While most religions keep to themselves, Christians and Muslims are in a dead-heat competition to convert whoever they might lay their hands on and no matter where. As a result, the disaster I was able to avert for myself has befallen numerous individuals and families in many countries and will continue to do so.
(Daily Times, 12 December 2012)
A few years ago I answered a knock on the door of my house in a Sydney suburb with a large Muslim population, to find two Christians eager to “save my soul”. One of them, Richard, is now my good friend. He is a thoroughly decent man with a degree in medicine and a Ph.D in intercultural studies and we have frank discussions on all subjects under the sky and above, often the latter.
Needless to say, Richard completely failed in his proselytizing mission in this instance. On the contrary, I may have succeeded in opening his mind to a thought or two which perhaps never occurred to him. Success for him would have meant disaster for me, I told him. Had he succeeded in converting me to his faith, at the very least he would have ruined my family and social life. At best, I would have become alienated from my family, friends and community and they from me. At worst, I would have begun to treat them as misguided and heretical, if not infidels destined to burn in hell. And the feeling would have been mutual.
While Richard’s heart would rejoice at having “saved” my soul (with some help from Jesus, he will insist), mine would be torn between love for my family and friends, on the one hand, and loyalty to my newly-acquired faith, on the other. While most religions keep to themselves, Christians and Muslims are in a dead-heat competition to convert whoever they might lay their hands on and no matter where. As a result, the disaster I was able to avert for myself has befallen numerous individuals and families in many countries and will continue to do so.
And why all this trouble, I ask? For a set of untested and unverifiable beliefs that are mutually antagonistic, exclusivist and divisive, although their proponents claim otherwise. Evidence accumulated over centuries conclusively establishes that these beliefs have made no contribution to any improvement of our collective or personal lives. They merely carry promises of a good afterlife, that too with many qualifications and ifs and buts.
I told Richard that, by the very nature of his proselytizing “mission”, he and his brothers-in-faith had assumed that I was not on the “right path” (although none of them had even heard of me, let alone know me) and that they had a duty to bring me to the “right path”, namely, their path. Their presumptions about me relative to themselves were condescending at best and downright insulting to me (and my beliefs) at the very least.
I asked Richard whether it would not be better for everyone if he were to approach people, regardless of their faith or lack thereof, with a message that is inclusive and uniting by its very nature, such as to engage in charitable and community work, to preach and practice the virtues of truthfulness, honesty, cleanliness and good-neighborliness, etc.
It is now over four years since my first meeting with Richard. Why do I mention it now? Even as I write, in yet another demonstration of the divisive effects of religion in politics and matters of state, Egypt has been thrown into complete chaos as a result of President Mohammad Morsi’s attempt to impose an “Islamic” constitution on the country. He might think he is the best thing for Egypt since Moses but very large segments of the population, including a very large number of Muslims, not to mention Christians, secularists, non-religious and many women, regard the constitution he is determined to give Egypt as unacceptable. Even a cursory reading of the draft will make clear why.
Mr Morsi asks Egyptians to trust his and his party’s promises and “good intentions.” Little do these religious fundamentalists realise that a constitution, the most fundamental law of the state, should unite people, not divide them. This is a good reason why most successful constitutions do not even stipulate a state religion. Many European countries whose constitutions do mention God and Church, as a leftover from times past, do not even pay lip-service to religion any more.
And why go that far when we have a good example ourselves. India and Pakistan came into existence at the same time and under broadly similar conditions. India’s secular, inclusive constitution has survived very serious religious, sectarian, social and ethnic differences and centrifugal forces for over six decades. But Pakistan’s desire from the beginning to make Islam the basis of its constitution proved a costly failure. The country’s constitutional framework has broken down more than once and its attempts at “Islamisation” have led to a gradual descent into chaos.
Any faith is subject to varying interpretations and every faith without exception inherently, and in most cases, explicitly discriminates against followers of other faiths. Small wonder that the happiest and most successful countries are the ones which are most secular, where, in theory, religion is strictly separate from state and where, in actual practice, religion matters very little in people’s lives. And which are these countries?
According to the UN ranking of the world’s happiest countries to live in, the top positions are consistently held by the Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden), Australia, Canada, New Zealand and some European countries (such as Holland, Switzerland and Austria). Common to these countries is their highly secularized socio-political and juridical system where religion has been marginalized.
While I am on this subject, I might as well mention that a very highly regarded American professor of ancient history, author of many scholarly tomes, has considered it fit to write a very small booklet entitled “Jesus, Zoroaster, Buddha, Socrates, Mohammad”. In the space of a few short pages, in the manner of a man in a hurry to make a point, he concludes that Jesus was the only true prophet, divine and worthy of worship. His conclusion is as tainted as his criteria, sources and analysis are lopsided.
This little booklet is a grand example of how religious zeal can subvert objectivity and extinguish sensitivity even in a person as learned and accomplished as the author in question. A signed copy was personally given to me by the author in the full knowledge of my Muslim background.
By Razi Azmi