My article published in PenSlips Ezine
With the call of Azaan, I was assigned the religion of Islam. It was not a conscious decision of course, as the status was awarded only because I was born to Muslim parents. I am not alone to share this common narrative, for almost all the kids in the world are assigned their respective religions before they have any insight into the matter. Our household was not overly religious for we never celebrated the sacred days and nights with crackers or candles or held or attended special gatherings where Naats are doled out on microphones. The concept of God for me was very simple, a super power who loved us and answered our prayers, and didn’t need anything in return.
Studying in a school where there were a handful of kids with other religions and the school policy that inculcated an acceptance for other faiths, I, like many others, never worried about our faith in one God or cared about how we approached that God. Christian schoolfellows held Christmas feasts at school before winter vacations and we celebrated Holi at school with Hindu friends enjoying Laddus brought by them. But, Eid Milan parties at school were highlight of the occasions because majority of the staff as well as students were Muslims.
Never did we ever worry about being bullied or intimidated for our individual faiths.
I realize, now though, that it was probably the naivete of childhood that blinded us of the fatal differences among adults. OR, maybe because I belonged to the majority religion, I was unexposed to the woe and distress that my minority friends and fellows had to face daily. I couldn’t possibly tell. No doubt that the world of childhood was simpler but that healthy exposure to different religions gave me, as I’m sure, many others, a healthy respect for others’ choices especially in terms of religion and faith.
Looking back, I remember the first unclear memory that exposed me to a vague turmoil in my kiddie brain.
During lunch break in school, we sometimes shared our lunch and tasted what everyone had brought. One day, a girl who had recently befriended me, whispered in my ear as we sat down to eat “Are you going to share your lunch with her!” I looked at the girl in question. She was a non-Muslim and after a few awkward moments, she left our table quietly. It felt too uncomfortable and though I couldn’t comprehend it at that time, I felt disturbed without knowing why. I had asked her what was wrong in sharing food with her, and her response was on the lines that we can’t eat her lunch for she’s of other religion. I couldn’t understand why that was so but I could never forget the scorn in her voice. I ended up losing friendship to both and for many days, carried a heavy heart without any apparent reason.
I can now single it out as an act of intolerance from individuals who were still learning to discern right from wrong.
Many such moments came in my life afterwards, where I couldn’t defend or respond convincingly about my religion of birth because, frankly, I was not raised in a household where God was defined an entity of one religion and bound to one faith only. On the other hand, I’m glad I was raised in a household where “There is only one God” meant, that the God of Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus and every other faith was the One who is the merciful, the benefactor of all. There was more stress on God as spirituality that meant being beneficial for the others around us to verify your obedience to God and not on God as rites and rituals. In our house, we could discuss God; we could argue and question about Him without the fear of getting punished if we uttered any word out of line and decorum.
But with age came the unspoken realization that that was not the case with larger number of families around us and the society at large would not tolerate a single word of question even if you question only to understand God better. The vague memories also include our school being closed for the riots after Babri Masjid demolition. Supposedly a place of peace, it was marred with much conflict and bloodshed. It was the first distinct realization that no matter what I think, people will never be human first.
Every year, in the month of Moharram, I remember my mother worrying for my father because of the riots that flared up due to Shia-Sunni conflict. During many a gathering, I overheard “uncles” and “aunties” speaking in favor of one and condemning the other. The black and the white, the Shia and the Sunni… just like the green and the white, the Muslims and the minorities.
Fortunately, this conflict was not any focal point in my upbringing. Such differences were never discussed within our family. My father always had friends from all religious backgrounds and the merit of good and bad was always their conduct and never their religion or personal choices.
Hard work, honesty and kindness were the front and center of our existence.
So, now when I look at the Pakistan I live in, I get nauseated by the putrid smell of conflict. I get scared of the Shia and the Sunni, the Hindu and the Muslim, the Urdu and the Punjabi, the Liberals and the Conservatives; each defending themselves fanatically without knowing what they are standing for, by demeaning the opponent, whom they do not wish to understand.
Perhaps, I’m only now waking up to this rancid smell that was always around me but I could never notice it for it had desensitized my nose due to long exposure. I did not know that crossing the line of conflict was a big deal for large sections of humanity. What difference did it make which language you spoke as long as it helped you spread love and humanity? What difference did it make which God you followed as long as it helped you be a good human?
We all agree that religion is a deeply personal thing and love for one’s language and taking pride in it has no offence. But why are we so desensitized to others’ devotion to their religion and their pride in their language and heritage?
One’s glory is not in demeaning the others.
And, as I look back at the events of intolerance and hatred among our nation, the misuse ofblasphemy act, the lynching of the acquitted or the accused, honor killings, I wonder; we call ourselves Muslims but half of us don’t even understand the religion and the Prophet PBUH himself.
We are a nation of different religions, beliefs, sects, cultures, languages and regions. Why should we want one to hold onto a belief or faith that was merely a word of fate and not one’s innermost conviction? What good a headcount be if faith is not strong enough for commitment? If a mature human being is attracted to some other belief than that was given to him at birth, let him explore. And, assist him carefully through his adventures into other religions and faiths so that when he comes back to his birth religion, he knows what he stands for. Let the masses influx and outflux through their convictions so they can tolerate and understand others’ faith, others’ convictions.
Let’s try to learn our differences better, but first and foremost, let’s find our own footing. Let’s learn to be tolerant of the difference of opinions so we may learn to live with peace and harmony. Let’s not dictate others’ lives and believes.
The problem of intolerance is not external but internal to each and every one of us.