by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne

In Nice, a man driving a bomb-laden truck killed some 84 people. In the wake of the Nice bomb, many people stood up and said: “The Nice bomber drank alcohol. He ate pork. He never went to mosque. He was not a Muslim. He was not one of us. Islam is a religion of peace.”

This is the same chant that goes up in the wake of every ISIS action that makes it to the media. Hashtag #peace.

This pattern isn’t relegated to Islam. In the wake of the Bodu Bala Sena’s racist atrocities, our gut reactions were to disavow them as Buddhists.

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These are not our people! We shouted. This is not our tribe!

We live in a world where a powerful Western media keeps Islam associated with terrorism, so this is justified. You all know how the blame game works – it ain’t terrorism if it’s white and Christian.

But unfortunately, we also live in a world where the reverse is true – speaking of religion and terrorism together is no longer politically correct. The problem is the link is real, and we can either accept it and try to reverse it or live in denial as the world blows up around us.

Us versus the Infidel

And as for those who disbelieved, I will punish them with a severe punishment in this world and the Hereafter, and they will have no helpers. – Qur’an 3:56 (Sahih International Version)

At the heart of almost every religion goes a line that goes something like this: “This is the truth: we are the true believers. Those who do not believe shall be sent to hell / are the infidel.”

Now, we can preach universal acceptance and being multi-cultural and open-minded all we like. After all, it’s politically incorrect to say your beliefs might be false, isn’t it?  But the fact is that from the moment we are born we are placed on one side of a line drawn in the sand. Intolerance is bred into us. Something that tells us that we are right  and they are wrong.  

And over time, the social cocoon wraps and binds. Now there is an us. We go to church together. There is a them.  Now there is s a reason the Sinha-Le movement gained so much traction; there’s a reason there are ads on Ikman that say “Apartment for rent, Muslim only”. There’s a reason boys and girls date, but will only settle for a ‘good Muslim boy’ or a ‘good Catholic girl’.  Someone, somewhere down the line, will not tolerate anything else.

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This is not to say that there aren’t open-minded religious people. If you look around on Facebook, that’s probably all you’ll see. Facebook, however, is not the real world. True open-mindedness is the gift of a rare few in every generation, bred by good education and exposure to equally open-minded social circles.

… looking for Govi / Buddhist partner for  our daughter 24 yrs old fair well-educated no dowry ….
 – Average matrimonial section of a Sri Lankan newspaper

At the end of the day it’s still far easier to write out a status than to actually go and marry out of your faith. Words are cheap – trust me, I’m a writer. I know.

Us versus the Infidel, Part II: get the guns


If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to them or listen to them. Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them.  You must certainly put them to death.
– Deuteronomy 13, the Bible


Modern Islam is largely a religion of peace. Modern Christianity is, too. And so is <insert religion here>. And it would be fine if we stopped at hanging out and intermarrying within the tribe and left it at that.

Unfortunately, our religious books are full of phrases like these. All the Abrahamic religions have this in common. Despite that fact that we can interpret all of these quotes in the name of peace, it is far, far easier to interpret them in the name of violence.  An intelligent man or woman can rationalize and say that an eye for an eye must refer to monetary recompense for a wrong. A stupid man or woman finds it easier to demand the eye, especially when you’re told right from the start that this is the word of God and His will is above all else.

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Us interpreting Harry Potter  to make Voldermort the good guy doesn’t make him the good guy. It means we’re just reading what we’d like into it*.

Our problem is the world’s problem: these books were written a couple of thousand years ago. It was a time when religion was the primary mechanism for social cohesiveness. It was also a time when it was okay to own slaves, rape women, stone the homosexuals and generally kill people who didn’t agree with you*.

Now do you see why people shoot up gay nightclubs and drive bus bombs in God’s name? Because the world’s #1 bestselling books all say that’s the right thing to do.

If we really want our religions to be religions of peace, we need to go back and do some serious editing on our books. Until then, accept that our religions are double-edged swords.  The same book that gives you faith and guides you when you feel lost gives others reason to main, to torture, to kill.

We draw lines at eating pork, or not eating pork, at alcohol and not drinking alcohol, and we wash our hands of all the blood. Rather, use that excuse to educate; to counter-preach; to absolve the bloodthirsty word of God with the gentler word of Humanity. Until then, we’re just apologists, all of us.

I have a right to believe that you’re going to hell

The way I see it, we live in a world full of accusals and excuses, but with no meeting at the middle ground – acceptance. We need to acknowledge that the books we base our beliefs on can and are being misinterpreted in the name of violence;  this will always be so unless they are updated to a more modern and nonviolent context – fat chance of that happening, yes. But until then,  instead of denying the religion of a violent man based on scruples and oddities, we owe it to the ourselves to at least try and understand what in our religion may have convinced him that his course is just; and we owe it to the world to try and change that wherever possible. The world of a couple thousand years ago is not the world we live in today. We cannot live now as we lived then.

Of course, it’s haram to have this discussion: all religions are wonderful, all Gods are acceptable, we live in a wonderful rainbow paradise of unity and butter bunnies. We’re all right, even if some of our beliefs explicitly state that everyone else is wrong. Anyone who disagrees is a racist.

I want you to consider Germany. Germany persecutes Nazis and convicted war criminals: they’ve been doing it for a while. They’ve apologized to the world and made sure those who did evil are behind bars. If modern Germany had acted the way all of us terrorist apologists are doing, they’d have disavowed the Holocaust as “un-Aryan”, labeled everyone else as racists, and retreated to a corner of the web sulking and saying “not my religion, not my problem. Karl Marx was misread.”

We are so afraid of association now. If people started making human sacrifices to Cthulhu on the streets of Colombo, we’d probably come up with an excuse to show that they’re an offshoot and that Cthulhlism is a religion of peace. Meanwhile, mad men wave guns and shoot children in the hope of Paradise, and all we can say is #prayforhumanity #thisisnotmyGod.

I hope that someday we’ll burn these books. Maybe we’ll get rid of organized religion completely. It’ll be one less difference in the many that divide us. And one can only dream, but maybe someday, a picture like this will hang on a wall: and instead of noticing the Buddhist and the Hindu and Sinhala and the Tamil and the Lion and the Tiger, we’ll just see two human beings doing a very human thing.

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Until then, all we can do is apologize, and live on to teach our children that this is us and that is them. 

 

 


 

Note: this post was inspired by art by the immensely talented Prasad Aluthwattha. Aluthwattha doesn’t know me from Adam, but as you can see, his art touches topics that few people dare speak of.

*We still do all of these things, but now we have courts and prisons and electric chairs.

**I could argue that if the perfect Word of God requires interpretation, then God needs to hire a better copywriter, but that’s beyond the context of this.

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