony between people who (claim to) follow different faiths. It pains me whenever I hear people making untenable generalizations about entire communities, as my acquaintance did that day. And so, I felt I just had to answer her and inform her that she was wrong.
It was not long before this that I had learnt that Indonesia, reportedly home to the largest Muslim population in the entire world, had sent out a powerful message of interfaith bonhomie by having a Christian as Governor of its capital, Jakarta—a man called Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who is also known as Ahok. I thought this was truly remarkable! After all, how many capital cities are there in the world that have governors from minority communities? So, thinking that this point would effectively rebut my acquaintance’s allegation about Muslims, I wrote back to her to inform her that the largest Muslim country in the whole world had a Christian at the helm of affairs of its capital. That, I thought, would firmly convince her of the fallacy of her wild generalizations about ‘intolerant’ Muslims.
But if you’ve been following the news recently, you might know what’s happening with Jakarta’s Christian Governor these days. Ahok is being tried for allegedly blaspheming Islam after he made what seems to be an innocuous remark. Massive demonstrations have been held against him, bringing huge numbers of Muslims out on the streets demanding that Ahok be sent to jail. Ahok’s denial that he had blasphemed Islam, his tearful defence of himself, his statement in court describing how he'd been raised by an adoptive Muslim family (“My father and my adoptive father, vowed to be brothers until the end. The love of my adoptive parents for me, has inspired me to this day,” he said) didn’t move their stony hearts.
I wonder how my acquaintance who sent me that email message about Muslim intolerance is reacting to all of this if she’s following the Ahok case. Maybe she’s thinking: “Ha ha! I told you so! Didn’t I say that Muslims are incorrigibly intolerant? Even that one example that you cited to rebut me, about Jakarta’s Christian Governor, didn’t work!”
If that’s what she’s thinking, I really don’t know what I would say to her in reply—or even if I would say anything at all.
It isn’t my case that it is only Muslims who get upset when someone is said to have traduced their faith. Many other people who take their religion seriously might feel the same way too, just as many people wouldn’t take anyone insulting their family, ancestors, political beliefs, country, or even favourite film heroes smilingly. Nor, too, would most people laugh it off if they themselves are the butt of other people’s rude remarks. Most of us—and not just Muslims alone—do tend to get at least a little worked up if we ourselves, or some cherished person or thing or belief or even opinion of ours, is mocked. It’s basically to do with our bruised egos.
But that said, the point to be considered here is if getting angry and agitated, calling for people accused of blasphemy to be sternly punished (as the detractors of Jakarta’s Governor are demanding) is at all an appropriate response. What must be asked here is: Does a hate-spewing campaign by supposed champions of a faith that is said to have been mocked by someone at all help the latter develop a more positive relationship with this faith and its supposed followers? Or, does it only further reinforce this person’s negative stereotypes about them? Does such a reaction help the person accused of blasphemy overcome his prejudices against the religion he is said to have criticized? Or, does it only further reinforce these prejudices? Does it help people of other faiths to become more appreciative of this faith? Or, does it only make them further dislike it? If ‘blasphemy’ of a faith results from negative feelings about it, do angry outbursts and violent vigilantism against someone who is accused of blasphemy reduce the possibility of it happening again? Or, do they actually only further exacerbate this possibility?
Do the self-styled defenders of Islam in Indonesia who are bent on hounding Ahok out of office on grounds of allegedly blaspheming Islam seriously think that abusing, mocking and humiliating him will make him, as well as vast numbers of other people of other faiths, at all more sympathetic to Islam and Muslims? Do they not realise that in the name of defending Islam and clamping down on ‘blasphemy’, they are only promoting what they claim they are bent on eradicating—widespread negative feelings about Islam among others, of which ‘blasphemy’ is a result and reflection of?
Of course, Ahok’s case is just one example of a more general trend. In many Muslim societies, even a fabricated accusation of blasphemy is enough to bring violent Muslim mobs out into the streets, egged on by hate-spewing mullahs, many of who demand death for blasphemy. Many people accused of blaspheming Islam—Muslims as well as others—have been killed by such so-called defenders of the faith in different parts of the world.
One wonders if these self-appointed guardians of Islam have ever cared to reflect on what their actions actually achieve. If they do so, they may realise that their behaviour and their narrow, intolerant, supremacist and aggressive interpretations of Islam that lead to this behaviour are actually at the very root of the blasphemies that they get so worked up about. The more they display this sort of behaviour, the more deep-rooted the prejudices that other people will have about Islam and Muslims will become, and, following this, the more cases of what is branded as ‘blasphemy’ there may possibly be.
Demands for stern laws for blasphemy and calls for alleged blasphemers to be harshly punished might shut critics of a religion up for a while, for fear of the law or mob-violence. But these achieve nothing but promoting hypocrisy and bottled-up resentment. They may seal the lips of critics but of course they don’t transform their hearts. Far from enabling other people gain a more appreciative understanding of a religion, they only make them more averse to it.
The only way to change other people’s opinions about oneself, one’s community and the religion one claims to follow is to relate with them with love, inspired by an understanding of one’s faith that is rooted in love and genuine concern for their welfare. There is simply no other way. The method that self-styled defenders of Islam against blasphemy have adopted, as in the case about Ahok, is thus entirely counter-productive.
If detractors of people like Ahok truly wish to combat ‘blasphemy’, instead of hounding others they should focus on reforming their own behaviour and develop a sensible understanding of the faith they claim to follow, grounded in love and well-wishing for all, an understanding that people of other faiths too can appreciate and identify with.
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