Each religion, as it has come to be humanly, historically and conventionally understood, is premised on the notion that those who claim to follow it have a special access to the Ultimate (called by various names), and that others, often defined as ‘disbelievers’, are in varying manifest error. Such dominant understandings of religion are premised on the existence of sharp boundaries between insiders and outsiders, between the ‘chosen’ and the ‘damned’.
One of the functions of conventional religious discourse is precisely to reinforce such boundaries, brainwashing members of each community into imagining they alone possess tickets to heaven and that the rest of humanity are doomed to never-ending damnation in hell precisely because they are not members of this club of the elect. Such communal-supremacist understandings of religion are, to put it mildly, hardly conducive to inter-community peace and harmony. They are, and have been throughout history, a principal cause for unending strife (physical or otherwise) between religionists of all stripes.
This is not, of course, to say that religion, or, to be more precise, the Ultimate, cannot be sought to be understood in more expansive ways that are respectful of people of other faiths (or of no faith at all). But the point is that it rarely isn’t by the religionists, who, in their dangerous delusion, firmly believe their own humanly- constructed notions of religion to represent the Ultimate. To put it bluntly, although they would hate to recognise it, by making claims about who enjoys God's grace and who does not, who is going to heaven and who is not and so on, the religionists claim to know the mind of God. That, of course, is the height of arrogance and blasphemy as far as I am concerned, for God is, ultimately, The Unknowable.
The intensity of communal supremacism in religious discourse differs in the case of different religious traditions and within each as well, depending on how they are interpreted. Some strands of Brahminical Hinduism, for instance, are premised on the notion that the Brahmins are not just God’s chosen people but, more than that, are virtual ‘gods on earth’ (bhu devatas). On the other hand, non-Brahmin ‘Hindus’ are regarded, simply on account of their birth, as inferior in varying degrees, with the so-called Untouchables being considered not just non-human but as the very epitome of every conceivable devilish quality. Non-Hindus are treated as virtually outside the pale of humanity, as polluting cow-slaying mlecchas and so on. Christian evangelists, for their part, fervently believe that non-Christians as well as Christians who understand Christianity differently from them will be thrown into Hell simply because they do not accept their particular and peculiar understanding of the status of Jesus. Orthodox Jews are convinced that they are God’s chosen people, and, hence, must dominate over the rest of humanity. For their part, most 'Muslims' imagine that all non-Muslims are ‘disbelieving infidels’, who will be dumped into eternal Hell by a vengeful God simply because they do not believe in the prophethood of Muhammad, pray in Arabic or venerate the Kaaba in Mecca.
In short, the religionists are firmly convinced that they know the mind of God, for it is on that basis that they claim that members of their fold are God’s elect and that all others are definitely out of God’s favour. This, to me, is a supreme act of blasphemous arrogance and represents, as I earlier said, the claim to know the mind of God, who is, ultimately, The Unknowable. Such religionists arrogate to themselves the role of God although they often do not recognise this.
For several years now, I have been wrestling with what I now consider to be these enormously degrading understandings about the religious ‘other’ with regard to the Ultimate because I realise both how central these are in conventional religious discourse and their lethal capacity to generate hatred and conflict. I am convinced that unless these horrific understandings of the religious ‘other’ are completely deconstructed and done away with, peace and harmony in our world will remain an impossible dream. I am, at the same time, however, quite convinced that the Ultimate can indeed be sought to be understood (always in a limited way) in a much more expansive and embracing fashion, but this is something that I will not broach here.
two recent media reports about activists associated with the Tablighi Jamaat, considered to be the largest so-called ‘Islamic’ movement in the world, prompted me to pen these lines while also providing me much food for thought on the horrific ways in which the religionists generally (and this transcends religious labels) imagine themselves and the ‘other’ in relation to the Ultimate. The first of these is a statement by the captain of the Pakistani cricket-team, Shahid Afridi, an ardent Tablighi activist, issued on his return to his country following the trouncing of his team at the Mohali match. In a news report titled ‘Afridi slams Indian media’, the Daily Times, Lahore, reveals that in an interview aired on the Pakistani TV channel Samaa, the bitter Afridi declared, “If I have to tell the truth, Indians cannot have the kind of hearts that Pakistani Muslims have. They cannot have the big and clean hearts that Allah has given to Pakistanis.”
The second, equally gut-wrenching, report, hosted on a Pakistani website, bears the revealing title ‘Convert or Go to Hell: Tablighis tell non-Muslim Patients at Government Hospitals’. It highlights the tragic tale of Christian patients in a government-run hospital in Karachi being hounded by Tablighi missionaries on their death-beds, who exhort them to recite the Muslim creed. If they do so, they assure them, they would soon be transported to paradise. If they refuse, they are told that God would throw them into hell, where they will rot forever. “Brother, you must denounce your infidel ways. Kalma parhein (recite the kalma)," the report quotes the Tablighis as instructing the hapless Christians. "Become a Muslim, and God will forgive you all your transgressions against him. Die a Muslim!" A female relative of one such patient who politely requested the Tablighis to leave him alone (she dare not have told them to lay off and shut up, of course, for fear of being accused of blaspheming Islam), was bluntly told, "Do not interfere in God's work."
According to this report, such scenes are routine in Karachi’s hospitals, where ‘Islamic’ activists ”stalk the hallways of emergency wards, hoping to earn sawaab (religious merit) by converting non-Muslims on their deathbeds.”
These two reports clearly reveal my point about the central place and role of demeaning notions of the religious ‘other’ in conventional religious discourses generally. They indicate several aspects of a certain mentality, of a particular way of understanding the self and the ‘other’ in relation to the Ultimate that are integral to the ways in which not just Tablighis and other ‘Muslims’ but, indeed, almost all other religionists, convinced about the inherent superiority of their own belief- and ritual-systems, understand the world. And this, I am convinced, is rooted in the religionists’ claims of knowing the mind of God.
Take Afridi’s statement to begin with. Like several other members in the Pakistani cricket team, Afridi is a hardened Tablighi missionary. Like his fellow Tablighis, he makes it a point to sport his religion, like a label or badge, in public, thinking this a divinely-decreed duty. Hence the spectacle of the entire Pakistani cricket team praying ba-jamaat on the Mohali cricket pitch that spectators were regaled with (despite which, of course, Allah turned down their fervent duas for victory). When Afridi says, ‘If I have to tell the truth, Indians cannot have the kind of hearts that Pakistani Muslims have’, and elaborates on this point by adding, ‘They cannot have the big and clean hearts that Allah has given to Pakistanis’, he makes several theological claims, all of which, besides being utterly ridiculous Quranically-speaking, also thoroughly demean Allah, whose name he ‘piously’ invokes. But Afridi can hardly be blamed for his madness, for he only articulates what his Tablighi Jamaat cult, in turn echoing widely-shared beliefs shared by many other 'Muslims', actually insists is authentic ‘Islamic’ truth. That these claims has no Quranic sanction, I am convinced, is another point, but I will not discuss that here.
To understand Afridi’s theological claims more clearly, it should be stated that his use of the terms ‘Pakistanis’ and ‘Indians’ may be taken to represent or be synonymous with ‘Muslims’ and ‘Hindus’ respectively. When Afridi suggests that Allah has given Pakistanis/'Muslims' ‘big and clean hearts’ and adds that He has these denied to Indians/Hindus, he clearly indicates that the God of his imagination is the God of 'Muslims' alone or that this God is fiercely pro-'Muslim' and fanatically anti-non-Muslim. Non-Muslims or Indians/Hindus, Afridi seems to believe, have small and unclean hearts precisely because God has willed this to be so. That, to my mind, is, in effect, is a heinous accusation against God, an act of deadly blasphemy, rather than the praise of God that Afridi and his ilk stupidly imagine it to be. But of course it would be too much to expect Afridi to be hauled up for violating Pakistan’s brutal anti-blasphemy laws for such a preposterous claim about Allah because in the minds of the mullahs and their cronies, this statement, far from being blasphemous, is a reiteration, even celebration, of one of the most cherished beliefs—that their mere fact of being 'Muslim' (in the conventional sense) means that 'Muslims' have a special closeness to God which non-Muslims allegedly completely lack. 'Muslims' are God’s chosen people, and non-Muslims are his enemies, the mullahs are convinced.
This, of course, is just one instance of a distressingly general phenomenon: the bizarre conviction of the religionists that their own particular religious beliefs, ritual practices and community identities are the only acceptable bases for winning the favour of God, and that all other systems of belief and ritual and membership in any other community are a sure way to Hell. The image of God that such a conviction is premised on is of a brutal, heartless, unforgiving and entirely whimsical dictator, who causes millions of people to be born in families who do not belong to the single supposedly ‘heaven-destined’ community and who despatches them, precisely on that basis and for that very reason, to Hell after they die.
The religionists share a common, unshakable conviction that simply by virtue of their membership, generally by birth, in a particular community (which they consider to be the sole repository of truth), they are, by definition, God’s chosen people. They stupidly imagine that just because they hold on to a particular set of beliefs, adhere to a particular set of rituals and claim to follow one or the other prophet or enlightened sage, God is on their side and will transport them straight to heaven where they will sport in eternal luxury. Contrarily, simply because others adhere to other beliefs, worship in ways different from theirs and follow some other human figure as their religious guides, they are sure that the latter are doomed to endless perdition after death. Such bizarre beliefs reflect the religionists’ audacious claims of knowing the mind and will of God. They promote a suffocating self-righteousness and a visceral contempt for others. In their extreme forms, they create the dangerous delusion of imagining that one’s own religiously-defined community is the sole repository of virtue and that others are bereft of any goodness at all. There is nothing at all lacking in one’s own community, they come to imagine. Conversely, they are convinced that not a whit of goodness is to be found in others. Thus, Afridi seems to imagine that all 'Muslims'/Pakistanis are good, and that all Hindus/Indians are despicable. In this starkly dualistic view of the world, 'Muslims' lack any defects while non-Muslims lack any goodness at all.
Is it any wonder how and why, given the prevalence of such views (which are fairly dominant among 'Muslims') people of other faiths should have a low opinion, to put it mildly, of 'Muslims' and of Islam? Can they at all be expected to love 'Muslims' or to appreciate their faith if 'Muslims' are convinced that others are evil, incapable of any good in God’s eyes (no matter how virtuous they might otherwise be), and that just because they follow a different religion and are members of other communities, God will dump them in Hell, there to rot till eternity? Given that most 'Muslims' do hold such preposterous views and are even convinced that these are basic articles of ‘Islamic’ belief, one is forced to admit that ‘Muslims’ are themselves primarily responsible for the phenomenon of what is called ‘Islamophobia’, for which they only want to blame others.
Afridi’s frighteningly Manichaean view of the world is echoed by the Tablighi activists who hover around Karachi’s hospitals like vultures waiting for hapless non-Muslim patients to die. They are convinced, being led by their deluded mullahs to believe so, that simply by uttering a phrase in Arabic a non-Muslim can win God’s pleasure and be saved eternal torment in Hell. If such a person declines to utter this phrase and change his communal identity, God will, they are utterly sure, punish him with eternal torment in Hell. A non-Muslims’ sincerity, piety, good deeds and other such virtues, the Tablighis (like many other 'Muslims') idiotically imagine, are of no value at all in God’s eyes. Just because a person follows a religion other than what the ‘Muslims’ regard as ‘Islam’, God is bound to punish him in Hell, they are sure.
In other words, there is, so the Tablighis (like most other 'Muslims') believe, absolutely no room at all for non-Muslims in heaven, no matter how pious and virtuous they may be. Simply because they approach God differently from how ‘Muslims’ do, using different rituals and liturgical language, and also because they consider Jesus or the Buddha as their human guides, and not Mohammad, God, they believe, will condemn them to never-ceasing torment in Hell. Only those who worship God in Arabic, and in no other language, and regard Mohammad as their guide, and not Jesus or Buddha or any other man of God, can enter heaven, so they have laid down!
Such is the dominant understanding of Islam, unfortunately. It is one that has been invented by the mullahs to bolster 'Muslim' communal supremacy and the mullahs’ own vested interests, and is constantly reinforced at every step. I find absolutely no sanction for such 'Muslim' communal supremacism in my reading of the Quran, however. Of course, the mullahs and their cronies will vehemently disagree.
The God I want to believe in and love is definitely not the jealous tyrant of the religionists, who casts people into eternal hell simply because they might worship the Ultimate in different ways, using different languages or revering different prophets and wise men and women. My God is not the mean and despicable dictator that the religionists have invented him to be. The Ultimate, for me, is definitely not a bloody maniac who, driven by irrepressible communal prejudice, throws people into never-ending Hell simply because they do not belong to a particular community. Such may be the god of most religionists, of the likes of Afridi and the Tablighis and other such 'Muslim' chauvinists, of Brahminical supremacists, and of Zionist Jews and Christian messianists, but He/She/It is definitely not mine.